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Never underestimate A teen bon vivant!

Sep 23, 2003 6:43 AM

The country is so fed up with lightweights, and so starved for a heavyweight, that its biggest hero is a horse.

Seabiscuit is galloping around the screens of the country, and in bookshops in Laura Hillenbrand’s romanticized version, and probably is the nearest thing to a national hero that we have.

Because I was around when he galloped for real, people smitten by the book or the movie ask if he was my most memorable moment in racing.

Far from it.

That moment happened to involve a kid ”” my kid ”” and how the innocence of youth sometimes can produce a magic moment that sticks with you forever.

When he was 15 and feeling sophisticated and worldly, I took him and his younger sister and their mother to the Hambletonian ”” the Kentucky Derby of trotting ”” that was at the time raced in DuQuoin, Illinois.

To get to DuQuoin you go to the end of the world and turn left, or you can go to St. Louis and drive a hundred miles or so to the southern tip of Illinois known as Little Egypt.

A delightful harness racing family named Hayes owned a huge fairgrounds there that the patriarch built and sustained with funds from the Coca Cola franchise in that part of the world.

It was a wonderful place, surrounded by lush cornfields, and the DuQuoin State Fair, as the fairgrounds came to be known even though the Illinois State Fair is held in Springfield.

The fair inherited the Hambletonian because it drew thousands of world class entertainers and world class harness racing over its big mile track. Virtually every big name act of that period played DuQuoin ”” Sonny and Cher, George Burns, Perry Como ”” you name them, and the fair’s midway was second to none.

You couldn’t find a place to stay in DuQuoin ”” it had one rickety hotel next to the Illinois Central tracks that shook when a train passed and a motel that the horse trainers took over ”” so most of the visiting racing crowd stayed 13 miles south in Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University and motels.

The Holiday Inn there had no restaurant until 1968, relying until that time on a mom and pop operation next door, but that year it opened its own restaurant.

We went to dinner, and Sophisticated Son, in black turtle neck sweater and thinking he was 007, spotted escargot on the menu and ordered them. They had to be on a menu in Carbondale for one reason only: to doll up the opening.

"Do you know what they are?" I asked, and he blistered me with a look of contempt. "You don’t think I’d order them if I didn’t," he snorted. I said to his mother, sotto voce, "He’ll never eat them." But he did, all six, with gusto.

A year later I was invited by Gustav Wallenius, the shipping magnate of Sweden, to take two American horses to Stockholm for the Elitlopp, one of the world’s great trotting races. The invitation included my family, and they put us up in the Grand Hotel, aptly named, across the river from the royal palace.

Mr. Wallenius called. "My wife and I would like you and your family to join us for lunch at the Operakalleren," he said. That restaurant, one of the world’s greatest, is located in the Swedish Opera House. When you enter, waiters check your oil and windshield, with hanging baskets of flowers overhead and starched linen on the tables. I spent the morning telling the kids to keep their feet off the table and mind their manners.

Son Al ordered escargot for his appetizer. After they arrived, Wallenius ”” who spoke perfect, impeccable English and sat regally at the head of the table ”” asked, "Alfred, how are your escargot?" I remember Al’s answer as vividly as yesterday, and also recall I almost blew my soup across the table and tried to slide under it.

"They’re very good, Mr. Wallenius," young 007 replied, "but there’s really only one place to order escargot ”¦ the Holiday Inn in Carbondale, Illinois."

Seabiscuit? Nah. He’s just a blur. Escargot I remember.