Look Who is Prominent Again in Illinois

By Mike Paradise


A number of years have passed since we’ve seen the name Erv Miller among the leading trainers at a Chicago circuit harness racing session, however, that’s no longer the case.


The Midwest division of the Erv Miller Stable goes into this weekend of racing sitting third in the Hawthorne trainer standings, five winning horses behind the Terry Leonard Stable and only one behind trainer Steve Searle and that’s with about 50 less horses going postward than the two leaders.


Locally, Erv’s horses are winning at a high-level 26 percent clip. It’s the same success rate his horses are doing at Hoosier Park, where he’s also third in the trainer rankings.

Four Footed Fotos provided us this unique up-close photo of driver Atlee Bender.


Much of the credit for the stable’s success at Hawthorne and Hoosier must go to Erv’ s daughter Hannah and her husband Atlee Bender. The March newlyweds have teamed up to effectively manage Miller’s 50-horse Midwest division farm, based in Indiana.


The stable’s success at Hawthorne has given Bender a chance to gain more catch-drives on the local scene and Atlee certainly has made the most of that opportunity.


Bender didn’t start driving professionally until 2016 and going into 2021 the 29-year-old Goshen, Indiana native’s highest number of drives in a year was only 80 in 2019.


With almost two more months left at Hawthorne, Atlee has already been behind 228 horses going to the gate on the Cicero, Illinois one-mile oval and won with 39 of them, tying him for fourth place in the driver standings with Todd Warren.


“I didn’t expect things to go so well for me at Hawthorne,” said Atlee. “I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunities given to me at the meet.”


Bender’s 17.1 winning percentage is third best behind the meet’s leading driver Casey Leonard’s 19.4 per cent and the 17.4 rate of Kyle Wilfong. Casey has 72 Hawthorne wins at the meet and Kyle is right there with 63.


It’s not uncommon to see Bender’s name listed 7 or 8 times a night on a Hawthorne program. As they say: “Success Breeds Success,” and Atlee is without a doubt having a very productive meeting.


Even with the stable’s rise to third in the current Hawthorne trainer standings, Atlee has even higher expectations at the meet.


“We want to be the top stable when the Hawthorne meeting ends,” said Atlee. “That’s our goal.”


With a full mile oval and a very long stretch, Bender has learned that patience is indeed a virtue competing at Hawthorne. As a result, a large amount of Atlee’s victories are coming with horses off the pace.


“I like to let others battle it out in the early going, size up the situation, and then come on with my horse in the last three-quarters of the mile,” added Atlee.


The Hawthorne data shows that Bender’s strategy is paying off handsomely for himself and the Erv Miller stable.


No Rest Tonight: Bender will be a busy man Saturday evening with 10 drives on the 11-race program, including the Rob Rittof stable’s Tempest Seelster in the second race Open II feature for fillies and mares.


The eight-year-old mare leaves from the four post in a six horse field drawn by groups with last week’s Open II winner Rock It Out (Kyle Wilfong), the 9-5 programmed favorite, assigned the outside six-slot.


The first two posts were drawn with My Uptown Girl (Ridge Warren) getting the one and Rollin Coal (Juan Franco) the two. The three through five went to Primo Extremo (Wyatt Avenatti), Tempus Seelster, and Fox Valley Exploit (Kyle Husted), in that order.


Titan Slayer: Lying In Cash ($15.20) upset the ICF “Titans’ in last night’s $12,000 Open Pace with the help of a two-hole trip provided by driver Kyle Husted.


He’zzz A Wise Sky was parked out to a sizzling 26.3 first quarter to get command by Lying In Cash and the eventual runner-up Bobcat Bay (Ridge Warren) , and ended up only third best, beaten one and one-half lengths.


Fox Valley Gemini (Casey Leonard) had to settle for fourth, another half-length behind.


Lying In Cash’s 1:50 mile was a new mark for Kalamazoo, Michigan owner Techia Lohmann.



2022 Dates Requested

Today, July 30, was the deadline for racetracks to request racing dates for the 2022 season. The Illinois Racing Board published these requests a short time ago. Click here.  Illinois Racing Board Receives Three Applications for Race Dates in 2022  It is very important to understand that these requests are often amended before the actual dates hearing which is scheduled for Thursday, September 23.

Hawthorne has requested 365 days of harness racing and 365 days of t-bred racing. They requested this simply because they did not know of Arlington’s plan for next year. Obviously they can’t be racing this schedule but the way the dates are requested, you can withdraw part of your dates request but you cannot add dates afterwards. So they played it safe because of Arlington Park’s uncertain commitment to the future.

