By Mike Paradise
The 2018 Hawthorne winter meet driver’s colony got a lot stronger after the entries were drawn for tomorrow (Friday’s) opening card at the Stickney, Illinois facility.
Three of the top five leading drivers at Hoosier Park, (No. 2) Sam Widger, (No. 4) Todd Warren and (No. 5 Brandon Bates) will spend the next six weeks knocking heads vying for drives, and wins, with the local driver contingent headed up by Hawthorne’s top three dash winners from last summer, Casey Leonard, Mike Oosting and Kyle Wilfong, in that order,
The new face coming in from Indiana is Brandon Bates who had a breakout season in 2017 with career best numbers in winning drives and money won—and both by a huge margin.
Bates, a 42-year-old native of Van Wert, Ohio had 156 winners last year, more than twice his previous best for a single season and all came at Hoosier Park. His money won total of $1,604,975 was almost a million dollars more than in 2016, his previous best season.
Bates, who makes his home in Monroe, Indiana, also had 16 winners as a trainer.
Widger hasn’t missed a winter meet in Chicago since he began driving on a regular basis back in 1987. Sammy has his sights set this year on reaching the 6,000 plateau in winning drives. He goes into the Hawthorne meet with 5,922 dash winners and over $40 million in money won.
The soft-spoken former IHHA Director was the leading driver at Maywood Park back in 2008 and comes off a 2017 campaign of 350 winning drives and did it by winning at almost a 20 per cent clip at a very tough Hoosier meet.
Horses Sammy drove pulled own $3.5-plus million, a personal high for the Canton, Illinois native.
Widger still resides in Beecher, Illinois, a short drive to the now defunct Balmoral Park and makes the three-horse plus trip to Anderson, Indiana, the site of Hoosier Park, most summer nights.
Warren was a fixture over the last two decades on the Chicago circuit before relocating to Indiana last summer. The move has turned out to be a financial success for the Maywood, Illinois native with 4,708 career winners.
In his first full-time Hoosier Park meet the 52-year-old Warren had 54 less winning drives than he did in 2016 but his horses made more than $400,000 more in purse money
Todd’s best year in Illinois came in 2008 when he posted 342 winners, a UDRS of .293 and money won total of $2.5 million.
Another new face at the Hawthorne winter meet is Darrell Wright, a 55-year-old Wolverine State native who spent most of last year driving and training at Hoosier Park. Wright captured his 5,000th lifetime driving win in early December at Northville Downs in Michigan.
Open for Friday Feature: A $7,200 Open III Pace will be the headliner of Friday’s opening night program. A field of eight will go postward in the fourth race feature. Also on the agenda are two $7,000 divisions of the winter claiming series for pacers entered with $10,000 price tags. They’ll go as races one and three on the 10-event card.
Distaff Headliner Next: Saturday’s feature will be a $7,200 Open III pace for fillies and mares. The six horse field (listed in post-position order) consists of Mystical Nectar(Kurt Sugg), Savanah Georgia (Mike Oosting), Backwoods Barbie (Brandon Bates), Rockin Katie (Casey Leonard), Boogie On Down (Kyle Wilfong) and Rockin Racer (Jared Finn).
Milestone Nears: Driver Ryan Anderson heads into the Hawthorne meeting just three winners away from 3,000. The now 37-year-old California native was the leading driver at Maywood Park in 2007.