The winner of the Great American Horse Race wasn’t a horse. Instead, it was a mule named “Lord Fauntleroy.”
The 1976 event, dreamed up by former Kankakeean Randy Scheiding and his friend Chuck Waggoner, was a coast-to-coast horse race honoring America’s Bicentennial. Unlike traditional horse races held on tracks of a mile or so in length, the Great American Horse Race would follow mostly rural roads for a distance of 3,200 miles. It would begin on Memorial Day (May 31) at Frankfort, New York, and end 99 days later on Labor Day, Sept. 6, in Sacramento, California. Racers were competing for a total of $50,000 in cash prizes — $25,000 to the first-place winner, and $25,000 divided among the next nine top finishers.
Each day, the 93 competitors and a caravan of vehicles carrying their support staffs would cover a distance of approximately 35 miles, ending their ride at a designated overnight camp (often, a county fairgrounds or similar facility). The race’s daily winner would be the rider with the shortest elapsed time between campsites; the champion for the entire race would have the shortest total elapsed time for 76 days “in the saddle” (23 days of the race’s 99-day span were set aside for rest).
“Day by day, the race was less a neck-and-neck sprint than a kind of friendly, prolonged shuffle,” wrote Cara Giaimo in a 2016 online article about the Great American Horse Race. “The hundred or so riders were accompanied by their second mounts, along with a support staff of about 750, mostly friends and relatives who had volunteered to caravan along in pickup trucks and trailers and carry supplies. The whole posse moved along the same prefabricated route, from camp to camp.”
On Saturday, June 26 (the 27th day of the GAHR, as the event’s name was often abbreviated), the caravan arrived in Kankakee, which served as the national headquarters for the race. A crowd of several thousand had gathered downtown, reported Kankakee Daily Journal writer Carol Wiley.
“The riders, who had already reached the finish line for the latest leg of the race (from Martinton to the Kankakee County Fairgrounds) early Saturday morning, paraded north on Schuyler Ave. and turned east on Court St. on their way to the Exline Sportsman’s Club. As each rider approached the intersection at Court and Schuyler, they were introduced by loudspeaker; almost every rider carried a flag representing their hometown or country.”
Among those greeting the riders as they passed through downtown was Kankakee Mayor Tom J. Ryan Jr., who had proclaimed a “Great American Horse Race Week” in the city. Both Ryan and Police Chief Dean Bauer were attired in Western outfits, as were two police officers who patrolled downtown on horseback.
The focus then shifted to the Exline Sportsman’s Club, where a temporary “village” of campers, trailers, and tents was set up. The GAHR participants would spend the next two days at Exline; it would be the longest rest stop of the race. Sunday would be filled with activities, ranging from an interfaith church service to a country and western concert and dance. Monday would be devoted to relaxation and preparing for the next leg of the race; the riders would “break camp” early Tuesday and depart for Clinton, Illinois.
Among those camping at Exline was the Kankakee area’s only competitor, Mrs. Sharon Francis, of Wilmington. Other racers came from 47 states and the nations of Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Iceland and Switzerland. Also taking part, but not competing, was “Team Lafayette,” a group of riders commemorating France’s contribution to the American Revolution. The French riders were costumed in military uniforms like those worn in the Revolutionary War.
Although Mrs. Francis was the only local rider in the race, the Kankakee area was well-represented. Race founders Randy Scheiding and Chuck Waggoner had roots in Kankakee, while the community was represented by three members of the event’s National Advisor Board. The three board members were former Illinois Gov. Samuel Shapiro, Kankakee City Attorney William H. Taube, and businessman William Doss. Taube served as chairman of the advisory board.
On Sept. 6, some 69 days after riding west out of Kankakee, the GAHR riders crossed the finish line in Sacramento, Calif. Only 38 of the original 93 competitors completed the race. Local entrant Sharon Francis told the Journal that she had finished “somewhere in the 30s.”
The first-place finisher, as noted earlier, was not some fancy purebred horse, but a flop-eared mule named Lord Fauntleroy. His elapsed time for the race was 315.47 hours, just a bit over 9 hours faster than the second-place finisher. The $25,000 first-place prize, of course, was collected by Virl Norton, Lord Fauntleroy’s owner and rider. Norton, a 59-year-old steeplejack from San Jose, Calif., told reporters the reason why a mule won the race: “They’re just too much competition for horses.”