Twenty questions with Tommy Haughton

by Bob Heyden

Tommy Haughton, who turns 67 on Feb. 27, answers some questions about his life in harness racing.

1. Do you think more about you turning 67 or that your brother Peter would have been 70 this Sept. 22?

“Peter 100 per cent. I think about what would have/could have been every day. If all of us were still around today.” (His dad Billy died on July 15, 1986 at 62 and Peter died on Jan. 25, 1980 at 25).

2. When did you become active in the sport?

“After high school. I was doing my thing, mostly sports, at that time. My high school coach said I was the best athlete he ever had. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me today though. I needed a job — I think it was the summer of 1977 — and dad told me I could groom that summer at Roosevelt. Before that though, I didn’t even know what Peter was doing. I was too into my own thing. My other brothers Cammie and Billy had interest in the sport but not like Peter. Peter would spend time since he was like 3 years old learning how to be a horseman. Del Miller helped a lot.”

3. What was your relationship with Del Miller?

“None until after high school and college. I went to East Stroudsburg State College. I remember how much he helped me years later when Somatic was in the World Trotting Derby [1991]. He told me no matter what to be on top, and to stack up the others until the top of the stretch then take off. It worked. He was a great man.”

4. Did Peter want to be an all-around horseman or a top driver?

“I know at the time he passed he really wanted to make it as a driver. Catch driver especially. Dad told him that if he wanted to do that, he had to stay at The Meadowlands to make a go of it. That’s what he did, late 1970s into 1980 when he died. I think he was trying to prove himself, too; that he wasn’t just Billy Haughton’s son.”

5. When did your dad first show trust in you and your ability?

“He sent me to Ohio with about a dozen. I was very young. I was simply babysitting them. They were some of the best Charlie Hill recommended horses that Ohio had. Dad showed up and quickly saw that the horses looked good. He asked me what I did with them because he told me this group was the soundest group he’d ever seen. ‘Not much’ was my answer, but I think I passed that test.”

6. When Final Score made a break in the 1980 Hambletonian final, did you immediately say, ‘Oh good, now dad can win with Peter’s horse or oh crap’?

“I was too competitive to even think about Burgomeister at that point. Final Score was not an easy colt to drive. It wasn’t until after I went to the winner’s circle and saw the emotion in my parents’ faces did I really got it. That was 1980. It wasn’t until the Wilson winner’s circle of 1981 with McKinzie Almahurst that I saw dad smile again. It affected him tremendously. It really wore on him. He was destroyed by losing Peter.”

7. Your dad’s been quoted as saying McKinzie Almahurst was his second-best horse. Take us back to the 1981 $1,760,000 Wilson.

“Dad went three wide at the half and still won it. By a nose [his richest driving win ever]. I asked dad why he went three deep to the half? [He pointed to McKinzie and said] ‘I didn’t, he did.’ I thought it might have been the B Gs Bunny in him.”

8. You were just 22 when Peter died. Did you grasp the incredible opportunity you had in front of you at that point?

“Yes, I did. And I was getting help all over the place. One time I bumped into George Sholty pretty bad. The judges asked George and he said ‘No, the kid didn’t get me,’ and I stayed up. I did the same to Herve Filion, and he too told the judges, “No, I was OK, he didn’t get me, my horse just made a break.” One time I veered in and knocked Carmine Abbatiello’s trotter over the hub rail. I was getting a lot of help. Remember that when Peter passed, I hardly had any experience at all.”

9. You are still the youngest Hambletonian winning driver, having won at age 25 in 1982 with Speed Bowl. What do you remember?

“He was a horse you couldn’t leave out of there with. The first heat of the Hambo he came from 10th [at the head of the stretch]. But for the final I knew I had to be closer. That was the first time I ever used him early, and cautiously, and it worked.”

10. Two weeks after you won the Hambletonian, in the summer of 1982, you set the world race record with Trenton going 1:51.3.

“I got so mad at Alvin Cummins who owned him. He wanted to retire him immediately. I pleaded with him not to. He only had $90G on his card and I was positive I could win the Jug with him. At Roosevelt and Meadowbrook Long Island where we trained, he would go right by McKinzie Almahurst regularly. But Alvin had his mind made up.”

(Note: McKinzie Almahurst was the previous year’s leading money winner at 938G and the Haughtons occasionally trained on the golf course prior to the golfers showing up in Long Island).

11. Do you and Bill Popfinger still play one-on-one basketball?

“No. I guess we’re too old.” (Tommy and Popfinger, 21 years his senior, used to have epic elbows flying matchups).

