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SC Rewind: Hambo Memories

Published: August 3, 2019 8:55 am ET

Last Comment: August 7, 2019 8:29 am ET | 10 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

This week's 'Rewind' takes readers back 45 years to 1974 and that year's Hambletonian Day then held at DuQuoin, Illinois. The race itself was long awaited as was the occasion for the winning driver. This story seems appropriate since today is Hambo Day 2019. As usual a number of old photos accompany today's offering.


When the site of the famous Hambletonian switched from Goshen, New York to DuQuoin, Illinois in 1957, an entirely new era began for this storied race. Hambo day became much more than just the most famous race for trotters each year, it became a celebration of several days. It also took on a new dimension as it became a "non-betting" event. The Hayes family hosted the event and each year they invited several well-known entertainers of the day to perform as part of the annual get-together. In 1974 they had an "uninvited guest" though as Mother Nature unleashed some strong summer rains on the proceedings making for a very long week.

After two straight days of torrential rains which twice forced postponement of the 1974 Hambletonian, the track was finally pronounced ready on Friday, August 30th and the big race went to the post. It was a year that attracted a huge field of 22 with no real pre-race standout, but there were some "nice colts" as the old saying goes entered for that year's event. It was a trying time for those who had travelled a distance to see the annual classic and undoubtedly a number of them were not able to stay for this day. I did talk to a gentleman (now deceased) that stuck it out and for a special reason which will be mentioned later.

Among the candidates as pre-race choices for this year's race were Nevele Diamond from the barn of Stanley Dancer, Golden Sovereign for Dick Richardson, Stock Split for Mike Zeller and a couple from the Wm. Haughton barn, Keystone Gabriel and the "lukewarm" Christopher T. Although there was no wagering on the event, a set of "possible" odds were published and one of the longer shots on the list at 9-1 was Christopher T, the eventual winner. The list showed nine other entrants at lower odds.

As we look back now it is hard to believe that up to this point in time the famous reinsman Billy Haughton had never won the Hambletonian and in fact had never even finished better than a couple of third-place finishes. By this time he had scored an incredible 3,864 lifetime victories and made an even more impressive $20 million in purse money but had yet to make an appearance in the winner's circle on Hambo day. His lack of success on the track went back some 25 years and four decades and at times included some pretty classy performers that just couldn't click.

His 15 previous Hambo appearances dated all the way back to 1949 when his first try behind a horse called Crossbow ended in a Did Not Finish. In the years that followed he made many attempts but could never seem to get a win. Once the spell was broken with this first ever win he went on to take three of the next six Hambletonians in 1976, 1977 and 1980 and for good measure trained the winner in 1982.

Christopher T and driver Billy Haughton finally clicked for a win on Hambletonian day 1974 to give the master reinsman his first ever win in the great annual trotting classic. (Courtesy of Hambletonian Society)

On this day Billy Haughton was less than enthusiastic about his chances at his first ever Hambo victory but as luck would have it things turned out just perfect. After the final race he told a reporter how he felt about his chances. "I didn't think he could do it," said Haughton. "He hasn't raced good all year, partly because of various ailments. He hit himself earlier this year and I changed his shoes; now he carries almost no weight. He finished seventh last week in the Horsemen's Futurity at Indianapolis and I felt if it had been my horse I'm not sure I would have stayed with him. In fact, we almost didn't start him in the Hambletonian. I asked the owner what he wanted to do and he said 'We've gone this far, why not go all the way!'"

Christopher T in rein to Billy Haughton reaches the wire a decisive winner in what appears to be a relaxed mode. The straight-heat victory broke a very long jinx for the then 50-year-old Haughton who had already won virtually all of the sport's major races. Finishing second is #9 Stock Split (Mike Zeller) and #8 Anvil third for Joe O'Brien (Photo courtesy of Hambletonian Society)

And go all the way they did winning the second elimination in 1:59.4 and the final in 1:58.3. These times were not records perhaps due to the track conditions, but the purse of $160,150 was the highest in history to that point in time. It was an unexpected payday for a Minnesota pharmacist named John L. Thro who was listed as Christopher T's owner and a very proud one as the day played out.

Nestled within the racing summaries and stories surrounding the 1974 Hambo was a Canadian element that gained little if any "ink" by the writers on hand that day. One of the entrants in the final and a third-place finisher in the second elimination heat was a U.S.-bred but Canadian-owned trotting filly named Sing Away Herbert. Sired by Nevele Pride and out of the family-owned mare Singing Herbert, she was somewhat of an unsung hero of the day. Owned by the father son duo of Wm. and Jack Herbert, known to most people on our side of the border, she put in a pretty remarkable performance. Clarence Hyatt, a friend of the Herbert family for many years, was pleased to extend his stay and be present for this history making day even though it was a bit disappointing. He had long followed the Herbert steeds and was pleased to be there.

