By Mike Paradise
With $1.38 million in purse money on the line for eleven ICF championships Hawthorne’s Night Of Champions and the driver colony boosted by the return to Illinois of former Chicago circuit leading drivers Tony Morgan and Marcus Miller, we are in for a very entertaining and action-packed Saturday of harness racing.
Here’s how I see tonight’s Night of Champions Finals:
The Curt Grummel Stable’s True Detective has won all five career starts when he has stayed on stride but as we have seen from time to time, a flat mile isn’t always in the cards for the freshman.
True Detective likely had last week’s race won if he didn’t made a break coming out of the last turn, but he did.
Speaking of breaks, Crusen Cassi tried to duck the gate and went off stride at the start in the same race and still came a a long way to finish second, so respect his chances here.
And then there’s Illininmike, a 15-1 longshot winner last week who keeps getting better and better. His trainer Mike Brink turns over the lines tonight to Tony Morgan the now 59-year-old driver former Chicago circuit kingpin with over $15,000 career dash winners, and the gelding drew the rail too boot.
Mike’s Pick: True Detective
(Race 3) $135,000 Fox Valley Flan Two-Year-Old Filly Trot
All eyes and a great deal of the Win Pool money will be on the streaking Maui Mama from the barn of Springfield conditioner Mike Brink. She’s rattled off five victories in a row and has tasted defeat only once in in her eight career starts.
Maui Mama drew nicely with the four-slot for regular driver Casey Leonard who probably won’t wait long to have the filly up-close where she could keep her winning streak intact.
The luck of the draw wasn’t kind to the Steve Searle’s Trotting Grace but she has gate speed and probably has little choice to be asked to shoot out and hope to gain early position in decent shape. She was much the best in her elimination last week.
Good Design is the question mark. When she has stayed flat, she’s been right there as her 4-for-9 record shows and over $133,000 in earnings. She also drew lousy with the nine-slot and I don’t think the plan is for her to come from last and try to win this championship.
Mike’s Pick: Maui Mama
(Race 4) $175,000 Incredible Tillie Two-Year-Old Filly Pace
No doubt the draw for posts makes The New Americana the filly too beat. The Steve Searle trainee followed up a disappointing third a couple of weeks ago with a convincing victory in this division’s fourth leg and figures to be out in a hurry with the one-slot.
Fox Valley Jazzy landed the 9-hole in this 10-horse field nevertheless she’s been sharp and has more wins (7) than any other filly in her division.
When you’re going for $175,000 and have a horse with gate speed you can pretty count on a pacer like Fox Valley Jazzy to have her nose on the gate and sprinting away in a hurry when “they’re off.” The first quarter could be the key for Fox Valley Jazzy.
Rollin Coal is a threat to take advantage of a quicker pace in this final than in last week’s elimination. You may also see good late moves from the Gary Rath trained two-some of Shelby Rae and Frontier Cuzin.
Mike’s Pick: The New Americana
(Race 5) $120,000 Beulah Dygert Three-Year-old Filly Trot
Another victory tonight and you could make a effective case for Danny Graham’s filly Anna’s Lucky Star to come away with the title as the No. 1 harness horse in Illinois for 2017.
She certainly has dominated her division for a second straight year.
Anna’s Lucky Star’s stake series win last week was her eighth in 10 season starts and she’s unbeaten in her last seven outings. The filly has lost only twice this year and both came out of her division against some older male trotters in Hawthorne conditioned events.
In fact Anna’s Lucky Star has never lost a race in her ICF divisions. She went 6-for-6 as a 2-year-old and she’s 6-for-6 as a 3-year-old against other state bred fillies.
Lou’s Credit Report with the rail and Daisy Lou Duke, post four, appear to be her biggest menaces tonight.
Mike’s Pick: Anna’s Lucky Star
(Race 6) $115,000 Erwin F. Dygert Three-Year-Old Male Trot
The division leader Louscipher is back in top form and is riding a four race winning streak into the race. He’ll likely be settled in at the start and be on the move somewhere on the backside where he’ll probably have to try and overtake Picky Picky Valor again.
Picky Picky Valor is always right there but hasn’t won a stakes final yet. He’ll use his gate speed tonight and how easily or not he makes the top could determine his fate.
Bands Houdini and Muscle Image have shown at times the ability to come to out on top. Trainer Mike Brink turns over the lines of Muscle Image tonight Tony Morgan.
Mike’s Pick: Louscipher
(Race 7) $60,000 Plesac Three-Year-Old Male Trot
After Tricky Nick’s dominating performance in last week’s Prep for this stake, it’ll take a huge effort by another foe or a miscue by the Richard Perfido 5-year-old trotter to keep him from revisiting the winner’s circle.
The often underrated Ants Iner Pants was second best to Tricky Nick a week ago and she’s one of his major threats again. Fox Valley Veto can get an up-close trip but he’ll have to step it up a notch to take this championship
Mike’s Pick: Tricky Nick
(Race 8) $195,000 Incredible Finale for Two-Year-Old Male Pacers
It’s hard to make an argument against perfection and that’s why a victory by Fox Valley Gemini on the Night of Champions probably earns him the 2017 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year honors for his owner Jim Ballinger.
