Intriguing ICF Showdowns on Horizon

By Mike Paradise

Opening night of Hawthorne’s winter meet is only a week away and the Friday, January 5th conditioned sheet lists both an $11,000 ICF Open Pace and a $10,000 Open Pace as its headliners.

The state-bred Open for male pacers could turn out to be an early preview for the Dave Magee Closer Series that gets under way on February 2nd with its first round legs.

The second $9,000 legs will follow on February 9 with the top 10 money winners of the Magee Late Closer knocking heads on Friday 16 for a very nice purse of $30,000.

The Magee Late Closer has13 pacers eligible to compete: Captain Rhett, Cole Heat, Dakota Roadster, Fox Valley Cupid, Gabe Henry, Gibbs, He Gone Jack, Lucky Crusader, Mystical Walter, NJ’s Go Johnny Go, Slzburgerslzburger, Sporty Redhot and Uptown Sleaze.

 Captain Rhett stunned the crowd at Springfield with his 1:49.4 winning mile there last summer. (Four Footed Photo),

Captain Rhett stunned the crowd at Springfield with his 1:49.4 winning mile there last summer. (Four Footed Photo),

Both Captain Rhett and Gibbs were victorious on last year’s Night of Champions. The Jim Horvath Stable’s Captain Rhett captured the $180,000 Robert F. Carey Final for 3-year-olds males while Gibbs notched the $90,000 Robert S. Molaro aged pace for trainer Jim Eaton.

Captain Rhett and Gibbs have been competing in Ohio at Northfield Downs after the close of Hawthorne’s 2017 summer meet.

In six starts in the Buckeye Captain Rhett has chalked-up three wins, one second and one third and most recently a close-up a fourth place finish in a high-level conditioned pace. In 2017 the Duneside Perch gelding has raked-in purse earnings of $145,835 for Illinois owners Harvey Grieff and Robert Verdun.

Gibbs has won twice on the Ohio half-miler including an $11,000 Open II Pace in early November for Michigan owner Rick Howles. The Sportsmaster pacer has been a consistent starter in Northfield Park Opens and has made over $70,000 as a nine-year-old.

While the ICF Open Late Closer for “the boys” has 13 eligible pacers, the ICF Open Series for “the gals” saw a reduced number of eight owners send in a $200 nomination fee check for a crack at that winner’s share of a $30,000 pot in the Saturday, February 3 Final.

Heading up the “Walter Paisley’ Late Closer for state-bred distaffers are Bucklegirl Bobette and Fox Valley Charm, the one-two finishers on the Hawthorne’s Night of Champions. Only a nose separated those two mares in the $60,000 Tony Maurello Championship.

  The Bob Walker Stable's Bucklegirl Bobette is being pointed for Hawthorne's 2018 winter meet. (Four Footed Photo).

The Bob Walker Stable’s Bucklegirl Bobette is being pointed for Hawthorne’s 2018 winter meet. (Four Footed Photo).

The Bob Walker trained Bucklegirl Bobette ended her 2017 season by winning six of her last seven starts and pulled down $75,177 in purse earnings while going postward a modest 15 times, her last in mid-October.

On the other hand Fox Valley Charm was sent to trainer Dirk Simpson in Pennsylvania after Hawthorne’s closing and has been a steady purse-earner in the Preferred mare ranks at The Meadows, banking almost $23,000 in eight starts there for Sherman, Illinois owner Peter Karras.

Others eligible to the Paisley Late Closer are Char N Marg, Fox Valley Aubry, Fox Valley Hermia, Mimosa Party, Miss M A Jones, Phyllis Jean and State Street Liz.

However, both Sporty Redhot in the Magee and Phyllis Jean in the Paisley will be “no-shows” in their respective winter Late Closers says their Berwyn, Illinois owner Al Beals.

“I changed my mind about bringing them back for the Hawthorne winter meet after talking to both my east coast trainer and my Illinois trainer,” said Beals who nominated both ICF pacers on December 9 and did an about-face on the matter about two weeks later.

“They’re both doing well out east and it just made sense to keep them there with the winter meet here only six weeks long.”

The soon to be 5-year-old Phyllis Jean had a terrific and a busy 2017 for Beals with over $85,000 in purse earnings in 42 trips postward. She took her mark of 1:52.2 at The Meadowlands back in May.

Since Sporty Redhot ($52,489 in 25 starts) left Illinois the soon-to-be 4-year-old has split his time racing for trainer Rick Dane Jr. at both Yonkers and the Meadowlands.

Of the 15 Hawthorne Winter Late Closers made available, five had to be canceled because of insufficient entries. All five were for trotters.

