It is one of the oldest clashes of all, and not confined to sport. "So it costs 100,000 bucks," the keen men are saying in Philadelphia. "So what? It's the world's biggest harness race. Buy it, and you buy readymade class; you buy instant history. Think of the ads, the talk, the promotion, the publicity. 'Philadelphia's Liberty Bell, Home of The Hambletonian!' There! How does that grab you?"
"It's the East again," they are saying in Du Quoin, Ill. "Big track wants the Hambo. Offering big money. Enough to buy this whole place. Would sure miss that race around here. Yes, sir."
Those are the main points of view, peopled-up for effect, in the bitter dispute over the proper site for the most prized event in harness racing. If it happens that the governors of several states and the pressures of politics and the dreams of old men and the fervor of young ones are all factors as well, never mind, because they are always factors in this argument.
Should the race be held, as it has been for the past nine years, as an adjunct to the pie-baking, quilting and cattle-judging of the Du Quoin State Fair? Or would Philadelphia's antiseptic, air-conditioned, $18 million Liberty Bell Park, adjoining a $50 million complex of superhighways, be a more fitting home? Governors Scranton of Pennsylvania and Kerner of Illinois, racing commissioners, track owners, fans from Dog Walk to the Main Line and every horseman in harness all have opinions. The trotting magazines are hock high in emotional treatises on the subject. Du Quoin is leading this unofficial Gallup poll by a wide margin—which may well explain why the midwestern-owned harness magazine has printed dozens of letters on the dispute, all favoring midwestern Du Quoin—while the Pennsylvania-published trade magazine has not run one letter.
The fate of The Hambletonian will not be decided by popular vote, however, but by the secret ballots cast by 20 men in a stately New York City clubroom on November 7. These men are directors of The Hambletonian Society, and as such are the curators of trotting tradition. The Society's bylaws declare The Hambletonian must be awarded "in such a manner as will be for the best interest of the sport as a whole," and a number of the directors now feel that tradition may no longer be in "the best interest." They would strip the race of its rural image, something it has had since the first Hambletonian was held in 1926 at the Syracuse State Fair. They would take the race from an "inaccessible" farming town in Illinois—92 miles from a major airport, though only 40 miles from the U.S. center of population—and move it to an urban industrial area. They Would convert a ‚Öù-mile night-racing plant into a mile track for Hambletonian Day by building a $150,000 extension. About the only tradition left would be keeping the race in the afternoon, instead of having it at night—when you get more customers.
Trotting's traditions are no easier to defend, however, than those of many other enterprises that have yielded to changing times. Since The Hambletonian moved from bucolic Goshen to bucolic Du Quoin in 1957, the sport itself has changed. That was the year Roosevelt Raceway opened its season with a new $20 million plant and the fans danced in the Cloud Casino and bet in air-conditioned comfort. There were 25 night harness meetings then; there are 44 now. There were 10 million fans; there are 21 million now. Purses totaled $24 million then; they total $50 million now. Liberty Bell is one of the byproducts of this bonanza, and it reflects in its one-half acre of plate glass the new image of harness racing—part supper club, part sport. The seating area is compact—close to the finish line—but the betting area is spacious. There are 400 mutuel windows, and if no one ever counted the trees (there are about 50), it is understandable because you can't see them for the neon. "This," says Liberty Bell President Ed Dougherty, "is the growing, living, wonderful sport of harness racing." It seems to be. Would the Society members be dragging their feet if they didn't make The Hambletonian part of this scene?
One member especially disturbed by the question is E. Roland Harriman, president of the Society and patriarch of the sport. Harriman has not seen a Hambletonian since the race left Goshen. He "died hard," as one director put it, when the stake went west. He called the move "a terrible mistake." On the other hand, Harriman's devotion to old-style trotting has made his visits to the sport's gilded palaces extremely rare, and if he has never been to Du Quoin, he has never visited Liberty Bell either. He is eastern at heart, but traditional at heart, too. His vote is critical because a number of directors—his relatives and lifelong friends—undoubtedly will vote with him.
Another member, nearly as influential, is that beguiling old curmudgeon Lawrence Sheppard, a Pennsylvanian and outspoken. "I don't think there are any good reasons for staying in Du Quoin," he says flatly. Admitting that many directors are splitting along East vs. Midwest lines, he is obviously concerned over the votes of his fellow Pennsylvanians in the Society. About one, longtime friend and fellow breeder Max Hempt, he says, "If Max has any sense he will be on Liberty Bell's side." Despite this position, Sheppard himself reflects the contradictory forces tugging at all directors. No man has deeper roots in this sport or greater love for its dirt-track, county-fair traditions. He even has close friends who are certain that when Lawrence Sheppard comes to vote, his heart and not loyalty to state will guide his hand.
Few directors have so much at stake personally as Del Miller, involved in every facet of trotting and for years its unofficial—and superb—goodwill ambassador-at-large. "Naturally," he says, "being from Pennsylvania and president of a track there [The Meadows] and also the owner of a breeding farm, I have mixed emotions. I know The Hambletonian is truly a sporting event at Du Quoin, and having our greatest race a nonbetting event, as it is there, is the best natural advertisement trotting could have. It could be bigger at Liberty Bell, but without the county-fair atmosphere it could also become just another race at a pari-mutuel track. At Du Quoin now every interested fan can walk from barn to barn, talk to trainers and grooms and even get a close look at the horses. All this is lost at a place like Liberty Bell, and with it some of the feeling of being close to the sport."
The outcome of the voting is still a toss-up, but when the Society finally gets down to it, the issues—if not the feelings of the members—will be clear. In bidding for the race, Liberty Bell was only accepting the invitation of The Hambletonian Society which ran a half-page advertisement in the trade papers last July asking any interested track to make an offer. Liberty Bell's offer includes more purse money ($100,000 to Du Quoin's $45,000), far greater accessibility and better hotel and restaurant facilities. And its proposal is in keeping with the image and the spirit and the trends in harness racing through the past nine years. Essentially, all Du Quoin is offering is tradition. The Society, next week, must decide which of these propositions is in "the best interest of the sport as a whole."
Chief custodian of trotting's hallowed customs, head of The Hambletonian Society, Roland Harriman helps perpetuate old-style harness racing at his own Historic Track in Goshen.
A confirmed traditionalist all his life and former president of the U.S. Trotting Association, Pennsylvanian Lawrence Sheppard now wants the race moved to Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.