By Mike Paradise
The long eight month absence of harness racing in Illinois finally comes to an end tonight when Hawthorne hosts the first of its 2019 meeting.
The Friday headliner is the $12,000 Open I Pace. It’s a compact but a competitive field of five pacers and maybe it’s only fitting that the 2017 and 2018 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year Fox Valley Gemini makes his 4-year-old debut in it.
The star of the Terry Leonard Stable, owned by Jim Ballinger of Atwater, Illinois, brings a gaudy two-season record of 20 wins in 24 lifetime starts into the second race feature and has never lost a race at Hawthorne
Is Fox Valley Gemini ready for another banner year of racing?
“The way he looks and is acting I think he’s ready for a big year,” said his driver Casey Leonard. “He’s grown up a little and he’s in the best shape of his life.
“I believe the 4-year-old season is the toughest for a horse.
They move up out of their age group and take on older and more experience horses. I think ‘Gemini” will handle it.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to bring him down to Springfield for last Saturday’s races. In the past he hasn’t liked the track there but I’m glad we did. The track grew did a great job of getting the track in good shape and ‘Gemini’ raced well.
Fox Valley Gemini won his first 16 career starts, all at Hawthorne, before finishing second in a State Fair prep race at Springfield and a disappointing fourth in the championship.
The two-time Illinois Harness Horse of the Year bounced back in a big way when he returned to his favorite track, winning three more in a row at Hawthorne in his second season including the $160,000 Robert F. Carey Final on the Night of Champions.
“Gemini” then failed to hit the board in the Circle City and Monument Circle open company 3-year-old stakes at Hoosier Park, his last two starts in 2018.
“His people want to race him in Illinois has much as possible. We’ll just have to see if he gets a lot of opportunities. There’s a Late Closer at Hawthorne that he’s eligible for. I hope it fills enough to get him raced there on a regular basis.
“I went down to Hoosier (Park) recently and brought “Trashy” and Ponda’s Prospect back to our farm (in Harvard, IL) for the Hawthorne meet.”
They’ve been beasts at Hawthorne both will also compete Friday night. “Trashy” (Ridge Warren) has the outside five-slot when he goes head-to-head with his heralded ICF stablemate.
Trashytonguetalker was so good at Hawthorne last year he eventually had to leave town to get raced. The now 7-year-old gelding made a dozen starts on the local scene and was successful in 9 of those outings, mostly in Open I events.
In 2017 the Art’s Chip gelding managed only one win in 14 starts racing in Indiana, Ohio and Canada but it was a much different story competing at Hawthorne where he chalked up seven triumphs in 15 trips to the gate.
The Friday Open headliner was drawn by groups (1) (2-3) (4-5) with Fox Valley Gemini assigned the one slot. Terror Of The Nite (Kyle Husted) and Hawthorne newcomer Skyway Boomer) leave from posts two and three, respectively. The four belongs to Perry Smith’s capable ICF pacer Royale Rose (Travis Seekman) who has been taking on some tough foes in Ohio.
The Leonard Stable’s Ponda’s Prospect found a soft landing spot for his Hawthorne return After a couple of needed outings at Hoosier Park he’ll be a heavy favorite with Casey in tonight’s seventh race for non-winners of $2,000 in their last four starts
The Indiana bred Ponda’s Prospect put up some very strong numbers vying in his home state as a 2 and 3-year-old and hauling in almost $145,000 for his owners Joe Putnam (Pendleton, Indiana, Novi Trot (Glenn Ellyn, Illinois) and Michael Lee (Marshall, Michigan).
Ponda’s Prospect joined the Terry Leonard Stable at the end of last May after going winless in his first nine starts in Indiana and prompted captured his first three Hawthorne starts with Casey. The Shadyshark Hanover gelding made 14 consecutive ventures in Hawthorne Opens winning four times, along with a quartet of seconds and missed only one check.