A last hurrah for the bare-knuckle days of HARNESS RACINE
A last hurrah for the bare-knuckle days of HARNESS RACINE
Tins is the side of harness racing it's almost too late to watch: any day now will see the last of the fist fights and freewheeling fixes that can still add suspense to a semiamateur sport that's losing flavor by turning pro BY HARRY BRUCE
SOME OF THE MEN who race standardbrcd horses at the fat. tailored raceways of Montreal and Toronto refuse to compete now at the inland villages where harness racing began and where many of the colts still run their maiden races. The rural tracks were built for the sport of farmers, vets and hotel owners who wanted to race their own horses. Often, they're narrow, tightly curved, potholed and so dusty that trailing drivers can't sec beyond their horse's ears. The infield may be so jammed with cars that the few officials who arc there can't see the action on the backstretch. The action is often fiendish: farmers, who haven't much to win or lose except pride, are notoriously nervy drivers, even when they're cold sober. Purses at small meetings may be as low as a hundred dollars. For men who chase bigger money at raceways like Toronto's Greenwood (where supervision is so sharp that drivers are fined if the chinstraps on their safety helmets are out of place) the country meetings still smell too highly of the bare-knuckle days of harness racing.
Those days were the entire first half of the century. They produced, particularly in southwestern Ontario. Canadian drivers who arc revered everywhere in North America that men race trotters and pacers. They also produced small and violent sins against men and horses, tricks so various that no one driver or trainer, no matter
how old and tough, could hope to name them all. One the oldest, toughest and most brilliant horsemen of those times is Lindy Fraser. “You could get away with anything," Fraser says. “You run a man over, nobody'd care."
Fraser is bitter this spring because the Canadian Trotting Association says he's too old to race: he's only seventy-five, and he says the tremor leaves his hands when he takes the reins. Fie lives in Forest, one of those hazy western Ontario towns where the loudest noise on a summer evening is the click of a cueball. It's horse country and Fraser, like all other harness-horse men, talks of the past almost entirely in terms of horses. He passes lightly over the dirty driving of his rivals, the heat races that lasted three murderous days, the fixes, the treacherous midwinter races on ice or the feel of silk after it's soaked with mud and manure. He is unprintable on the subject of the men who touched off their horses with heroin, tobacco, caffein, boiled coffee mixed with rum. or sharp sticks in the rump. Instead, Fraser talks about Dr. Stanton, the great golden bay he bought as a trotter for five hundred dollars, trained as a pacer and drove to Si 170,()()() worth of purses in California, New York, Illinois and Ontario.
The term “bare-knuckle days” is more than figurative; Fraser and the other top drivers of the Twenties and Thirties had to be as quick with
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As all the oldtimers know, there are many ways to make another driver fighting mad
their fists as they were good with their horses. The fights usually began at thirty miles an hour on the backstretch. perhaps behind trees. They
often ended with two drivers jumping off their bikes in front of the crowd and thumping each other in the dust at the wire. There were several ways for one driver to make another fighting mad but the most dangerous was (and is) swerving a bike wheel under his horse. This could upset the horse and. as the other racers piled into the wreckage, fire a gory explosion of horses, bikes and catapulted drivers. (VVilmer Hillock, a contemporary of Fraser, was leading in a race at Pic-
ton, Ont., when a drunk driver cut across the track and under his horse: ten horses went down.)
Another technique, guaranteed to infuriate, was to stick so close to the lead driver that your horse's head banged the man in front of you on the back of his neck ail the way round the track — or, worse, your horse's hooves chopped up his wheels. Of course, the man on top might retaliate by flicking his whip back in your horse's face. Or he might wait till the
race was over, as Lindy Fraser did after a driver had battered the wheels on Fraser's new sulky. "I knocked him on his can."
Wilmer Hillock is a tall crowshouldered man with big, knobby hands. He says he's seventy-six: his friends say he's closer to ninety. For decades Hillock was the archetype of nomadic standardhred men: he owned, trained and drove his own horses, and lived with them in trailers. He liked races that were so mucky he
had to push up his goggles to see. Hillock lives now in a little house within cheering distance of the shopping plaza where Toronto's old Dufferin track stood till 1954. He offers his visitors corn on the cob, tea and apples. He's got a prize horse blanket on his rocking chair, solid silver trophies in his drawers and pictures of dead horses on his walls.
