By Mike Paradise
Without a January harness racing meet in Illinois for the first time in over 60 years just about every former recent Chicago circuit trainer champion is racing horses in Ohio.
More than a dozen Illinois stables shipped horses in December for the Hollywood Gaming Dayton Raceway meeting or had their stock on the grounds at the five-eighths mile facility.
They included past Balmoral Park leading conditioners as Nelson Willis (2012, 2014 and 2015), Perry Smith (both Balmoral and Maywood in 2013) and Bob Phillips (2011). Willis also captured the leading trainer honors at the 2016 summer meet at Hawthorne.
The 2016 Suburban Downs winter meet top trainer Jim Ellison also is competing in Ohio along with such familiar Illinois horsemen as Ronnie Roberts, Alex Adam, Kelly and Merv Chupp, Jim Eaton, Lyle Scurlock, Art Gregory Jr., Tom Graham Jr., Doug Graham, John Price, Larry Finn and Bret Wilfong, a long-time Donovan, Illinois horseman who has relocated the long-time family horse farm to Pendleton, Indiana.
Brett’s son Kyle, Hawthorne’s third leading driver at its summer meet, and Travis Seekman, have been driving in Ohio, along with Matt Krueger of Manteno, Illinois who has been there on a part-time basis.
The Dayton Ohio meet concluded last Friday (December 30).
The Miami Valley Raceway in Lebanon, just north of Cincinnati, has taken over the Standardbred reins in the Buckeye state beginning tonight (Friday January 6) with a five-day-a-week program format through the first week of May. It’s expected to lure most the Illinois horsemen who compete at the Dayton meet.
Winter harness racing in our state goes back to the 1960’s when Illinois law prohibited horse racing in Cook County after the first week of December thru late February. Instead winter Standardbred meetings were conducted in Will County at Balmoral Park, then a half-miler, and in Kane County at Aurora Downs, also a half-miler.
Back then wintertime meetings also operated in southern Illinois at Fairmount Park in Collinsville or at Cahokia Downs in East St. Louis. When the state law was changed Hawthorne secured its inaugural harness racing meet in January of 1970 with double-header programs every Saturday through mid-February.
A Sad Passing: Illinois lost one of its top stallions when Ft. Apache Hanover (1:52.2, $300,887) was euthanized two days before Christmas at the age of 20 due to the infirmities of old age.
Ft. Apache Hanover stood his entire career at the Wilson Farm in Martinsville, Illinois, founded by Dr. Diane Wilson and her late husband Tim and is owned by Dr. Wilson.
A son of Western Hanover, Ft. Apache Hanover produced four pacers that went in 1:50 or faster including the venerable Fort Silky (1:49.3, $809,324). He sired such notable pacers as Native Hotspur, Big Daddy Woo Woo, Delco Willoebee, LR Dancing Dream, Blue Apache, Mahdi, Peine Bubbles and Roy Orbisong.
Unwelcomed Shutout: With the extensive reduction of Illinois harness racing dates in 2016 the final national statistics compiled by the USTA showed NO Illinois driver among the Top 50 in wins for the first time in memory.
Casey Leonard, who stopped driving at the end of the Hawthorne meet in late September, topped the Illinois colony with 240 winners, 80 less than in 2015 when he had 569 more driving opportunities. In 2014 Casey had over 1,400 more drives than he in did last year.
Leonard’s .365 UDRA rating in 2016 did list him 16th best in all of North America for drivers with over 500 mounts.
Mike Paradise’s columns will appear here every Friday until the opening of Hawthorne when it will be expanded.