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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 12:00 am

Black gumbo

JOSEPH L. “PETE” MORRISON: Aug. 9, 1933 - Dec.5, 2017


The day wasn’t perfect.

There was wind, with high gusts forcing a 40-minute postponement. And Cambest’s feet weren’t in the best of condition. Can you take a quick lap with the water truck before we start, William “Bill” O’Donnell, the driver, asked. “Yeah, sure,” Joseph “Pete” Morrison agreed.

And then history was made.

Cambest proceeded to shatter the world record by more than two seconds, traveling one mile faster than any standardbred harness racehorse had traveled before. He circled the state fairgrounds track in one minute, 46 and one-fifth of a second that day in August 1993, covering the last quarter-mile in a blazing 27 seconds despite a serious headwind.

“I didn’t think any horse could go that fast,” trainer Fred Grant told the State Journal-Register afterward. “And this is a great racetrack.”

Cambest’s record stood until 2016, when Always B Miki set a new standard, in Kentucky, by just one-fifth of a second. The 1993 time trial might have been the crowning achievement for Cambest, who retired from racing a few months later. But it wasn’t Morrison’s first rodeo.

During his 32 years as track superintendent at the state fairgrounds, Morrison, who retired in 1995, saw scores of world records broken on a dirt oval he studied and loved and slaved over. The U.S. Trotting Association rated Springfield as the world’s fastest track during Morrison’s tenure. Cambest’s triumph as a pacer came six years after Mack Lobell, with John Campbell driving, came to Springfield and set a world mile record for trotters, which have a different gait than pacers. Track managers from as far away as Switzerland sought Morrison’s advice.

O’Donnell, whose driving exploits landed him in three horseracing halls of fame, plus Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, says that Springfield was a mecca when Morrison was in charge.

“That’s where everybody went,” O’Donnell says. “It had the best footing for that time of the year. Springfield, I don’t know how to explain it. It had a bounce to it that no other track had.”

Morrison, who died after a battle with dementia, credited Sangamon River bottom dirt, which he called black gumbo. There was, he swore, no other dirt like it.

It’s super dirt,” Morrison told the SJ-R when he retired. “This stuff from the Sangamon River bottom, with the right moisture, has a bounce to it that’s almost like a carpet. It’s solid, but not rock hard.”

No one ever called him by his given name. Patti Farmer, Morrison’s stepdaughter, says her dad once told her that he got his name from a farmer who observed that he never just walked away after doing a job. “He would do something, then he would go back over it to make sure it was just right,” Farmer says. “The farmer that he worked for said, ‘You ain’t no Joe. You’re a Pete – Pete and repeat.’ Pete just stuck.”

Born in Tallula, Morrison landed a job at the fairgrounds when someone in charge found out that he could run a grader. In addition to maintaining the track, Morrison also kept up the Coliseum and made sure that roads in the fairgrounds were properly maintained and plowed. He and his family lived on the fairgrounds in a house near Happy Hollow for three decades, but he was rarely home come fair time.

“I remember as a kid, he would work 18 and 20 hours a day during the fair,” Farmer recalls. “He would work until midnight, just to make sure it was perfect. Then he’d come home, take a nap, and then go back to work. He was very proud of the work he did.”

Morrison also prepared the track for the Springfield Mile motorcycle race and for tractor pulls and for race cars and for quarter horses, which prefer a bit more cushion than standardbreds. “He loved the challenge of moving from one to the other,” Farmer says. He wasn’t afraid to dig deep, tearing up the track as much as necessary to get it just-so for whatever event was on the schedule.

“You read it like a road map,” Morrison told the SJ-R in 1993. “When you see the little cracks in the top like a road map, that’s when you work it. If you try to work it too early after rain, it clods up on you. If you work it too late, it flakes, and that’s no good.”

Farmer recalls that her father was once fired, but not for long. “At the time, the job was political, and they let him go when the parties changed,” she says. “The horse owners all signed a petition. They wanted him back, or they were moving their horses to Florida.” Morrison returned to work after getting better living quarters and a promise that the job would not be subject to political whims.

Don’t blame me, says former Gov. Jim Edgar, who owns racehorses and well remembers Morrison’s talents. Whoever tried pulling the trigger on Pete must have been governor before him, says Edgar, who was governor from 1991 through 1999.

“That didn’t happen during my time,” said Edgar, one of more than two dozen fans of Morrison who signed a farewell photograph when he retired. “Nobody was going to touch him. There was nobody better than Pete taking care of harness tracks in the world.”

Track conditions are critical in harness racing, Edgar says, because time is key. While thoroughbreds are prone to running much different times on different tracks in different weather, harness racing keeps track of greatness strictly by how fast a horse travels over a given distance, regardless of the track or weather conditions or the competition. “The value of the horse is all tied to time,” the former governor says. “It’s extremely important in that sport that you have the track in the best possible condition.”

It was not, Edgar believes, work.

“I don’t think, to him, it was a job,” Edgar says. “I think he really loved what he did.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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