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HINSDALE–As Gov. JB Pritzker takes the helm in Illinois, horsemen throughout the state, are urging his administration to include horse racing and its enormous contribution to the agribusiness industry when they explore new avenues to expand gaming.
“With more than $1 billion in contributions to the agribusiness economy of our state, horse racing must be included in any conversations about gaming,” said Tony Somone, Executive Director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA). “Ours is the only segment of the gaming industry that has significant room to grow and provide real and sustainable jobs in agriculture.”
Former Governor Jim Edgar who is a part of Governor Pritzker’s transition team is aware of the economic impact that horse racing can have in Illinois having raced his own horses for many years. “Horse racing and the thousands of jobs it creates remains an important part of the agricultural economy of our state,” former Governor Edgar said. “Ensuring its viability in the overall gaming environment is in the best interests of the state of Illinois.”
Studies show that every race horse employs as many as ten workers across Illinois. From grooms and trainers to breeding farms, grain dealers, veterinarians, track officials and many more, horse racing is a solid job creator that has been badly neglected in Illinois in recent years.
“It is true that horse racing is struggling in Illinois because of casinos, but we know that with additional gaming assistance, other states have seen their horse racing industry rebound to previous heights of employment and business,” said Marty Engel, President of the IHHA. “We earnestly hope that Gov. Pritzker sees fit to include horse racing in any gaming legislation that emerges in the months ahead. We are one segment of gaming that will more than pay its way through the creation of new and sustainable jobs throughout our economy.”
In the last decade, legislation in Illinois has allowed the development of slot machines at taverns and the construction and opening of the 10th casino in Des Plaines. Illinois horsemen have survived despite all of those changes but not without losing thousands of good agribusiness jobs to places like Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and virtually every other horse racing state that has actively worked to grow the sport.
Engel added, “Make no mistake; horsemen will come back to Illinois to race if the prizes or purses are competitive with other states. And they will bring jobs with them. We have seen it happen throughout the country in states that have boosted their purses with money from slot machines. Those states now offer purses much larger than Illinois and their horse racing industries are booming as a result, adding tens of thousands of jobs.”
Yesterday, Governor Pritzker announced that former Senator John Sullivan would be taking over as Director of the Illinois Department. of Agriculture. As many of you know, Senator Sullivan, has been a great friend to horse racing. This will be a terrific addition. We believe he will play a more active role in the day to day operation at Ag. and subsequently, alleviate some of our ongoing issues with timely payments from our State and County Fairs. He should also be able to lend a needed hand in working with horsemen and legislators to assist with our yearly funding issues within the budget. This is a solid choice for all horsemen in Illinois.
For the past 6-8 weeks, we have been in regular contact with the Dept. Of Ag. regarding the payment of our money that we earned at the DuQuoin State Fair. Unfortunately, for a myriad of different reasons and excuses it still hasn’t been released. We will continue to push and pursue this ridiculous situation but it’s safe to say that it will not be processed and sent out this year. We’ll update you as soon as we hear anything relevant.
By Mike Paradise
It’s been four years since National Hall of Famer Dave Magee retired from driving harness horses and made the out-of-the-ordinary-switch and became an associate judge at Indiana’s Hoosier Park.
Does someone with almost 12,000 career dash winners still get the itch to sit in a race bike again?
“Occasionally, but I’m 65 years-old now so reality has set in,” said Magee with a laugh. “I enjoy what I’m doing and have no regrets about making the move. It’s also given me the opportunity to stay in the sport that I love.”
Dave’s last night as a driver came on February 28th of 2015 when he brought home two more winners and ended a four-plus decade career with the most wins (11,869) as an Illinois based horseman.
A few days later Magee began his new job some 240 miles away from his home in Big Rock, Illinois, about an hour and a half drive to Balmoral Park.
“I was offered a state steward position by the Indiana Racing Commission and it came at a time when I was thinking about retiring as a driver. I was 61 and it was beginning to be a challenge to go out there on a regular basis. I was dealing with some pain in my shoulders from my share of racetrack spills
“I was apprehensive about such a major career change at my age and I knew that starting off I would be doing a lot of commuting. That first year as a steward at Hoosier I made the long (four-plus hour) drive back and forth every night we raced. I’ve since relocated my family to Fortville, Indiana. I still live out in the country but I’m only 18 miles away from the race track.”