Arlington Park, as expected and feared, has requested zero racing dates for 2022. So unless Arlington and Churchill Downs have a trick up their sleeve, there will be no racing there in 2022.

So what does it all mean for us?

In the past few months we have had preliminary discussions with Hawthorne and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen on sharing Hawthorne in 2022. Now that we know Arlington is officially not in the mix, we will all meet and try and come up with a schedule that works for everyone. We will try and get as many days as possible, including as many summer dates as possible. It is critical to our breeding industry that the two-year-olds have a sufficient opportunity to get their stakes season in.

This current situation highlights how critical the need for another Illinois racetrack. We will continue to work with everyone who shows interest in getting this done. Hawthorne management has assured us that they are very interested in that second racetrack and casino and understands that time is of the essence here.  We will keep everyone informed as this progresses. Thanks. Hang in there.



It’s the Return of the ICF Titans

By Mike Paradise


After a three-week absence our version of the “Battle of the Titans” returns tonight when ICF standouts He’zzz A Wise Sky and Fox Valley Gemini square off with the return of Hawthorne’s $12,000 Open Pace.


The last time these two Illinois bred star pacers tangled was back on July 9 with He’zzz A Wise Sky coming out on top in his usual front-stepping fashion. The victory by the John Filomono trained four-year-old broke a tie of three victories apiece against each other at the meeting.



Fox Valley Gemini (outside) and He’zzz A Wize Sky (inside) will renew their rivalry in tonight’s $12,000 Open Pace. (Four Footed Fotos)

Fox Valley Gemini (Casey Leonard) needs a win tonight to even the score against his adversary, however landing the outside nine-hole with a large field does make tonight’s task an arduous one.


Three Friday’s ago, Casey ducked Fox Valley Gemini from the seven slot and even a wicked :25.4 last quarter couldn’t overtake He’zzz A Wize Sky since the Jim Ballinger owned pacer was six and one-half lengths behind his chief rival at three three-quarter pole.


A week earlier Casey gunned ‘Gemini” out from the nine-hole and got a two-hole journey behind the star of the Triple ZZZ stable who paced a sizzling 54.4 half. “Gemini” put on a late surge to notch the six-year-old’s 43rd career victory.


“I don’t like to race ‘Gemini” like that all the time,” said Casey.


So, what’s the strategy from Hawthorne’s perennial leading driver this time around? We’ll have to wait until the eighth face tonight to find out.


There’s no shortage of drivers in tonight’s feature that would love to have a two- or three-hole trip with their horse behind He’zzz A Wize Sky, so a quick first panel is almost a certainty.


He’zz A Wize Sky and Fox Valley Gemini drew for the 8 and 9 posts.


The first seven slots were drawn separately and will be manned by Fox Valle Ren (Juan Franco), Warrawee Veloce (Wyatt Avenatti), Lying In Cash (Kyle Husted), Bobcat Bay (Ridge Warren), On Duty (Atleee Bender), Primo Giovanni (Todd Warren) and Yankee Bounty (Travis Seekman).


While the two state-bred icons have been almost even-steven in this season’s confrontations, interestingly the betting public’s support has gone to He’zzz A Wize Sky the last five times the pair have gone head to head.


The only time “Gemini” has gone off as the favorite against his chief rival was on May 16 when the Terry Leonard trained pacer was impeded in the stretch and finished fourth, the only season start he hasn’t been first or second in his eight outings


Eying the State Fair: Racing at Springfield gets under way in two weeks and with eliminations for the Illinois State Fair Colt Stakes races for two-year-olds on Friday August 13th, several trainers have decided to have their youngsters compete tonight to stay sharp.


Hawthorne’s seventh race is strictly for ICF colt and gelding freshman pacers, and it’s headed up by the Gary Rath Stable’s Fox Valley Ozzy (Casey Leonard), unbeaten in his initial three starts, all state bred stake events.


“Ozzy” has nailed down comfortable victories in the first two legs of the Incredible Finale series as well as a division of the Cardinal.


Nine of the 10 horses going to the gate in the seventh race have competed in the Night of Champion stake series including such other Top Ten standing point earners as Major Grin (50), Fox Valley Crete (37), Magazine Theme (33), Pericles (13) and Kingofmyheart (9).


Carol Longo Passes Away

Carol Longo has recently passed away. A celebration of her life will be held at Main Street Exchange in Crete on Thursday, July 29 from 5-8.

