Wally Roper, a 20-year harness racing driver-trainer with gray sideburns that reach his throat, tried to compose himself on a couch in the drivers' lounge at Freestate Raceway.
He had just heard that Hall of Fame driver-trainer Billy Haugh-ton, known by his contemporaries as "The Master" of harness racing, had died yesterday from head injuries suffered in a racing accident July 5 at Yonkers, N.Y.
Roper took a deep breath. "Oh, Lord, I was just asking if there was anything new about him today," he said softly. "If there was ever a gentleman in the business, he was it. Whenever I had troubles with horses I would come to him, and he would always take time out to help. No matter if you were a little guy like me or one from a big stable."
Haughton, who was 62, won 4,910 races and $40.2 million in purses over a career that spanned four decades. He was respected not only for his work in the sulky.
"God fused every element of goodness into Billy Haughton," said Frank DeFrancis, owner of Freestate Raceway. "I never heard anyone, from a groom to a breeder, who had a bad word about him. I know of no one else I can really say that about."
Freestate Racing Secretary Ted Leonard, who met Haughton in 1953, said, "There is a lot of jealousy in our business. Billy was never that way. And when a fellow was down on his luck, Billy would turn down horses that owners had wanted him to train and would recommend the other guy."
Leonard said he had talked with Haughton a week before the July 5 accident, in which Haughton's 2-year-old pacer, Sonny Key, collided with a fallen horse. Haughton had curtailed his driving substantially in the last few years and was to retire soon, Leonard said.
"He had had a bad night," Leonard said. "He told me, 'I just decided I'm going to quit driving pacers. This is a young man's game, and I'm getting too old for it.'
"Why couldn't he have quit then?" Leonard asked.
Trainer John Twigg, who saw Haughton's first race ever at a New York fairgrounds in the mid 1940s, provided the answer.
"That was his life," he said. "All he ever wanted was to be around the horses, to race and to train. I remember even when he was a kid, he would always be around the barn, checking things out."
Freestate Raceway cleared the track at 7:10 last night, 20 minutes before post time, for a moment of silence for Haughton. Several of the top driver-trainers at Freestate disregarded their usual warmup schedules to remember the man they had competed with fiercely.
"He was the man I most admired in this business," said Bib Roberts. "Probably almost everyone around here would say that."
Driver-trainer Jim Miller recalled Haughton's ability to get by on less than five hours sleep a night. "I'd see him somewhere out at four in the morning, and then he'd be right at the track at 6 a.m., just like always," Miller said. "He could sleep anywhere, too, standing up, whatever. I don't know how he did it, but he ran a 200-horse stable consistently every year, too. He was an amazing man."
DeFrancis agreed. "He was one of the bedrocks of the harness industry. He took it out of the county fair stage and put it into today's era."