A Chat with Trainer Nelson Willis

By Mike Paradise

I picked up the phone the other day to call veteran Illinois based trainer Nelson Willis for an update on his prized ICF horse Fox Valley Ren, the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Two-Year-Old Pacing Colt award.

Before we chatted about Willis’ talented pacer the conversation began on a much more ominous subject.

“Sad times Nelson.”

Trainer Nelson Willis

Trainer Nelson Willis

“Sure is,” replied the 76-year-old Willis. “I’ve gotten into my share of fights over the years. Won some, lost some but I never had to fight something I can’t see. I don’t go out except to the barn, the grocery store in town and the nearby CVS pharmacy,” added the long-time Crete, Illinois resident.

“Same here,” I replied, “I walk our 3-year-old Shih Tzu every day and that gets me out of the house for a short time. I have Stars and Stripes bandanna that my wife made into a mask. Before I leave with it to pick-up a prescription tell me Fox Valley Ren is doing”

“He trained down real well,” Nelson answered. “He’ll be ready to go once they give us the green light to race at Hawthorne,” continued the leading trainer at Balmoral about a half-dozen times, a title he has also has held at Maywood Park and at Hawthorne.

“Fox Valley Ren was an average size horse last year but he’s a big, strong, good-looking colt as a three-year-old. He’s put on a lot of muscle. He’s the real thing.”

Owned by his breeder, Fox Valley Standardbreds, Fox Valley Ren debuted in late June with a fourth place finish in the Cardinal. The son of Sportsmaster proceeded to be first or second in his other nine juvenile starts, winning seven of those outings, and earning almost $80,000 for his Sherman, Illinois owners.

  Fox Valley Ren (Casey Leonard) had a sparkling freshman season for trainer Nelson Willis. (Four Footed Fotos)

Fox Valley Ren (Casey Leonard) had a sparkling freshman season for trainer Nelson Willis. (Four Footed Fotos)

Fox Valley Ren swept Springfield, and took two legs of Hawthorne’s Incredible Finale stake series before his runner-up finish to Hezzz A Wise Sky on the Night of Champions, his final trip postward in 2019.

Fox Valley Ren is out the Ft Apache Hanover broodmare LR Dancing Dream, making him a half-brother to the successful ICF pacer Fox Valley Jazzy (1:52.1), $196,207 who hails from the barn of trainer Dale Kanitz.

Willis has had more than his share of success on Super Night type of events with such champions as Street Dancer, My Boy David, Thesleazyprincess, Annas Lucky Star, Native Hotspur, Char N Marg, Dan D Dune, Riccolo, Thanks You Doc and Fox Valley Halsey, just to point out a couple of handfuls.

You’ll never see one of Willis’ young horses over-raced.

“Two qualifiers and eight starts before Super Night is all a two-year-old needs,” said Nelson. “I don’t want my horses worn out for a Super Night. I want then sharp when we go for the bigger money. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some good owners through the years and I’m always honest with them about their horses. What I tell them they can take to the bank “

The straight-shooting and likeable native of Kentucky has decades of experience and a long list of pacing and trotting stars he’s developed along the way. Nelson has over 1,700 victories in his career as a trainer and horses that he has sent out have won almost $17 million in purse money. Willis has had five seasons where his horses have banked over $1 million and eight years with more than 100 first place finishes.

If you’re bored while live racing at Hawthorne is not available at this time you can get some action by playing the horses through the Hawthorne Club app. It’s the only current source of income for purse generation during this Coronavirus shutdown.

For additional information you can go to Hawthorneracecourse.com.