Loulita Aims to Mimic Stablemates

By Mike Paradise


Can the Steve Searle trained filly trotter Loulita follow in the footsteps, or should I say hoof steps, of her stablemates Louzotic and Lous Abigail and deliver a third consecutive Beulah Dygert championship to her connections?


Looking at how good the talented filly has been in her last few starts, you certainly must like her chances of doing so for Flacco Family Farms (Alexis, Illinois), the breeder and co-owner of Loulita with Dr Patrick Graham (Pittsfield, Illinois).


Loulita (Casey Leonard) goes for her fourth straight Hawthorne victory in Sunday night’s $15,000 third leg of the Beulah Dygert Memorial stake series and will undoubtedly be the public’s choice.


Loulita (Casey Leonard), the current three-year-old trotting start of the Steve Searle stable, goes after her fourth straight Hawthorne win in tonight’s third round of the Beulah Dygert Memorial trotting series. (Four Footed Fotos)

Some 15 days ago Loulita won a conditioned trot where she was used twice, once when she left from the gate for early position, and again in the last turn when she was first up to clear the pacesetter. The filly when on to a 1:58.1 clocking on a sloppy track.


“It you look at the replay it looks like she had a tough trip,” said her driver, Casey Leonard. ‘However, she was strong to the wire. It was the best effort she has given me this year.”


One-week later Loulita put on a dazzling performance, winning a three-year-old ICF trot against both other gals and “the boys.” At the end of her 1:56.3 mile her opposition was barely in the view of the TV camera as she drew away to a mind-boggling 18 length triumph.


Usually when a horse wins by that kind of margin, the rest of the field was hampered by horses breaking or an accident occurred, but that wasn’t the case, Loulita simply clobbered her foes.


Loulita opens as the even-money choice in Sunday’s seventh race co-feature. She starts from the four post for Casey with her main threat inside of her, Breeze At Sunset (Atlee Bender)., with the pole position.


Breeze At Sunset has rounded into top form for the Midwest division of the Erv Miller stable, as indicated by her last two outings, both wins with sub :28 last quarters.


Tonight they’ll be challenged by Lous Voodoo Woman (Jordan Patton) and Luck Valarie (Travis Seekman), with posts two and three, respectively


The five through six slots will be staffed by BC’s Rose (Kyle Wilfong), Lou Lou Lamour (Juan Franco), Myonly Sin (Ridge Warren), BBR Lady (Cornelius Cavett), Ting Ting (Todd Warren) and Lous Liva (Kyle Husted).


Coco D’Lascito (J D Finn), a two-time ICF stake champion at the Hawthorne meet, is the early favorite in tonight’s third leg of the Erwin F. Dygert Memorial stake series for state-bred male trotters. (Four Footed Fotos)

Even Money as Well: The co-featured third round of the $15,000 Erwin F. Dygert Memorial stake, goes off two events earlier as the fifth race and it’s another 10-horse field with a likely heavy favorite, and that would be Coco D’Lascito, with trainer J D Finn in the sulky.


Coco D’Lascito was on the sidelines with an injury when the first leg of the Night of Champions series was conducted early in the meet but the Lou’s Legacy sure was fit and ready when it was time for the May 26th Cardinal, and a month later for the second leg of the Dygert, breezing to victories in both.


Rndmnunpredictable (Casey Leonard), the other Cardinal division champion, landed the outside nine-slot making tonight’s task a difficult one his driver.


Emsroscopcoletrian, who came out on top in his first leg of the Erwin Dygert back in late May, didn’t fare very well either with the eight-hole. Trainer Cornelius Cavett turns over his lines tonight to Kyle Wilfong.


The other Erwin Dygert candidates are Sudden Approach (Cliff Bell), Sumbodygetdisfool (Todd Warren), I’mnotalocaldude (Kyle Husted), Shady Maple Spirit (Randall Finn), Fistfullofdollars (Cordarius Stewart) and his stablemate Salute The Hero (Ridge Warren).


Plum Peachy Perfect:  Hart’s Heart ($3.80) made it three straight wins last night in the $15,000 Plum Peachy stake series for ICF the-year-old filly pacers.


Dropped back at the start by her driver Kyle Wilfong to sixth in a seven-horse field, the Mike Brink trained pacer made a big move at the quarter mile pole, making up seven lengths to take over the lead and going on to be one length better than runner-up Princess Mooss (Ridge Warren).


Hart’s Heart covered the mile in 1:55.2 for Illinois owners, and breeders, Donna Crebs and Judy Conzo.