The classy and well-respected Wisconsin native brings a unique perspective to the steward’s stand.
There isn’t any other harness racing judge with Dave’s impressive driver credentials. Magee was the 1994 Driver of the Year when he topped the nation with 630 winners. He represented his country twice in the World Driving Championships and won it in 1995. He had 38 straight seasons with 100 wins or more and a remarkable 36 consecutive years with more than $1 million in purse earnings. He owns a record 12 Maywood Park driving crowns and 11 at Sportsman’s Park. Magee far and away drove more American National and Super Night champions than anyone else.
In his new Indiana gig Magee has had to combat the stigma by some horsemen that he “went over to the other side.”
“I’ve stressed that we’re all together in the business,” said Dave. “We all want to make our sport the best it can be and instill the public’s confidence to bet on our product.”
While Magee’s vast experience on a racetrack makes him very aware of what’s going on during a race from a driver’s perspective he “tries to be totally objective from the judge’s stand.”
Like so many drivers and trainers before him, it was difficult for Magee to leave Illinois nevertheless it’s obvious it was the right move at the right time for the 2001 National Harness Racing Hall of Fame inductee.
“I’ve watched the steady decline of Illinois harness racing and it has been heart-wrenching. It was frustrating to go through year after year with the failure to pass legislation that would impact our sport in a positive way”
Will our new governor with the other leaders of the General Assembly at long last get a much-needed gaming bill passed—and signed—and enable the Illinois horse racing industry its opportunity to get off life-support?
We can only hope so. Stay tuned.
With no 2019 winter harness meeting this year at Hawthorne I’ll be taking some time off. My stories on the IHHA web site will return the last week of April. Have a happy and healthy New Year.
Here’s wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the IHHA. May 2019 be a bountiful year.
By Mike Paradise
Covering Illinois harness racing through five decades I’ve been privileged to watch the cream of the crop of ICF pacers and trotters grace our state’s racetracks.
Every era has produced its own illustrious state-bred champions. Here are my choices of the best ICF harness horse in each decade starting back in the 70’s.
Taurus Bomber: The decade the 1970’s
Owned, trained and driven by Connel Willis, this son of Adios Bomber was a fixture every summer in the 70’s at Sportsman’s Park. Week after week he took on some of the best open company pacers on the grounds.
From the age of four through seven Taurus Bomber won 38 races in 95 starts, usually in Invites, Jr. Free For Alls, and some older ICF stakes, while banking over $334,000.
As an aged horse Taurus Bomber owned victories over such elite Chicago-circuit pacers as Smashing Don, Goose Filter, Pacing Boy, Pretty Direct, Thorpe Messenger, Title Holder, Jim King and Robbie Dancer. While Taurus Bomber’s wins and earnings as a 2 and 3-year-old are not available on the USTA’S Pathway system he did visit the winner’s circle many times as a youngster.
His most memorable triumph came in 1974 as a 3-year-old in the $44,500 Pete Langley Memorial Final at Sportsman’s when he came from eleventh at the half and swept past the field. In 1976 his1:57.3 mile was the fastest that summer by an ICF pacer.
Taurus Bomber was inducted into the Illinois Harness Racing Fall of Fame in 1982.
Incredible Finale: The decade of the 1980’s
The first ICF harness horse to become a millionaire ($1,165,508) and he did it in just four years of racing for trainer and driver Tom Harmer and owners George Steinbrenner and Charles Day. The son of Shadow’s Finale out of the Meadow Skipper broodmare Queen Margie was bred by Bob Gangloff of Logansport, Indiana.
In 1985 Incredible Finale became the fastest ICF 2-year-old in history with a 1:55.3 mile at Sportsman’s. As a freshman he captured 11 of 18 starts, including the Cardinal Final.
It was as a 3-year-old in 1986 that Incredible Finale showed he can race with the best sophomore pacers in the country when he won both the $425,500 American National at Balmoral Park and Maywood Park’s Windy City Pace, the first ICF pacer to do so. He raked in $707,444 that year, winning 15 races in 28 trips postward and setting a new track record at Maywood with a 1:53.3 mile.
