Some people would rather have $1 million than a piece of Bert Huntington's pie.
Bert Huntington, 72, is an angel on leave from the Lord's kitchen. She makes apple pies for the Maid-Rite restaurant on U.S. 51 here. The Maid-Rite is the kind of place where all the table legs don't reach the floor, so the food better be good. Bert's apple pie, you'd kill for. Whatever Michelangelo did with marble, Bert does better with apples.
"And her coconut pie," confided Paul Fox, 33, the Maid-Rite owner, being careful Bert couldn't hear him, "is better than her apple. Had three coconuts this morning, cut them into seven pieces each and they were gone before noon. Gotta get here early."
If you count all the people who live within 150 miles of Du Quoin, you get only 1 million. Du Quoin is 6,700 coal miners. This is the middle of America and the middle of nowhere. To see the bright lights, you drive 2 1/2 hours west to St. Louis. What they have in Du Quoin is the Hambletonian Stake, the trotting classic that is harness horse racing's answer to the Kentucky Derby. Next to Bert's apple pie, the Hambletonian is as much a piece of Americana as you'd want.
They run the Hambletonian as the centerpiece of an 11-day country fair. They have cotton candy, Dolly Parton and taffy, Bob Hope, Willie Nelson and ferris wheels. The people who run the fair live in big houses next to the grandstand. The best trotting horses in the country are here for the Hambletonian, in the middle of America, in the middle of nowhere, and for a sport created a hundred years ago by farmers looking for fun at the county fair, the Hambo at Du Quoin is the perfect match of jewel and setting.
Sadly, the match is coming apart.
They'll run the 54th Hambletonian Saturday and they'll run it again here in 1980, but after that the race may move to Syracuse, N.Y., or to the Meadowlands sports complex in East Rutherford, N.J.
Syracuse, the Meadowlands and Du Quoin today presented offers to the Hambletonian Society, a collection of 21 gray and august horsemen who control the Hambletonian.
Syracuse guaranteed a $1 million purse for the race, the Meadowlands $800,000 and Du Quoin $600,000. There were a lot of other big numbers thrown around, all of them in approximately the same ratios as these guaranteed purses. In short, Du Quoin and Bert's apple pie, however nice and sweet, cannot match the big money produced by the zillions of big bettors in the East.
No decision was made today. The society will announce its decision Oct. 5 in Lexington, Ky. It would be an upset if the Hambletonian stays in Du Quoin because the event has outgrown its home. If trotting is to gain ground on the easier-to-train pacers, it likely must be moved away from the middle of nowhere to a spot that would draw significant national attention.
"I have visions of the Goodyear blimp circling slowly over Syracuse, with Jim McKay . . . " said Jack Hardy, the New Yorker who put together his state's Syracuse campaign.
For sure, Goodyear will send its blimp over a $1 million horse race a lot sooner than it will circle Bert Huntington's apple pie, but purists among the harness horsemen can work up a passion of oratory on behalf of the bucolic pleasures of racing at Du Quoin.
Du Quoin is, the fair president Jim Benedick believes, an undiscovered treasure on the American sporting scene. He is hoping the Saturday national telecast by NBC-TV will change that.
"The Hambletonian is not on the lips of every household's mother and child the way the Kentucky Derby is, the Indianapolis 500, the Super Bowl," Benedick said. "But NBC is treating it as a major sporting event, and that is very important because TV is very powerful."
In years past, the Hambletonian on TV has been a disaster. CBS-TV once ran it two days later, sandwiched between matches of a tennis tournament. Another time, CBS used the filmed race during slow spots in a golf tournament.
The last 21 Hambletonians have been run on the fair grounds owned by the Hayes' family until the sale this spring to an Arab businessman who has lived in nearby Carbondale for 30 years. Because the Hambletonian Society was surprised by the sale -- and gray, august gentlemen do not like surprises -- the society decided to entertain offers for its jewel of a race instead of renewing the perpetual commitment it had with the Hayes family.
If the Hambletonian is moved, it will be the inevitable last step in a chain of events that has transformed the very nature of harness racing. The sport no longer is a country fair hobby. Outside of two million-dollar quarterhorse races (with all the prize money put by the entrants), the two richest races in the United States have been Meadowlands harness events -- one for $862,750, another for $750,000.
Trying to keep up with the changing times, Du Quoin only six years ago introduced pari-mutuel betting on the Hambletonian. Only four years ago did they sell beer at the Du Quoin fair. Now, faced with big-money competition, Du Quoin is scrambling so much that Illinois Gov. James Thompson came here today to promise state aid.
"It would be a shame to move the Hambletonian from the Midwest," Thompson said.
But some horsemen don't like the travel problems in getting to this middle of nowhere; they don't like taking their horses away from their bases of lucrative operation in the East, and they don't like the idea that Johnny Cash will draw more customers the night before than they will the day of the Hambletonian.
Bill Hayes, who sold the fair this spring but still works as director of racing, and is a member of the Hambletonian Society, heard all the big-money proposals today. His heart belongs to Du Quoin. He wants the Hambo kept here while Syracuse and the Meadowlands put on their own big-money races.
"That'd be wonderful," he said.
"That'd be too good to be true," he added.