Hillock has also got a tender shoulder. He smashed it in a race twenty-five years ago. The arthritis in
his knee is the legacy of a race in which another man’s horse chopped his wheel off. Hillock was dumped but his foot stayed with the bike. "1 was trailing around for half a mile. A whole year 1 dreamed about them seven or eight horses cornin' snortin' and Flowin' at me." Hillock doesn't know yet if they caught him. but his leg veins were ruptured, the leg turned black and he was on crutches for three months.
In those days fixed races were less
likely to rely on dope alone; they usually included the connivance of other drivers. When a fix was on, Hillock says, the other drivers often came to him and “talked pretty saucy." In Montreal, once, a driver told him. "You're not going to win this race." Hillock said. "Oh. how do you know?"
"Because we're going to run you all over the track." And they did.
But again, it isn't the wounds and corruption that Hillock thinks about most: it’s the horses he drove, the fast ones, smart ones, game ones and a great one. a horse named Lastic Gratton who, in six consecutive races one fall, broke six Ontario track records.
Hillock, who was still training horses five years ago. and Fraser, w'ho was winning races only last year, arc just two among the incredibly tough old men who survived the shadier days of harness racing. Col. Dan MacKinnon of Prince Edward Island, who is pushing ninety, still wwks out his ow n horses. Five years ago, an American driver celebrated his seventyeighth birthday by winning the Kentucky Futurity Trot (and $14,431) and, only last year, Sanders Russell, a sixty-two-year-old Alabaman, won the Hambletonian (and $62,854) at Du Quoin, III. Sixty-two may not sound so old but it's old enough if you're driving with a broken ankle. Russell was.
How to tire weak horses
Horsemen of Hillock's and Fraser's generation say that the salvation of harness racing and its rise as a crowdpleasing sport began on May 23. 1946, when New York's Roosevelt Raceway first tried the mobile starting gate. The gate is two big wings on the back of a truck: as the truck accelerates toward the start, the horses trot up in line behind the w'ings. Thanks to the gate, there arc drivers today who have never had to bring their sulkies to a dozen consecutive false starts. The sulkies, and sometimes there w'ere sixteen of them on a narrow track, used to move up beyond the starting line, turn and charge, jockeying like sailboats for the best start. A man with a strong horse might deliberately provoke false starts to tire the weaker horses, and you could never be sure that the starting official didn't have a brother-in-law in the race or some money down himself. At any rate, the horses often got so frantic they'd run off the track or have to be led back to the stables. It w'as boring for people who'd come to see a horse race.
The despair race officials felt over the starting mess was reflected in the ludicrous devices they tried in the years before the gate. One w'as a giant elastic hand, stretched across the track and released as the horses trotted up in line: it was a flop and. in some cases, a disaster. It whacked horses in the head or wrapped around their legs. "That thing spoiled some good horses." says Lindy Fraser. For a while starters experimented with a countdown from fifteen, to help drivers time their starts, but the countdown never did guarantee a fair race and besides it was on a wax record and on hot days it melted.
Harness racing began as a backwoods pick-up game in a time when every player owned his own horses and could train and race them on the road
in front of his farm. By the Twenties and the Depression, a few horsemen were becoming professionals and heading south to the big-time and the big monev but. for most drivers, harness racing was still something you did for kicks? What betting there was occurred in a local hotel the night before the races. An auctioneer sold pool tickets on each horse in each race; the size of the bids varied with the reputations of the horses. Sometimes there were no purses. "You'd have to race for the gate receipts,” says Bill Herbert, a London hotelkeeper who is also one of the best standard-horse breeders in the country. “Some places, you'd be lucky to get $12.50. You'd have to go to the bank to get there, go to the bank to get back. You might even have to take a job.” It isn't surprising that now and then drivers bet on one another and arranged to trade victories.