Wilfong Shines: Later Saturday night Wilfong was back in the winner’s circle with Rock It Out ($11.8) after the Donna Holt trained four-year-old mare captured the $10,000 Open II for fillies and mares.


The Kentucky owned Rock It Out held off a furious late rally from Tempus Seelster (Atlee Bender) for her fourth season win in nine starts. The 1:51.2 mile was a new lifetime mark for Rock It Out.


Wilfong bagged five winners on the eleventh race program.



Looking Peachy Keen for Hart’s Heart

By Mike Paradise


The adage “What a Difference a Year Makes” sometimes applies to racehorses and that’s certainly the case of the filly Hart’s Heart, the heavy favorite in tonight’s third leg of the $15,000 Plum Peachy stake.


A little more than a year ago the Mike Brink trained home bred made her two-year-old debut in a low-end conditioned pace at Hawthorne while the top-level ICF freshman pacing fillies had already competed in two legs of the Incredible Tillie Night of Champions series and the Violet state-bred stakes.


A season later Hart’s Heart has risen to the top of the Plum Peachy stake series with back-to-back series wins and the morning line even-money choice is expected to pad her bankroll for her Illinois owners and breeders Donna Crebs (Cantrall) and Judy Conzo (Lincoln).


Hart’s Heart did get a chance last year to race against the best of her state bred class in the Springfield final and the DuQuoin showdown, both held at Hawthorne because of the Covid-19 lockdown, and she came away with both championships.


Hart’s Heart (Kyle Wilfong), winner of the first two legs of the Plum Peachy ICF stake for three-year-old pacing filles, and Scorecard Dandy (Juan Franco) will go at it again in Saturday’s Hawthorne headliner. (Four Footed Fotos)

Hart’s Heart, a daughter of Major Bombay, has earned a purse check in all four of her season starts, however she did finished second to Scorecard Dandy (pp 4, Juan Franco) in their Violet confrontation, reversing the Gregory Kain trained filly’s bridesmaid finishes to her rival in the first two rounds of the Plum Peachy.


Princess Mooss (Ridge Warren) was third best in both earlier Night of Champion stake series and she drew nicely in tonight’s $15,000 headliner with the pole position.


Hoping to pull off a surprise victory in tonight’s third Plum Peachy leg are Clearly The Bomb (Kyle Husted), Bootsy Bombay (Travis Seekman), Kandi’s Fortune (Freddie Patton Jr), who won her last five races on the Illinois County Fair Circuit, and Asah Da Pacea (Todd Warren).


No “Maggie” Tonight: After three consecutive weeks of racing, all first-place finishes in Hawthorne’s filly and mare Open Pace, the mare Maggie Rhee was due for a week off. As it turned out the talented Todd Warren trained pacer got one whether her conditioner or owners wanted it because she was written out of tonight’s $10,000 Open II.


The ninth race co-feature carries a $10,000 purse, $2,000 less than the Open I, and not eligible are fillies or mares with two or more Open wins since July 1st.


So, with Maggie Rhee getting some R & R in her stall, ten other solid distaffers are going postward in a “take-your-pick” event with no clear favorite. It’s Hawthorne’s version of  “sharing the wealth”, and there are those who say, in this case, it’s not a bad thing.


After all, Maggie Rhee has hauled in $45,000 in nine Hawthorne starts, while none of her rivals are close to earning that kind of dough. There was a stretch of three local Opens from May 22nd to June 12th where “Maggie” finished second to either Rock It Out or U’ll Learn, who were allotted the nine and ten posts tonight.


The Open II was drawn by groups. The one and two posts went to Dirtylittlelies (Cordarius Stewart) and Cassie Marie’s T T (Ridge Warren).


Three to six were also drawn and they’ll be manned by Allbeastnobeauty (Todd Warren), Look Kimbo (Juan Franco), Fox Valley Exploit (Kyle Husted, the 7-2 morning line choice), and Lilly Von Shtupp (Casey Leonard), respectively.


Tempus Seelster (Atlee Bender) and Primo Extremo (Matt Avenatti) obtained the seven and eight slots, in that order.


Rock It Out, a two-time Hawthorne Open winner in May, and U’ll Learn (Travis Seekman), second best last weekend when she lacked late racing room, round out the very competitive field.


Lots of dough on the Line: There’s a mandatory payout on tonight’s twelfth race (20 cent) Jackpot High Five wager. The carryover has grown to a pool of almost $200,000 and is expected to reach $500,000 tonight.


