by Nicolle Neulist
Driver Kyle Wilfong has made a strong start to the 2018 winter meet at Hawthorne. In 51 starts through the first two weeks of the meet, he has 12 wins and another 21 money finishes. That includes a banner day on Sunday, January 12, when he drove home five winners on the ten-race card: Skyway Fireball, Her Royal Hottness, Cuinthepurplerain, Banker Volo, and Maserati Seelster.
It was the first five-win day by any driver at Hawthorne this meet, though not the first big day in the twenty-six-year-old driver’s career. He began driving in amateur races at age sixteen, and began driving professionally after graduating from Donovan High School in 2010. From the perspective of money won, 2017 was his most successful year yet: his drives won $1,160,001 in purse earnings, the most in any year of his career, and his second million-dollar season.
Wilfong hopes to reach another career milestone this year, and may well do it this summer at Hawthorne. “Illinois has been my spot to get my foot in the door,” he said. “I know I’m getting close to 1,000 wins, and I just…if anything, I want to hit the 1,000 mark here.” That mark lies close to him. He entered the third racing week of the Hawthorne meet with 918 career driving victories, including 12 in 51 drives so far this meet.
In addition to driving, Wilfong conditions a small stable of horses at Hawthorne for his father, trainer Brett Wilfong. He drives both horses he trains day in and day out, as well as for other trainers at Hawthorne. When he drives for other trainers, they are good about letting him know how well their horse is coming into the race. However, when he takes to the track with a horse he trains, he brings with him an extra layer of firsthand insight. “You know what type of week that your horses have leading up to the race, how you prepare them…they’re not machines. They have good weeks, and they have bad weeks, and that definitely helps when you can tell that this horse is really improving, I think he’s going to have a really good start, and you can drive accordingly.”
Like many in the sport of harness racing, Wilfong was born into the sport. A fifth-generation participant in the sport, his family has been involved at virtually every level of the game: ownership, training, driving, and breeding. Even as he played center for his high school basketball team, Wilfong still made time for harness racing. He remembered, “As soon as practice was over, as soon as school was over, it was straight to the barn to do whatever needed to be done. I was always happy to do the work…I wanted to work towards being as knowledgeable about horses as I could.” He started driving in amateur harness races at age sixteen, and that experience cemented his decision to pursue the sport as a career.
Even though most of the people he knows in the sport grew up in it, he believes that the sport can captivate anyone with a competitive spirit. “It’s a bug. Once it bites you, you’re hooked. You get caught up in it, and it’s just a sport. Once you find that — hey, this really is something that I enjoy doing, this is great! There’s a chance to compete again, and I feel like that’s what a lot of people this, is just the thrill of victory, the agony in defeat, to just have a chance to compete is probably the best part of it.”
How can people who didn’t grow up in harness racing get close enough to the sport to catch the bug? To Wilfong, social media can play a role in increasing the sport’s profile. “There’s enough people online that we can pass the word along — even one out of a hundred people, one out of a thousand, that’s going to do something to help out. Because they have friends that will soon be coming to the races with them.” From there, he also sees the importance of letting new fans see inside harness racing: to get to know the people and the horses who make the sport what it is, and to learn about ways to join in the sport themselves, such as fractional ownership.
Part of what makes being part of harness racing so rewarding is getting to know the horses. In his lifetime in the sport, who are the horses who come to Kyle Wilfong’s mind as the most memorable he has driven? “One’s Good Design. She won on the Night of Champions here at Hawthorne this summer. She broke the track record that night. The other one was probably my first stakes horse that I really got to drive, and his name was Crankin’ It Up. He turned me into a pretty consistent driver, and got me to where I am today — just, by far, the funnest horse. He could leave the gate so fast, and just, he drove himself. He’s a pacer — we took the hopples off, I got a win with him free-legged. He was just one of the coolest horses I ever got to deal with.” Wilfong not only found Crankin’ It Up memorable on the track, but also in the barn. “He was just a pet. He loved everything, just was so fun to deal with. I loved taking care of him. I loved everything about him.”