Now That’s Cold: Eleven qualifiers were raced yesterday at Springfield on a “good” racing surface during a bold chilling temperature of 14 degrees. Because of the adverse conditions the stewards knocked four second off qualifying time.

The fastest winning mile was a 2:01 flat front-end clocking by the Jim Eaton Stable’s mare Gypsy Bellevue (Mike Oosting), two full seconds faster than the second quickest paced by the winning mare Morgangetsherway.

Gypsy Bellevue had been sidelined since May 21 at Hawthorne. Eaton also had his Invite trotter Whizzer White (Mike Brink) prevail in 2:04.2. A winner of almost $84,000 in 2017, the soon-to-be 6-year-old trotter hasn’t raced since a start in late July at Hoosier Park.

Entry Details: Entries for Hawthorne’s Friday, January 5 opener are due this Monday morning (January 1) by 9 am. Online entries ( are encouraged. The Race Office phone numbers are (708) 780-3690 and (800) 850-4188. FAX at (708) 780-3757.

They’ll be a double draw on Wednesday, January 3) for both Saturday’s January 6th and Sunday’s January 7th cards. Horsemen must declare by 9 am Wednesday morning.

Hawthorne will conduct qualifiers on Saturday January 6 before the regular card. Horsemen must declared by 9 am Wednesday, January 3.

Ship-in date at Hawthorne for both horses and dorm residents is Tuesday, January 2nd. The Paddock will be Barn D. The Ship-In barn will be Barn 1.

Horsemen Reminder: Any horse that raced at Hawthorne last September, and hasn’t started since, can be entered and race on opening weekend without qualifying.

Stalbaum Assigned 20 Stalls at Hawthorne

By Mike Paradise

The driver and trainer colony for Hawthorne’s upcoming winter meet will get a huge boost with veteran horseman Larry Stalbaum coming from in the east coast with a large stable.

A check of Hawthorne’s stall allocations for the January 5th start of the meet shows that the 54-year-old Stalbaum was allocated 20 stalls, making his barn the largest stable on the grounds for the winter meet.

The native of Valparaiso, Indiana, has racked up 0ver 5,700 dash winners since he began driving professionally in 1986. He also has trained over 1,000- winning horses.

StalbaumStalbaum has driven at tracks all over the country and he’s been behind horses with over $1 million in purse earnings for the last 25 consecutive years.

Larry comes back to Illinois fresh off his first driving title at the Batavia (NY) meet that concluded last Saturday. Stalbaum competed in the mid-1990s on the Chicago circuit at Sportsman’s, Maywood and Balmoral Parks.

Stalbaum’s best season for winning drives came in 2004 with 421when he was one of the top drivers in Michigan. He left the Wolverine state after the 2005 season and went to the east coast where is money won total jumped by over $1 million the next year competing at tracks in the state of New York and in Pennsylvania.

Larry’s highest total in money won for a season was in 2012 with $4.38 million. The bulk of that amount came at Yonker’s Raceway in New York City.

The long-tenured horseman is no stranger to being the leading driver at a racetrack. Over his 32-year career Stalbaum has won dash honors at Northville Downs, Hazel Park, Sports Creek and Jackson Harness Raceway in Michigan, Raceway Park in Ohio, Cal Expo in California, and at New York State’s Monticello Raceway, Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs.

Through yesterday Stalbaum has driven 5,738 winners with 339 coming in 2017. Horses he’s driven in his career have earned just over $39 million in purses.

Keith Crawford's trotter I Could Care Less won last summer's Bea Farber Late Closer Final at Hawthorne. (Four Footed Photo)

Keith Crawford’s trotter I Could Care Less won last summer’s Bea Farber Late Closer Final at Hawthorne. (Four Footed Photo)

Crawford Hawthorne Bound: With no harness racing meet in Michigan until the month of March veteran horseman Keith Crawford will be coming in for the Hawthorne winter meet.

The 71-year-old Michigan native was assigned five stalls at Hawthorne. The stable his headed up by Crawford’s soon to be 6-year-old trotter I Could Care Less (1:55.3), an eight time winner in 2017 including the Bea Farber Late Closer Final on the Sticky, IL one mile oval. This year the homebred son of Glidemaster made over $46,000.

Crawford has more than 3,500 career dash winners and has conditioned over 1,000 winners in his career.

Pre-Winter Meet Qualifiers: There will be qualifying races held at Springfield Thursday, December 28th at the State Fairgrounds.