12. What can you tell us about Nihilator?

“I drove him twice. I almost got him beat once, but dad took him then I had Pershing Square. When it came time for the Wilson [$2,161,000] dad asked me first if I wanted to drive him in the final. I actually was happy with Pershing Square so I said no. I wound up getting parked in that race.

“That race and the Adios were two of my worst drives ever. But in the final analysis, Pershing Square simply wasn’t Nihilator.”

13. What about Napoletano?

“A beautiful big black horse. My best memory with him was near the Kentucky Futurity in 1987 he started to hit his hock above the boot. So, I decided not to say anything to anyone; I thought he’d be fine. The groom saw me hiding it and threatened to call the owners. I talked him out of it and he went out and beat Mack Lobell coming home in :26.2.”

14. Does Peace Corps hold a special place not only because of her talent but the fact that she was bred by Stanley Dancer and was foaled a couple months before your dad passed?

“Yes. Have you seen the video of Dad/Stanley at Pompano that winter? It turned out to be their last winter together. Peace Corps, I believe to this day, was the greatest female trotter ever born. Four Breeders Crowns. On Hambo Day 1989, I was angry she got beat in the first heat. [17 straight wins coming in]. It just didn’t work out that day, but she came back twice and beat the boys in the World Trotting Derby and the Kentucky Futurity.”

15. You won your lone Breeders Crown as a driver with Naughty But Nice in 1984 in the #YOFP at Liberty Bell Park. She would go on to become the first pacing female millionairess. What can you tell us about her?

“I sure remember her. She was a Meadow Skipper and they could be a handful on occasion. I was still a stupid kid then, one day in the American National, and reached up and hit her once on the right stifle. She didn’t like that much and finished third. ‘What the hell happened?’ Dad said right after the race. ‘What are you going when training her between races?’ I told him 2:10. ‘Why 2:10?” Because Gene Riegle told me he did that with Three Diamonds. ‘Forget that.’ One day dad was driving at Vernon Downs in Upstate New York and comes back, in his Mercedes, with a goat in the car for Naughty But Nice. She never lost again. How did dad know? [He said] ‘We’ve got to change her mind.’ Dad thought like a horse.”

16. Fifty-seven years after your dad won the first Messenger in 1956 with Belle Acton, you won it with Ronny Bugatti.

“I also owned part of him. Paid $25,000 for him. The crazy part is that dad won the Messenger seven times I believe. It was not lost on me at all that we were father and son winning the same stake so many years apart. I also remember that when dad had Nihilator [1984-85] and he was setting world records, it made the 1:51.3 with Trenton [1982] that much more special as that was just before that.”

17. What’s your story about Harold Story?

“I was driving in a NYSS one night and I was on the lead. Harold Story was on my outside and yelled for me to let him go and [he said] ‘I’ll let you go right back.’ I let him go and he parks me the rest of the mile. After the race he said, ‘Boy, never believe anything I say.’”

18. Nancy Bar was struggling the day we chatted. She’s a 6YO daughter of the late Bar Hopping that set the track mark for mares at Monticello last year.

“I’ve been awake 30 hours with her and have been sitting on her head all morning.” (Even at 67, Tommy’s still active and still training).

19. You won the 1994 Jug with Magical Mike on Peter’s 40th birthday. How cognizant of that number were you that day?

“I was thinking about it the three or four weeks out, 100 per cent. A great feeling to win it. Dad won the 1955 Jug with Quick Chief and I believe it was on Peter’s first birthday.” (Peter was born on 9/22/54).

20. You won the $705,100 Governor’s Cup in 1988 with How Bout It, a son of Trenton.

“I remember him winning the Governor’s Cup. They didn’t have the race the year before [ in 1987]. Mike Lachance wound up winning with him in 1:57.2 on Jug week, then I went to Lexington with him and he won in 1:52.4.”

Note: This last anecdote is also about Magical Mike. It’s topical this year especially as his owner David McDuffee is Hall bound. But the other reason is I never knew about. I’m not sure If I’m happy I now know it or mad Tommy didn’t tell me decades ago.

“In Florida at Pompano Park on the mile training track, that was the year [1994] that Bill Robinson had Cams Card Shark [HOY] and really good ones like Pacific Rocket,” Tommy said. “Every time Magical Mike would train, he would have to pass Bill Robinson’s on the way back to my barn, and every time he would empty out right in front of their barn.”