By Mike Paradise
With the recent passing of Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Famer Mark Fransen our industry lost one of its true good guys at the much-to-early age of 64.
The old idiom “Nice Guys Finish Last” certainly didn’t apply to the Mendota, Illinois native who trained over 700 winners in his home state including ICF Super Night champions Plum Peachy, Ideal Angel, Broadway Preview Buck and Wing, Andy’s Golden Boy and Dreams Made Real.
Only Erv Miller and Joe Anderson had more Super Night trainer champions than Fransen’s nine winners.
In his five decade career as a horseman Mark rose to become a perennial top trainer on the very tough Chicago circuit and at the Springfield and Du Quoin State Fair meetings. At the same time the soft-spoken, well-respected trainer emerged as one of the genuine good guys in Illinois racing.
The IHHA’s Executive Director Tony Somone was spot-on when he said: “I’ve seen plenty of great trainers come through Chicago but what exemplified Mark was that he was more than a great horsemen, he was also a terrific person. He always had a positive attitude, never sour. He was always quick to smile and say hello. I never heard him complain. He could put a positive spin on the most troubling situation. Illinois harness racing has truly lost a special friend.”
Fransen took out his trainer’s license in the 1970s. His career blossomed in the 80s, and it took off in the 1990s with an assist from his good friend Illinois Hall of Fame driver Walter Paisley.
Super Night was inaugurated at Sportsman’s Park in 1989 and one year later the tandem of Fransen and Paisley gave us an unforgettable September evening of racing when they teamed-up to deliver the only time sister and brother pacers that both captured Super Night crowns on the same program.
First Paisley guided Plum Peachy to her $305,843 Orange and Blue Filly Championship, sewing-up 1990 Illinois Horse of the Year honors with a 1:56.2 mile, the third time that summer she broke the Sportsman’s track record for a 2-year-old filly. The Ideal Society filly out of the Nansemond broodmare Delightful Angel ended her freshman season with a perfect 7-for-7 record for Nettle Creek Standardbred Farm of Morris, Illinois.
Later that night Plum Peachy’s 4-year-old full brother Buck and Wing won the $50,000 Dan Patch Final for Nettle Creek Farm and returned Paisley and Fransen to the Sportsman’s Park winner’s circle in front of a crowd of 15,499 who wagered (on-track) $2,333,038 on a nine-race card.
Plum Peachy would notch a second Super Night victory the following year in the Grandma Ann Championship, the last season Sportsman’s was a five-eighth’s oval.
Ideal Angel and Broadway Preview also delivered two Super Night championships for Fransen while Buck and Wing, Skipalong Misty and Broadway Creation were among Mark’s Springfield State Fair champions.
It was Paisley who smoked-out Plum Peachy as a yearling and convinced the Nettle Creek boys (Brent Johnson, Steve Newcom and Don Stevens) to buy the filly ($27,000) at the Illini Yearling Sale and turn over the training duties to Fransen.
“Back then I didn’t like to do a lot of training with 2-year-olds,” said Paisley. ”They take up a lot of your time. I thought Plum Peachy would be a good fit with Fransen. Mark did a great job with her and I knew early-on she could be a special filly.
“Through the years Mark would ask for my opinion on his 2-year-olds after I qualified them or after their first baby race. There were times I had to tell him what he didn’t want to hear but that wasn’t the case with Plum Peachy.
“In her first baby race she had the eight-hole. She raced really well. She came home the last eighth (of a mile) in 13 seconds and did it easily. I told Mark after the race, you got yourself a good one here.”
Paisley proved to be dead-on with his evaluation of the filly. Plum Peachy went on to prove best in 15 of 18 starts as a 2 and 3-year-old, typically ICF stakes, and hauled in $356,082.
Just a couple of years later, Ideal Angel (Dave Magee) another daughter of Ideal Society, burst onto the local scene for Fransen and captured 8 of 9 races as a 3-year-old, ending with a romping eight-length triumph in the $182,000 Grandma Ann championship for owners Michael Dockendorf, Dave Andalman and Steve Zatkin. At the age of four Ideal Angel made it back-to-back Super Night victories by securing the 1994 Ann Vonian final for ICF pacing mares.
Fransen was back in the winner’s circle on Super Night 1997 and again in 1998 at Balmoral Park when Broadway Preview nailed down both times the Dan Patch championships for older ICF pacers for Hunt Harness Horses of Big Rock, Illinois. Broadway Preview would win 54 races for Fransen and bank over $630,000 in 114 lifetime starts, mostly competing in ICF aged stakes and Balmoral Free For All events.
On Super Night 2000, Andy’s Golden Boy (Tony Morgan) was victorious in the $220,000 Pete Langley Memorial for Fransen, who shared ownership of the 3-year-old Cole Muffler colt with Arch S Golden Stakes of Davenport Iowa.
Two years later Morgan drove the Cole Muffler filly Dreams Made Real to her $255,000 Orange and Blue Filly championship for Fransen and his Illinois owners Michael Dockendorf (Chicago) and Nicholas Triantafel (Naperville).
All together Fransen trained horses would earn nearly $7 million dollars and win 732 races in his Hall of Fame career, confirming again that “nice guys don’t always finish last”.
Mike Paradise’s next column will be on Friday April 28. Mike’s handicapped lines and race comments, along with his stories, will be posted here every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the Hawthorne meeting starting on Thursday, May 2.