Incredible Finale earned another $170,386 at the age of four when he took his lifetime mark of 1:53.2 at Sportsman’s and went 6-for 25 in his final year of racing in 1988.
He was then sold to Fox Valley Standardbreds and became one of the most successful studs in Illinois history. His offspring include such ICF champions as Mini Me (1:49), Incredible Tillie (1:49.2) and Fox Valley Memory (1:51.1). A dozen of his sons or daughters went on to become Super Night champions.
Incredible Finale entered the Illinois Harness Hall of Fame in 1991.
Big Tom: The decade of the 1990’s
He’ll go down in history as one of the all-time best ICF pacers. Owned by Illinoisans and John Leahy, Tom Lewandowski and trainer Joe Anderson, Big Tom won more than half of his lifetime starts (44 for 82) and hauled in $1,539,630 in five racing seasons with $1.48 million of that total coming in a four year span (1997 through 2000).
Big Tom was the first horse to win three Super Night championships in a row, taking the Orange and Blue 2-year-old colt crown at Sportsman’s, the Pete Langley Memorial at three at Balmoral and the Dan Patch as a four-year-old, also at Balmoral.
As a freshman Big Tom won 11 of 15 starts with “Little Joe” at his lines and at one time rattled off seven wins in a row and ended his first season with, $372,427 in purse earnings. At three he added another $194,386 to his card in just 13 starts, finishing first in six of them.
In 1999 he was almost unbeatable as a 4-year-old. Big Tom won 19 of his 23 starts and was disqualified from two other first place finishes at Maywood Park. At one time the very talented pacer strung together 10 consecutive triumphs including the $200,000 American National championship, easily defeating the 6-5 favorite Red Bow Tie.
As a 5-year-old Big Tom went on the road, competing at the Lloyd Arnold Series at Los Alamitos (3rd), the Isle of Capri at Pompano (2nd), in prestigious Classic races at Dover (3rd), Freehold (2nd), and others at the Meadowlands where John Campbell drove him to $275,000 Classic Final title.
In the year 2000 a robust $527,225 in money won was added Big Tom’s purse earnings. Three years later he was inducted into the Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Plesac: First decade of the 2000’s
One word can describe this ICF trotter: Dominating.
The home bred was simply too good for other state-bred trotters and no race showed it more than on Super Night 2000 with regular driver Tim Curran in the Su Mac Lad 3-year-old stake as Plesac drew off by19 and one-half lengths, one of his 11 victories that year for owners Wendy and Richard Balog of St. Charles, Illinois..
Sired by Armbro Charger, Plesac was out of the Balog’s broodmare Astute Yankee and named after their good friend Dan Plesac, the now MLB Network sports analyst who appeared in over 1,0000 games as a relief pitcher on the major leagues. The one-time Valparaiso resident also was a part-time harness trainer in Illinois.
At two Plesac was victorious in 8 of 13 trips postward, including his last seven with triumphs in the Lincoln Land, the Cardinal and the Sarah Myers. He was second behind Dreamaster in the American National final.
In 2000 Plesac was a well-traveled horse. His Cardinal win at Balmoral in May was followed by a second place finish in the Connors at Hazel Park, a Classic conquest at Woodbine, an unsuccessful trip to the Meadowlands before at sweep at Springfield and a fourth place finish in the $550,000 World Trotting Derby at Du Quoin. After his Super Night romp Plesac competed in the Kentucky Futurity at Lexington and the Breeders Crown at Mohawk, before capping off the year by winning the $215,000 Matron Final at Dover Downs.
Plesac’s $490,000 money won in 2000 was followed by two giant years in purse earnings when he battled the best older trotters in the country in his 4 and 5 year old campaigns. He secured over $800,000 in both 2001 and 2002. In fact in a three year period (2000 through 2002) he made over $2.2 million.
Plesac’s last year as a racehorse was in 2003when he took his career mark of 1:52 3 with Mike Lachance in a $50,000 Su Mac Lad stake elimination at the Meadowlands.
