200 Years of Illinois: The Last Hambletonian

On August 30, 1980, the last Hambletonian in Du Quoin got underway amidst local sadness and headlines that harness racing’s top event had scored big money in its move to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. That summer, Bill Haughton—in an emotional victory driving his late son’s horse—steered Burgomeister to victory on the hot clay track, closing an era that began in 1957, when the race had relocated from Goshen, New York.

harness racingTurf sports made big news for decades and the Hambletonian, with its immense prizes and fields chock-full of trotting talent, was the crown jewel of harness racing. It was also the star attraction of the Du Quoin State Fair, founded by soft drink bottler W. R. Hayes, who had owned the winner of the 1950 Hambletonian. The fast track at Du Quoin encouraged a dozen race and world record times and saw champion trotters like Super Bowl and Speedy Scot stake eventual claims to the harness racing Triple Crown. In 1971, the Hambletonian inaugurated a popular race for fillies, and a few years later opened up the race to parimutuel betting.

Some of the twenty-one men controlling the race hankered to move back east, where the Meadowlands offered big crowds, a higher media profile, and a chance to avoid shlepping out to rural Illinois every August. Ugly infighting ensued:

When the latest of four family members to serve as president of the fair, William R. Hayes 2d, became allied wih Saad Jabr, son of a former Iraqi Government official, the Eastern bloc members of the Hambletonian Society seized upon the patriotism question.

They will vehemently deny it, but some of the wealthy, conservative horsemen were saying privately that they did not want their race staged over a track owned by an Arab. Mr. Hayes, who saw his fairgrounds slipping into financial trouble, sold it to Mr. Jabr for a reported $3 million.

Though Hayes and Habr rebounded with a big-money stakes called the World Trotting Derby, Du Quoin lost the invaluable Hambletonian prestige. Still, the Fair remains a hotbed for harness fans from mid- to late August.