It’s a well-balanced field in tonight’s finale since it’s strictly for pacers without a victory this year and winners of over $450 per start in 2021 are not eligible, so the track record is not in jeopardy.


Let the guessing game begin.


It’s Party Time: Todd Warren gave Partyatmosasplace ($5.20) a ground saving inside trip and the three-year-old gelding took advantage of it and came on to win a narrow head victory in the third leg of the Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial ICF stake series.


Ryans Loan Shark (Travis Seekman), almost 10 lengths off the lead at the three-quarter pole, put on a furious late rally to finish second for trainer Jim Molitor in the $15,000 Night of Champions event.


Partyatmosaplace’s Terry Leonard stable-mate Ideal Big Guy (Casey Leonard) sprinted out from the outside seven-slot to grab a quick lead and Bombay Bobby (Kyle Wilfong) did the same from the three-post. The pair were raced one-two through a 56.4 first half while Warren had Partyatmosasplace (pp 1) in third.


Todd pulled Partyatmosasplace out coming out of the last turn, swept past the early leaders, and then had to go all out with the Watson Stable homebred to hold off Ryans Loan Shark. Ideal Big Guy held on for third.


Partyatmosasplace had gone winless in her first eight starts of her sophomore season but now has back-to-back victories for Illinois owners Watson Stable (Fairfield). Peter Kouchis (Palos Park) and trainer Terry Leonard (Harvard).












Next Up: Round Three of the Carey Series

By Mike Paradise


Leg three of the Night of Champions series for ICF sophomores will have the public’s attention this weekend and it begins with Friday evening’s Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial stake event.


Looking at the Carey’s current standings, Bombay Bobby is leading with 75 points after winning the first leg for ICF colt and geldings pacers, worth 50 points and his second-place finish in round two, netting the Major Bombay three-year-old another 25 points.



Ideal Big Guy (Casey Leonard) looks to follow his second leg victory in the Robert F. Carey Jr Memorial stake with another in Friday’s third round of the Night of Champions series. (Four Footed Fotos)

The Terry Leonard stable’s Ideal Big Guy rebounded from a third-place finish (12 points) in leg one with a strong winning performance (50 points) in leg two after the pacer was put on the bleeder medication Lasix prior to his Cardinal win in earlier in June.


A victory in tonight’s sixth race $15,000 headliner, up $2,500 in purse money from the first two rounds, would vault Ideal Big Guy, a $19,000 yearling purchase, into the top spot for his Illinois owners Dandy Racing Stable (Glenview), Peter Kouchis (Palos Park), Martin Budkey and trainer Terry Leonard (Harvard).


Ideal Big Guy landed the outside post in tonight’s third round of the Carey but with only seven horses that’s not a big deal. Casey has a few options with the son of Ashlee’s Big Guy including leaving with the pacer.


Bombay Bobby is in good shape with the three slot for trainer Dossie Minor. The Major Bombay gelding has shown when asked, he can scoot well from the gate as well. Bombay Bobby has put over $25,000 on his season card for Springfield, Illinois owner Karla Santos and likely will go over the $50,000 plateau in career earnings tonight.


The Terry Leonard stable also sends out Partyatmosasplace in the Carey and he’ll be catch-driven by Todd Warren when he gets away from the pole position. Look for him to push the early pace and then maybe settle in for a favorable inside trip.


While winless in his freshman campaign Partyatmosasplace did bank over $21,000 last season for Illinois owners Watson Stable of Fairfield, Peter Kouchis of Plainfield, and trainer Terry Leonard of Harvard. The homebred picked up his second victory of 2021 in his last Hawthorne outing,


Looking to pull off an upset are Diamond Diesel (Juan Franco), Prince Of Style (Ridge Warren), Ryans Loan Shark (Travis Seekman) and Sportsmadness (Jordan Patton).


A No-Go: Only four horses, Bobcat Bay, Fox Valley Gemini, He’zzz A Wise Sky and Yankee Bounty, were entered for Friday’s $12,000 Open, so we’ll have to wait another week to see the crème of Hawthorne’s pacers in action.


Driver’s Update:  Casey Leonard’s 20.2 per cent winning clip has him on the top of the current driver standings with 69 winners. Kyle Wilfong is in striking range with 56.


Then there are four drivers close to each other: Kyle Husted with 38, Atlee Bender and Ridge Warren each with 35, and Todd Warren at 34.


More in Store: The third leg of the Plum Peachy stake series for state-bred sophomore pacing fillies will head up Saturday’s card while both Night of Champion “Dygert’s” for ICF trotters of both sexes will be the features on Sunday evening.