But Herbert — despite the saliva and urine tests, the photo patrols, the better officiating and all the rules in the Canadian Trotting Association's own criminal code for harness racing — is not convinced that there's so very much difference between the rough, old days and the respectable new days. Drivers and trainers are still committing the old crimes on the tracks and in the stables, only now they're getting caught at it and penalized. Asked about drivers who steer their wheels under trotting horses. Lindy Fraser said laconically, “They're not supposed to do that any more." Asked about men who use drugs to hop up their horses, he said, “I hear they've got a new thing — forget what they call it — it doesn't show in the saliva test." Last year, at the big tracks in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and London, testers did find traces of dope in the saliva or urine of five horses. This year, the season at Toronto's Greenwood was barely two weeks old when a driver-trainer was suspended for sixty days because a drug like caffein was found in the urine of a horse he’d driven to victory. The Canadian Trotting Association's record of fines and suspensions in 1962 — for crimes which include dirty driving, smoking on the track and slugging an official — totals 829.
The officiating, however, has apparently proved sharp enough to discourage The Big Fix. The CTA hasn't substantiated a highly organized fix since 1956 when it nailed two owners and all eight drivers in a race at Connaught Park near Ottawa. The ten were suspended indefinitely from Ontario tracks but some are back in the business now; horsemen, of course, have never been as sticky as, say. hockey directors, about dishonest effort.
The tattoo system, introduced to Ontario harness racing only three years ago. is eliminating another vice. Numbers, tattooed on the inside of every horse's upper lip, make it almost impossible for owners to run ringers. The last known ringer in Canadian harness racing was Professor Mc. a good horse from southwestern Ontario. About ten years ago, a FrenchCanadian owner named Edmond Filion entered Professor Me under another name in a race in Montreal. The horse was recognized instantly ("I knew him but 1 wasn't going to
say anything." says Wilmer Hillock). Filion was suspended indefinitely but his case was eventually reviewed and he, too. is back in harness racing.
So are his eight sons.
Filion. who is fifty-two, didn't seriously get into the horse business till the early fifties but, in spirit at least, he and his boys are a throwback to the easier morality and tough, casual life of early harness racing. Only last August. Filion was fined a hundred dollars at Greenwood and barred from the paddock for behavior which wouldn't have shocked anyone twentyfive years ago: his offense was "causing a disturbance in the winner's circle while under the influence of alcohol.” Before six thousand people, he had grabbed the winning driver of a race and shaken him but, as Filion explained later, he'd only meant to congratulate the man in the traditional Gallic way.
Filion. at quieter moments, is a mild-looking man with a round face and dark, happy eyes. He should be happy. From 1941 to 1952 he cleared a total of twenty thousand dollars as a trucker in Angers, a Quebec village near Ottawa: in the ten years since, he and his driver-sons have earned about three hundred thousand dollars. Each year, they take in more money and buy more horses. Each year, another son gets his driver's licence; six are driving now while the other two stay home to train horses on the family's 140-acre farm.
Riches on small tracks
Filion is lord of a roaming empire of children, grandchildren, in-laws, horses, bikes and trailers. The family owns three house-trailers for young Filions, their wives and children and for the senior Filion. his wife and a fifteen-year-old daughter. (She likes to work with horses when she's home from boarding school and is yet another potential entrant in the Filion stakes.) The Filions, unlike some of harness racing’s other money players, don't restrict themselves to the big tracks. Their trailers are familiar at stake races in places like Chesterville, Ont., and Shawville, Que., in the Ottawa Valley. They are rarely united in summer -because Filion believes in spreading his bets: some sons race at Greenwood in Toronto while others are at Blue Bonnets in Montreal. If one Filion fouls out for a few days, as often happens, there's usually another Filion ready to try for the purse — and the Filions are good drivers. Edmond is glad he traded his trucks for horses.
Another newcomer to harness racing is John Hayes, forty-three, an owner, trainer and driver from Columbus, Ont. Hayes has only been racing about a dozen years but, like Fraser. Hillock. Herbert and everyone else connected with standardbreds, he'll tell you that harness horses are smart, communicative and loving, and that harness racing is the fastest-growing sport in the world. None of the older men is a more fanatical devotee of trotting and pacing than Hayes. He says there are only two sports worth following: NHL hockey and harness racing. And hockey games, he suspects, can be fixed. ★
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