By Mike Paradise
The trainer’s race for the top spot at the winter’s meet at Hawthorne turned out to be a nip and tuck battle with four barns all within a few winners of each other going into the last few nights.
As it turned out, the No. 1 stable at the meet was decided before Monday’s program even got under way and it went to the self-described “Blue Collar” barn of conditioner Loralee Johnson, her first ever training title.
When Loralee’s pacer Sleazy Joe (Ryan Anderson) won Sunday night’s final race it gave the Elwood, Illinois resident her 18th winner, one more than Tom Simmons and the Springfield based trainer didn’t have any horses going postward on Monday’s card.
Loralee had horses in two Monday races and her 19th meet winner came when the ICF 4-year-old pacer Cuinthepurplerain took the fourth event on the card. Simmons ended up with 17, the Terry Leonard Stable just one behind at 16 and Payton Ode was right there with 15.
Loralee calls her Hawthorne training title “a team effort from just a barn of blue collar workers.”
And, I might add, it was accomplished the old-fashion way with mostly claimers and low and middle-end conditioned horses.
“We don’t have what you might call any of the top horses, just the blue-collar type,” said Loralee. “And we don’t have big owners. Most of the horses in the barn are owned by the people who work on them every day. We all work hard and it paid off at the winter meet. I am amazed that we’ve done so well.
“We’re just blue collar people. My owners are out there working side-by-side with me.”
Loralee was involved with jumpers at an early age and began working with harness horses even before she was a teenager.
“I started out working with Standardbreds when I was about 12 for Walter Paisley in the summers. His place was close by to us. I went on to work for Bill McEnery for 25 years at his (Bell Valley) farm. I learned a lot about horses from his second trainer Richard Valentine. Dick never got mad at a horse and I always had a lot of respect for him.”
“I don’t like being stabled at the race track but I have to do that from time-to-time in the winter. I like being at a farm where I can turn out my horses in a field and let them be horses. I just have a passion for horses.”
Was Loralee keeping a close eye on the Hawthorne trainer standings?
“I wasn’t paying attention until it got down to the wire the last few nights,” she answered. “I realized Monday morning that our barn finished on top when I saw that Tom Simmons didn’t have any horses in on the last card.”
Loralee went out on her own as a trainer in 2014 and had 24 winners. That total jumped by 35 the following year. In 2017 she had 28 horses make stops at a winner’s circle and her stable earned her current high-water mark of over $196,000.
With 19 firsts, 17 seconds and 17 thirds and a winning clip of over 21 per cent at the Hawthorne winter meet, the barn’s horses have brought in over $104,000 for the first two months of the year.
You can expect the stable to be back for Hawthorne’s summer meeting.
“We prefer to race at Hawthorne,” continued Loralee. “We only have a few horses that fit at Hoosier. Most of my horses are bettered suited for Hawthorne. For example, Mobile Big John likes Hoosier but he loves Hawthorne even more.
“I’m excited that our barn came out on top at the winter meet and we’re looking forward to coming back to Hawthorne for the summer.”
Casey Leonard won his fourth consecutive driving title at Hawthorne and this one was close unlike his previous three. The 40-year-old Harvard, Illinois native had 38 victories with a 21.7 per cent winning clip. Sam Widger was only three behind with 35, edging Brandon Bates, who had 34.
Kyle Wilfong (24), Todd Warren (22) and Mike Oosting (21), all bettered 20 dash winners as well.
Mike Paradise’s weekly column will appear every Friday through the end of April. His weekly stories and harness line and comments will resume every live racing night with the opening of Hawthorne’s summer meeting.