Entries can be made online or by phone on Wednesday, Dec. 27 from 8 am through 11 am by calling Le Ann Shinn at 618-783-2589. There will be NO entry fee for the qualifiers with the costs being picked up by Hawthorne Racecourse and the IHHA.

Hawthorne will conduct qualifiers on Saturday January 6 before the regular card. Horsemen must enter by 9 am on Wednesday, January 3.

Sixty Day Qualifier Exception: Speaking of qualifiers, horsemen are reminded that any horse that raced at Hawthorne last September, and hasn’t started since, can be entered and race on opening weekend without qualifying.

The Hawthorne qualifying standards for the winter meet read: “The 60 day (Qualifying) requirement shall be waived for those horses entered and start Jan. 5, 6 or 7 that last started at Hawthorne since 9/1/2017.”

First Conditioned Sheets Up: The Conditioned Sheets for Hawthorne’s opening weekend programs have been posted on both the Hawthorne and USTA Web-Sites.

Fox Valley Gemini Sure Bet for Top Honor

By Mike Paradise

The ballots went out this week to every member in our state for his or her choice as the 2017 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year. While the official announcement won’t take place until December 20 the unbeaten 2-year-old Fox Valley Gemini looks to be a shoo-in for the top honor.

You can’t argue with perfection and that’s what the Jim Ballinger owned freshman pacer Fox Valley Gemini was in his first racing season for the Terry Leonard Stable and driver Casey Leonard.

The Yankee Skyscraper gelding, out of the Cole Muffler broodmare Epona, went nine-for-nine as a 2-year-old and in most major stakes the outcome wasn’t even close.

Fox Valley Gemini average winning margin in an ICF stake final or elimination was by almost three lengths and that includes his 3 and 1/2 victory in the $195,000 Incredible Finale Final on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions.

Fox Valley Gemini (Casey Leonard) capped a perfect freshman season with his ninth victory on Hawthorne's Night of Champions. (Four Footed Photo)

Fox Valley Gemini (Casey Leonard) capped a perfect freshman season with his ninth victory on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions. (Four Footed Photo)

Even though Fox Valley Gemini dominated the ICF 3-year-old male division, the pacer didn’t “wow” the Leonard’s when he first arrived at their farm.

“Gemini” didn’t show a whole lot when we got him,” said Trainer Terry Leonard. “The Ballinger boys got him ready and sent him up to us to finish him off about a month or six weeks before he was ready to start.

“We didn’t think he was anything special until around the first of July. His confidence kept growing and he just blossomed.”

On Hawthorne’s Night of Champions Fox Valley Gemini came from sixth, almost a lengths behind at the three-quarter pole, and powered past his rivals with a sizzling 26 flat last panel in his 1:53.4 mile

You might think that 26 last quarter was the fastest for the Terry Leonard trainer pacer as a freshman but you it wasn’t. On July 22 Fox Valley Gemini had a scorching 25.3 last panel in his Incredible Finale Second Leg triumph.

“He just exploded that night coming off the last turn,” said Terry.

Besides sweeping Hawthorne’s Incredible Finale Stake Series, Fox Valley Gemini, breezed in his Cardinal elimination and the final and did the same at Springfield where he took his mark of 1:52.2. The only major ICF stake the freshman didn’t win was the Du Quoin. He didn’t make the trip to the southern Illinois State Fair.

“We talked to the Ballinger’s about Du Quoin,” continued Terry. “Gemini had some health issues. He was racing well but he wasn’t really in tip-top shape so why take a risk with the horse? It’s a long trip to Du Quoin (about six hours) from here (Harvard, IL near the Wisconsin border) and the horse had three straight weeks of stake races coming up right after Du Quoin.”

Instead Fox Valley Gemini got a well-earned four week rest after his Springfield conquests.

The decision to give the R&R to the freshman pacer proved to a wise one. The freshen-up Fox Valley Gemini went out and rattled off victories on consecutive September Saturdays in the third and fourth legs of the Incredible Finale before his romp in the Hawthorne championship.

Fox Valley Gemini hauled in $157,560 in his initial racing season for his Atwater, Illinois owner. He won’t get back in training until after Hawthorne’s winter meet is over.

“He’ll be made eligible to all the Illinois bred 3-year-old stakes,” said Terry. “We haven’t made a decision yet whether to stake him to some Hoosier Park stakes later in the year.”

The annual USTA District 5 (Illinois) meeting will be held on December 20th at the Poe’s Catering at 7162 Britten Road in Springfield, Illinois.

Tony Morgan made a triumphant return to Hawthorne on the Night of Champions. (Four Footed Photo).