Driven by Jack Herbert, as were most of the stable stars, Sing Away was a bang-up third in the elimination but had to settle for a fifth-place finish in the final after holding the lead very late in the mile. To my knowledge this was the only time that the Herberts ever had an entrant in the famed Hambletonian. By some stretch of fate despite finishing third in an elimination and fifth in the final, the way the purse was distributed Sing Away Herbert came away without a cent for her efforts that afternoon and indeed for spending probably a week in Southern Illinois.

Armbro Ouzo, the only other Canadian entrant had a similar day finishing third in the first elimination and tenth and last in the final. The Duncan MacDonald-owned and driven trotter also did not share in the day's purse money. One well-known horseman who did not have a good day that year was John Simpson Jr., who had an entrant in each elimination and finished 11th and last on both tries. In Simpson's case his wait to have a win in the Hambletonian came much sooner in his career than this day's hero Billy Haughton. The Jr. Simpson won his first Hambo in 1970 at the age of just 27 when he piloted Timothy T to victory; he was a full brother to the 1974 winner Christopher T.

Jack Herbert, driver and co-owner of Sing Away Herbert, appears in the above photo. Jack and his father Bill were associated with Canadian harness racing for many years and raced some outstanding performers, most bearing the "Herbert" name. Their black and white silks were almost immediately recognizable wherever they appeared. Many years ago I had a brief conversation with Jack about this memorable experience and only wish I had discussed it more. I do recall that he said he was "not one bit nervous and felt very much at ease" despite the stage.

Closing Note: The DuQoin State Fair, during which the Hambletonian was held, featured a lot of big-name entertainers during the time of the Hambo. The names revive a lot of memories of the singers and musicians of the day if you have been around for a while. Liberace was a big hit, Sonny and Cher, Perry Como, Lawrence Welk, Wayne Newton, Liza Minelli, Guy Mitchell, the Mills Bros., Joni James and the Four Aces were but a few. They reportedly attracted huge crowds.

Cher must have had her "Higher heels" on the day this was taken.

Who Is It?

Can you correctly identify these three fellows? At the time this photo was taken each of them had accomplished quite a bit that season. (Photo from Northeast Harness News)

Bonus Photo

Can you put a name on this former track? What a great shot as the horses enter the clubhouse turn?

Stay tuned as always the correct answers will be given during the coming week.

New Feature - Quips & Quotes

Beginning with this week's Rewind each edition will include a Quote For The Week.

This week's Quote: "Never let success go to your head and never let failure go to your heart." - Unknown

August 7, 2019 - 8:29 amThis week's pictures seemed

This week's pictures seemed to create some interest and a number of well reasoned answers but one individual was not correctly identified. The trio included Wm. "Magic" O'Donnell in the centre holding Rambling Willie on the left and Nihilator on the right. At the time this 1985 picture was taken Rambling Willie was retired with $2 million banked and 128 lifetime wins; Magic was right at the $9 million mark in season's earnings and Nihilator had just been syndicated for $19 million. Pretty good company!

The racetrack pictured was Garden City located in St Catharines, Ont. and shown shortly after it opened in 1964. Thanks again.

August 4, 2019 - 8:55 amAbsolutely Garden City!

Absolutely Garden City!

August 3, 2019 - 4:32 pmHow about Garden City.

Paul moynagh SAID...

How about Garden City.

August 3, 2019 - 2:41 pmAnd Nialator and Prakas.

Gord Brown SAID...

And Nialator and Prakas.

August 3, 2019 - 1:10 pmGarden City Raceway.

Joel Lustig SAID...

Garden City Raceway.

August 3, 2019 - 12:30 pmBill O'Donnell, Prakas,

Eric Warren SAID...

Bill O'Donnell, Prakas, Nialator - 1985

August 3, 2019 - 11:26 amBilly O - Garden City.

Gord Brown SAID...

Billy O - Garden City.

August 3, 2019 - 11:25 amWindsor Raceway.

Jim Brown SAID...

Windsor Raceway.

August 3, 2019 - 10:00 amMy guess would be Prakas,

David Darocy SAID...

My guess would be Prakas, Bill O’Donnell and Nihilator for the “who is it photo”, and the quote would be that of Ziad Abdelnour.

August 3, 2019 - 9:44 amBill O'Donnell and Nihilator

Bill O'Donnell and Nihilator

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