At age 13, Bea Farber rode in a horse race at the Imlay City, Mich. fair near the farm in Emmett where her family lived. She beat 15 boys that day by a sixteenth of a mile in a half-mile race. That was the start of something big.
Today, at 37, with 412 career harness racing wins and $1.3 million in prize money, Farber ranks No. 1 among this country’s 60 or so active women harness drivers. This season Farber’s horses have already collected $305,077 in 61 victories. Last year she ranked eighth among all drivers in the national standings based on in-the-money finishes.
Not long ago Bea felt perfectly content with a job as a legal secretary. Her hobby even then was horse trading, beginning with a jumper she bought in 1967. Then, fresh from her second divorce in 1969, she sold a standardbred to trainer Chuck Farber. “We never dated,” she recalls. “Maybe he bought me dinner once. But we saw each other for nine months, and he finally said: ‘You really want to be in this business? Let’s get married.’ ” Bea thus became the fourth Mrs. Farber.
She quit the law firm in Brighton, Mich. and, to help her husband in his breeding and training business, she started driving. “Chuck was a good rider,” she observes, “but he couldn’t get anything out of a horse.” Bea, Chuck responds, “has a certain confidence a horse can sense.”
In her first year, 1970, perhaps the nags were beyond confidence. Their total take was $1,274. But while she kept scrubbing the floor and doing most of the Farbers’ cooking (she still does both), Bea became in 1973 the first woman ever to win a season driving title at a major harness track—Michigan’s Northville Downs. She has also been in the winner’s circle from California to Florida to Europe. Last year her horses earned $359,321. (As driver she is entitled to 10 percent, but the Farbers naturally pocket the whole purse on their own entries.)
Despite her success, Bea maintains: “I still don’t want to be a driver. I’m forced into it.” The limestone on the track scars her face, and, she says, “My friends tell me my 50-year-old sister looks younger.” But the winnings go to finance the Farbers’ new 186-acre dream spread in Fowlerville, Mich. They also run a 100-acre training center in Georgia, where they keep some 85 horses and settle during the winter. Bea is currently designing what will eventually be a $100,000 house on the Michigan land, but until it rises next year, the Farbers are bunking in a trailer. Her one daughter (by her first marriage), Lori, 20, is a student at Emory University.
Bea spends almost nothing on herself. “When she absolutely needs clothes,” says Chuck, “she’ll run into a store and be out in 20 minutes.” She has to save time because most evenings after dinner, Bea loads the horses she will drive that night into a van, hooks it to a pickup truck and sets out for the track. She doesn’t return until 1:30 a.m. The relentless pressure leads Bea to smoke three packs of Merits a day. “I’m driving against a bunch of other guys who are trying to kill me,” she says. “They want to see if you’re a coward.” While she has had sexist troubles in the past—she calls one track judge a “macho chauvinist pig”—they are largely over. “In the heat of a race, they don’t care if you’re a man, woman or hippo.”
Her trade is rewarding but exhausting. When fans gathered around earlier this summer and asked about her home life, Bea laughed. “Are you kidding?” she replied. “You try to have a sex life when you’re working 20 hours a day.”