The Terry Leonard Stable’s Fox Valley Gemini will bring his unbeaten record of eight in a row into this final and it might be a start that the Yankee Skyscraper youngster didn’t make that helps him win this championship.
Fox Valley Gemini made his first career start until June 22, so he missed the first leg of the Incredible Finale. He won all three times in July, sweeping the Cardinal and capturing an Incredible Finale Series leg. In August he won on the 12th at Springfield and came back four days later on the 16th to also notch that State Fair’s $50,000 championship.
The decision was made not to ship Fox Valley Gemini to Du Quoin for the Governor’s Cup two weeks later and instead the horse was rested-up with three important consecutive weekends of ICF stakes coming up in September.
The talented freshman pacer captured the third leg of the Incredible Finale on the 9th, and the fourth leg last Saturday on the 16th. Is he up for the big one tonight on the 23rd?
I think so.
Fox Valley Hijinx is a potent threat. Getting the one-slot is huge for this Kyle Husted trainee. His driver will likely do what he can to protect his post and maybe hope for a possible pocket trip.
Hart To Heart is a late-bloomer with ability. It took a 27 or so second quarter last week for him to swoop to the top and that proved costly for the stretch drive. A different trip makes him a major contender as well.
Mike’s Pick: Fox Valley Gemini
(Race 9) $60,000 Robert S. Molaro Three and Up Pace
There really isn’t a clear-cut favorite in this race.
Evergreen Elite won last week’s prep but he did get a good inside trip and got out at the right time. He might again.
Crankin’ It Up got the action at the betting windows and did race well in defeat. Maybe tonight he can flush out the above and out-close him in the lane.
Mystical Walter has speed and the rail and that’s always a possible winning combination and the Terry Leonard trainee has over $384,000 in lifetime earnings, tops in this 10-horse field.
Then there’s Gibbs. He followed a Sept. 8 clunker with a big effort last week and was finishing the fastest, plus he gets a favorable post change for trainer Jim Eaton.
Mike’s Pick: Crankin’ It Up
(Race 10) $180,000 Robert F. Carey Three-Year-Old Male Pace
You can probably find reasons for about eight different ICF sophomores to come away with the big prize. It most likely will come down to the trip. I’m expecting a fast first half, maybe around 55 seconds and if that’s the case the winner could be doing it in come-from-behind fashion.
A couple of “Fox Valley’s” are the morning line favorites with “Nemitz” listed 3-1 and “Herbie” at 4-1. Both pacers have been best coming from behind. In fact trainer Tom Simmons calls Fox Valley Herbie “his heart attack horse” because of his usual late-charging style of racing.
Springfield champion Captain Rhett is a hard-trying pacer and gets Marcus Miller at his lines for the first time. A well-timed move could see the Jim Horvath trainee get the job done. Then there’s Sporty Redhot who is always in the thick of it and is a serious consideration as well.
I’m taking a shot with Slzburgerslzburger who popped at 20-1 last week, his first start on Lasix. It was a game 1:52 flat mile. Maybe he can follow-up live cover for trainer Matt McKenzie and send his Buffalo Grove, Illinois owner home $90,000 richer.
Mike’s Pick: Slzburgerslzburger
(Race 11) $165,000 Plum Peachy Three-Year-Old Filly Pace
There should be quite a battle in the early part of this stake and then another when they turn for home. On paper, there is a lot of horses who want to be up-close and that includes the 2-1 morning line favorite Lady’s Party.
Lady’s Party got away with a soft 58.3 first half on the front last week. That won’t happen with ten times more money on the line tonight. I don’t expect Casey Leonard to duck her either, coming from ninth or 10th to win this stake isn’t likely in the cards.
Both the first two inside fillies, Boogie On Down (pp 1) and San Antonio Rose (pp 2), have had their success racing up close or on the front end. The same goes for Princess Sage (pp 5) and Lady’s Party (pp 9).
That’s why I’m going with the Kim Hamilton Stable’s Fancy Creek Jolene who has shown she can fly in the lane and may do just that tonight and rally in time.
Mike’s Pick: Fox Valley Jolene
(Race 12) $60,000 Tony Maurello Three and Upward Mare Pace
We close Illinois showcase night of racing with another competitive slugfest and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
The sharp 4-year-old mare Bucklegirl Bobette captured last week’s Prep however she had the rail then and she has the outside nine-slot tonight, so her task is a difficult one.
The 5-2 program choice is Joyful Game from the barn of Kim Roth. She was a luke-warm favorite last week and looked to be in good shape racing second after a slow 59.1 half but came up empty. Tony Morgan is in town to drive her tonight and she’ll benefit from a start over this track
Fox Valley Charm was a non-threat in her prep after a series of previous solid efforts. She is this stake’s defending champ and likely will be used much more aggressively in this final.
Whiskerosonkittens, also a Kim Roth trainee, had another big effort and that’s something she does on a regular basis. She also can show gate speed.
LK’s Nancy Lee was in peak form until last week. Since she’s a first time Lasix user tonight I’m going to assume she bled in that prep so toss out that finish and consider her.
Mike’s Pick: Whiskersonkittens
Good luck and enjoy a terrific night of Illinois racing.