Tony Morgan made a triumphant return to Hawthorne on the Night of Champions. (Four Footed Photo).

Morgan Milestone: One-time Chicago circuit kingpin Tony Morgan is about to eclipse a monumental milestone in his illustrious driver career.

Coming into tonight (Dec. 15) the 59-year-old Morgan is only 9 victories away from 16,000 career dash winners. Only driver Dave Palone with 18,000-plus has recorded more than Morgan, a long-time former president of the IHHA.

Tony left Illinois for the greener purses of the Casino abetted east coast racetracks after the 2005 season after winning 700 races and tallying $5.1 million in purse earnings.

In his first campaign on the east coast Morgan’s dash winners soared to a career high 1,004 while horses he drove banked $3.4 million more than in 2005. The Ohio native then followed with money won earnings of $10.45 million in 2007 and a career highest $10.80 million in 2007.

Morgan’s lifetime money won total is nearing $128 million.

The Warwick, Maryland resident came back to Illinois for Hawthorne’s Night of Champions in late September and drove the Mike Brink Stable’s Illinimike to victory in the $115,000 Kadabra stake for ICF freshmen male trotters.

Late Closers Significant for Winter Meet

By Mike Paradise

With Hawthorne’s winter session only four weeks away it seems like a good time to chat with the track’s Race Secretary, Robin Schadt and get her thoughts on the meeting that begins on Friday, January 5th and concludes on a special Monday night (February 19th) card.

Robin was optimistic that the winter meet will do well at the betting windows.

“The handle will be good because there aren’t a lot of products going on against us in the winter,” said the Oak Lawn, Illinois native.

Hawthorne LogoThe backbone of the winter meet at Hawthorne looks to be the track’s Late Closer Series. Sixteen Late Closer events are being offered by Hawthorne, all with two legs prior to finals which range from $15,000 to $30,000 for ICF Open pacers of both sexes.

The winter Late Closers are for horses of both gaits and sexes with lifetime earnings ranging from $10,000 upwards to $40,000 lifetime. A $200 nomination fee was needed for a horse to be eligible.

Schadt continued, “The money allocated from the state (Department of Agriculture) enables us to give out us some nice purses for the ICF Late Closers. We basically geared up those Late Closers for the horses that didn’t fare well in last year’s ICF stakes.  We’ve giving them a chance to race this winter and for some good money. We want to get this (Dept. of Agriculture) money spread around to more people and not just a few horsemen .  These are people who are not going to take the money and run (to another state). They’re long-time Illinois trainers who will invest the money back into the business here in Illinois.  The thought was that with the money more spread out, more people will take part and that could influence other horsemen to invest in our business. We have to grow our industry and you can’t grow it if only a few people make all the money and call the shots.”

Robin pointed out, and rightly so, that Illinois horse racing forever changed in a big way once full card simulcasting came about.

Four Footed Photo

Four Footed Fotos

“Everybody wants to see good horses, but those stake races thrived before full-card simulcasting. If you wanted to see a great horse like Artsplace race you had to go to Sportsman’s Park. It made for a big night and not just in handle. Admissions went up. Concessions rose. Program sales increased. It made for a huge night for the race track.  Now days you can see the top horses in the country on your TV, your computer, or on your phone. It’s become very accessible to watch and bet on them, so those real good horses don’t draw people to a racetrack like they once did.  Also those big stake purses in Illinois were usually won from horses coming to town just for one night and the money went to out-of-state owners.”

That’s so true.

While I loved watching some of the country’s top horses compete at Balmoral Park on American National Nights, and writing about the outcomes, it was very rare to see a big purse go to owners of Illinois based stables.

I recall one Balmoral American National Night (2009) when horseman, Roger Welch (now with his barn in Indiana), was the only Illinois trainer to have an American National winner. That night over $1 million in purse money went out of state, never to return.

The next year it was more of the same. Dirk Simpson, who has since relocated to Pennsylvania, was the lone Illinois horseman to have a champion on American National Night.  Again more than $1 million in purse money was raked-in by out-of-state owners and stables.

January Claiming Series: While the first legs of Hawthorne’s Late Closers will be raced on either January 12, 13 or 14, its Winter Claiming Series gets under way the first weekend of the meet.

Nominations (with a $200 fee) for pacers with a $6,000 claiming tag and for those with a $10,000 claiming price ($300 fee), must be received by the Hawthorne Race Office by December 18th.

Both the filly and mare and the colt and gelding $6,000 Claiming Series Finals will carry a $12,000 purse while the $10,000 claimers will vie for a $20,000 pot in their respective finals.