J. G. (Pete) Wathen has survived two broken backs, a drought that ruined most of his tobacco crop, a gas crisis that forced him to sell his road paving business at a sizable loss and a freak one-horse harness-racing accident that almost killed him two years ago.
Today, Wathen, 54, is happy and almost solvent again, thanks to a 4-year-old pacing mare named Mandy's Good Friday, whose name comes from her dam, Mandy Crain, and the religious holiday on which she was foaled.
Until recently, Mandy's Good Friday was the fastest aged pacing mare in the nation on a half-mile track (1:59 2-5 for a mile). Now, since Passing Glance sped to a 1:57 2-5 win at Yonkers Raceway, she is only the second fastest.
That does not disturb one bit the man who owns, bred, broke, trains and drives Mandy's Good Friday.
"I don't care about records, only a paycheck every week," said Wathen, as he went about his chores at the 80-acre stables he leases here.
In 62 career starts, the daughter of Entrepreneur has failed to earn a check in only six races, with 23 victories and earnings of $87,226. Not bad for a horse that cost Wathen $1,650. He paid $900 for Mandy Crain as a weanlind and a $750 stud fee to the Lana Lobell Farms.
"I couldn't have sold her for $3,000 as a 2-year-old if I wanted to," Wathen said, as he played adopted father to two six week-old kittens abandoned by their mother. "Now she's worth $150,000."
But Wathen is not anxious to sell her or to take her to New York and New Jersey for bigger purses. At Rosecroft this spring and at Laurel Raceway, Mandy's Good Friday races in the feature each Saturday night. She's enjoying a rare break in scheduling this week.
"I'm only going for $10,000 ($5,000 to the winner," he said. "So what" I'm making a living. All I want to do is live comfortably. You don't want to kill yourself. What do you make up the road? $100,000? We'll make $60,000 with her here."
"Those people up in New York keep bugging us," said Ruth Ann Wathen, his wife. "They don't understand that we don't want to sell her and we don't want to race for the big purses up there, that we don't have to be millionaires."
A more direct reason is Wathen's work and driving ethic.
"There are two kinds of drivers in this business - those who drive to make a living and those who drive to make a bet," he said.
He made a bet once, a small wager on a horse named Skip B., one of the two horses he sold to keep afloat financially following his accident at Harrington (Del.) Raceway in March 1977.
"I worried more about that bet than about the purse money," he said. "I haven't bet again."
His wife usually bets $2 across the board on the horses he drives. In his first parimutuel race, at Harrington six years ago, she and some relatives bet $6 across the board on Mandy Crain. The mare paid $88 to win and when Mrs. Wathen went to the $2 window to collect, the cashier hardly had the $404 to cover the payoff.
"I was afraid," she recalled, "that somebody would hit me over the head and steal the money while I was going back to the barn."
That accident at Harrington was a freaky thing. Wathen was warming up a horse in near darkness, before the track lights were turned on. There was an opening, in the guard rail, to the infield, and it had not been closed.
The horse was working close to the rail. Suddenly, Wathen recalls, he felt the sulky snap from the horse and he was airborne. He believes he landed on the rail. The doctors were not sure he would live.
"When I woke up," Wathen said, "the doctor said, 'You're going to live.' I said, I know that. When am I going to get out of here.'"
Today, he says, he cannot work as hard as he used to. But he tries. He learned first-hand that it is better to do the job yourself.
That winter, his horses had done well at Dover (Del.) Downs, winning $6,000 to $7,000 in small purses. He expected to do well during the spring and summer at Rosecroft and Laurel.
"Why don't I let somebody else drive Mandy (in New York)?" Wathen said. "I tried somebody else with my horses and I went broke. I had $12,000 expense and we won only $1,242."
He almost sold Mandy's Good Friday for $50,000 in January. But he was snowbound for two days driving the mare to the Meadowlands in New Jersey and decided to return home. He also was able to work out terms with his creditors.
The mare has won $43,162 this spring and her value as a broodmare has at least tripled. Now, Wathen says, his business is nearing the break-even point.
Although he describes himself as a farmboy born in Southern Maryland, he is no country yokel. He made money racing his first two years - "I had to pay taxes those years," he says, with a twinkle in his eye, "before the accident."
It was 1952, and he had a 200-acre farm in Leonardtown, when he suffered his first broken back. That was the year of the drought, which nearly wiped out his 20 acres of tobacco.
"It usually filled five barns," he said. "That year we got it in one."
So, a few years later, at age 30, Wathen went to college at night and earned a degree in civil engineering at Johns Hopkins. He became a road contractor. He was superintendent when the first leg of the Capital Beltway was built near River Road in the early 1960s.
Business was good until the Arab oil embargo of 1974, when new road construction virtually stopped. He sold his business for a $70,000 loss and took up harness racing fulltime, six years after he started in it as a hobby and learned his skills under a Frederick County neighbor, Bernie Offutt.
It was Offutt who sold him Mandy Crain, more or less as a favor to his friend. She is a daughter of Ichabod Crain, who sired Solar Crain, an Offutt pacer that won the Saturday night features in his day on the Maryland circuit.
"There's a whole lot of luck in racing and breeding," Wathen said. "But if you work a little bit and work hard, you can overcome problems."
He studied breeding charts on potential sires for Mandy Crain, choosing Entrepreneur over eight other stallions. He was a good race horse as a 2-year-old, but never lived up to his potential.
"He's the best-bred stallion in the country for two-minute blood lines behind his sire (Bye Bye Bird) and dam," Wathen said. "It's outcross breeding (no common blood lines between the sire and dam.). Mandy Crain struck her knees together and I thought we might be able to get away from bad habits and pick up some good ones. you have to be lucky."
Wathen moved his base of operation from the Frederick fair to the 80-acre rented farm a year ago and has gone about improving it. He has added to the barn fenced in the horses' pastures and built a one-third mile training track.
Wathen currently has four mares and is just on the tip of becoming a success in the breeding business, where the money is. He would like to breed Mandy's Good Friday to Meadow Skipper, whose stud fee is $30,000 and whose progeny averaged $94,000 at auction last year - both harness-racing records.
Mandy Crain recently dropped a full brother to Mandy's Good Friday. He has been named Hi Lan Pete and the weanling is easily picked out in the pasture. He is the best looking with that star type of conformation.
As Wathen enters the pastures, he yells to his weanlings, all with the Surname Hi Lan, "Come Here, Pete; come here, Ruth; come here, Skip. It's time to get your loving."
They obey. CAPTION: Picture, Pete Wathen shares a free moment with weanling on Frederick farm. By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post