Plesac’s $2,501,759 lifetime earnings remain a record for an ICF harness horse. He became a member of the Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2003 soon after his 5-year-old season.
Well To Do Guru: Second Decade of the 2000’s
Owned and bred by James and Marilyn Gorman of Schaumburg, Illinois, he was one of those rare horses who just got better as he got older with his best seasons coming in his final years of racing at the age of seven and eight for the Terry Leonard Stable.
As a freshman the Richess Hanover gelding out of the Gorman’s mare Guru’s Girl competed only three times, never hit the board and made just $320 in 2006. At three the made three trips to a winner’s circle and put $28,851 on his card.
Well To Do Guru blossomed as a 4-year-old with Casey Leonard at his lines, lowering his mark to 1:51.1 and making over $76,000. Then he just kept getting better and better. From 2008 through 2012 the pacer earned just a shade under $600,000 while winning 34 races in those four seasons and he never started more than 28 times in a year.
Well To Do Guru was named the 2011 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year after a 13-win campaign that included a sweep of Maywood Park Pacing Series with victories in the Cook County, Egyptian and Cook Country stakes. Well To Do Guru pulled in $217,354 as a 7-year-old and had a winning 1:49.3 mile for the second straight season.
At eight, Well To Du Guru chalked up nine more victories, three in Balmoral Park Invites and the other six in ICF stake races that incorporated another sweep of the Maywood Park Pacing Series. The pacer added another $175,000-plus in season earnings.
Well To Du Guru was retired from racing after one start in 2013 with a career bankroll of $726,358. The gutsy pacer finished third or better in 98 of his 148 lifetime starts winning 41 times.
By Mike Paradise
How knowledgeable are you on the history of Illinois harness racing? We’ve put together 10 questions to test just how proficient you are. It’s a multiple choice test to help you along.
You can scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the correct answers.
1. Which of these ICF star pacers never won a Super Night Championship at Balmral Park?
a. Well To Do Guru
c. Al’s Hammered
d. Taser Gun
2. Hawthorne’s first harness racing meet was in:
3. What driver was the first in Sportsman’s Park history to win with six horses on a single program and he did in twice in the same season?
a. Bob Farrington
b. Dave Magee
c. Tony Morgan
d. Ron Marsh
4. The final Super Night at Balmoral Park was held in 2015. Which horse won the last ICF championship raced that night?
a. Ice Scraper
b. Dinky Dune
c. Dan D Dune
d. Wondrous Sport
5. The first ICF harness horse to earn over $1 million in a racing career was:
a. Incredible Finale
c. Big Tom
d. Bye Bye Byrd
6. The record for the most purse money earned by an ICF trotter in a racing career belongs to which horse?
a. Million Dollar Bye
b. Su Mac Lad
8. Which horse paced the fastest mile at Sportsman’s Park in its long 48 year history of harness racing?
a. New Bucks
b. Staying Together
c. Odds Against
d. Cam Fella
9. Three horses won championships on the last Super Night (1997) held at Sportsman’s Park and another on the first Super Night raced at Balmoral Park (1998). Two were Big Tom and Ohyouprettything. The other was:
a. Fox Valley Memory
b. Broadway Preview
c. Shady Veil
d. Million Dollar Bye
10. Balmoral Park owns the Illinois record mutuel handle on a single harness racing program. It was:
a. $2.6 million plus
b. $2.7 million plus
c. $2.8 million plus
d. $2.9 million plus
Harness Quiz Answers
1. (a) Well To Do Guru
2. (b) 1970
3. (d) Ron Marsh in 1990.
4. (c) Dan D Dune in the Orange and Blue Colt Final
5. (a) Incredible Finale
6. (c) Plesac
7. (a) True. The Bob Farrington trained Missile Renvaeh won it in 1994 with Lavern Hostetler (Pictured) when the 3-year-old stake wasn’t restricted to ICF colts and geldings.
8. (a) New Bucks (Tony Morgan) 1:50 flat in 1995
9. (c) Shady Veil
10. (d) $2.9 million plus on Super Night 2000. Altogether, including wagers on out-of-state tracks made at Balmoral), the $3,777,549 wagered on September 16, 2000, was the highest handle ever bet at an Illinois track.