By Mike Paradise
Hawthorne’s perennial leading driver Casey Leonard was the star of the 2021 Night of Champions, bringing home four winning horses on Illinois’ premier evening of harness racing.
It was also another memorable gala night for Flacco Family Farms, the breeder of a quartet of Night of Champion winners—Funky Wiggle, Ryans Loan Shark, Rndmnunpredictable and Lousdobb.
Here’s how it all folded on Saturday night.
Count On It: When the money is on the line, count on the gritty Fox Valley Gemini to arrive in time. Yea, I just made that goodie up, but it’s certainly has been true when Hawthorne’s Night of Champion rolls around.
Driver Casey Leonard gave the ICF six-year-old pacer a perfect two-hole trip behind the 3-5 favorite He’zzz A Wise Sky (Kyle Wilfong) and when Casey pulled the ear plugs in the lane on the star of the Terry Leonard stable, the popular state-bred pacer uncorked a strong move to notch the $84,000 Robert S. Molero Memorial championship for the third consecutive year.
Saturday night’s game victory was the fifth straight on the Night of Champions for Fox Valley Gemini. The Jim Ballinger owned pacer also won as a two-year-old in the Incredible Finale final in 2017 and the 2018 Robert F. Carey championship at three.
As expected He’zzz A Wise Guy cut all the fractions, going to a 27.2 first quarter, a 55 flat half and zipping past the three-quarter pole in 1:22.1 with Fox Valley Gemini ($5.00) right behind him, maybe licking his chops.
“Gemini” 45th career victory, by 2 and 1/2 lengths, came in 1:50 flat for his Atwater, Illinois owner and lifted the son of Yankee Skyscraper’s lifetime earnings to over $580,000. Fox Valley Ren (Juan Franco) finished full of pace to edge He’zzz A Wise Sky for the second place money.
In Record Time: The Curt Grummel stable’s Funky Wiggle not only blew away the competition in the $120,5000 Fox Valley Flan Final but she did it in track record time for a 2-year-old trotting filly with her 1:57.2 clocking.
Driver Kyle Wilfong hustled the Lou’s Legacy progeny out from the six-slot, won the early battle for the lead, and it turned out, secured the ICF championship as well after trotting leisurely fractions of 29.4 and 59 flat to the half.
Armbro Lark (Charles Arthur) raced in third much of the way and came at Funky Wiggle in the stretch, however the $3.00 winner had plenty left, pulling away by three lengths at the end of the mile for her owner and breeder Dr. Patrick Graham of Pittsfield, Illinois.
Digging In: A determined Ryans Loan Shark, nicely handled by driver Travis Seekman, got his neck in front at the finish wire ahead of the pacesetting 1-2 favorite Ideal Big Guy (Case Leonard) and captured the $79,000 Robert F. Carey Memorial Final for trainer Jim Molitor.
There was no doubt Saturday’s much better draw to the pole position, unlike the 9-hole in last week’s leg four of the series, was a huge plus for the son of the sire Ryan N Hanover.
Seekman urged the 3-year-old state-bred pacer out at the start, as did Casey with Ideal Big Guy (pp 7,) and likewise Ridge Warren with his Terry Leonard stablemate Partyatmosasplace (pp 8).
Ideal Big Guy paced the first panel in 28.3 and with Seekman closing the gap between his horse and the leader, Partyatmosasplace was hung out on the backside and started to retreat before the half (57 flat).
In the last sixteenth of the mile, it appeared Ideal Big Guy was going to hold on nevertheless Ryans Loan Shark and Seekman had another outcome in mind.
The 1:56.2 victory in the ICF sophomore male showdown was the fourth of the season for Ryans Big Guy and his Illinois owners Flacco Family Farms (Alexis), Dave Falzone, and conditioner Jim Molitor, both of Chicago.
Picking His Spots: The 31-year-old Michigan native Travis Seekman drove his second consecutive Night of Champs winner when Talk About Valor turned the tables on last week’s Plesac elimination victor Annas Luck Star.
The Gerald Hansen trained six-year-old gelding received a pocket trip, just as he did eight nights earlier when he was second best to Annas Lucky Star, but this time he proved faster in the lane than his ICF rival, winning by about one length in 1:55.3 owner Shelley Steele.
Health issues kept Talk About Valor out of the 2020 Please championship and the gelding’s horses were spaced out this year in hopes of having the full brother to the 2017 Erwin F. Dygert champion Picky Picky Valor ready this time around.
Talk About Valor concluded his racing season with six wins in nine starts with over $70,000 in money won for his Monee, Illinois owner.
When It Counts: The three-year-old filly trotter Breeze At Sunset is a prime example of the old adage “It’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish.”
The Southwind Breeze filly went unplaced in her first four outings of her sophomore campaign and then proceeded to win 8 of her last 10 starts, including Saturday’s $68,500 Beulah Dygert Memorial for Illinois bred filly trotters with regular driver Atlee Bender at her lines.
The Erv Miller trained filly shot out from the outside seven-slot as did BC’s Rose (pp 1, Kyle Wilfong) and Loulita (pp 3). Bender had to take the three-hole as Loulita had command and trotted to a 59.2 half with BC’s Rose right behind her.
Loulita started to shorten her stride in the late going and BC’s Rose went past her, however Breeze At Sunset poured it on in the late going for a 2 and 1/2 length victory in 1:58 flat.
Breeze At Sunset is owned by Bowie Racing LLC (Douglas Overhiser) of Shorewood, Illinois.
Easy Does It: The $97,500 Erwin F. Dygert Memorial Championship figured to be a close contest just as last week’s series legs and both State Fair championships were . . . nonetheless it didn’t turn out that way.
The Flacco Family Farms owned Rndmnunpredictable and driver Casey Leonard were all by themselves at the end of the 1:59.2 mile, winning by almost nine lengths.
The Steve Searle trained winner saw his chief rivals Coco D’Lascito and Sunbodygetdisfool take turns with the lead through the first half (58.3) of the three-year-old trotting stake for colts and geldings.
Meanwhile Casey Leonard bided his time in the early going and had a horse full of trot for the last half of the mile, rolling past in what became a cakewalk for the son of Lou’s Legacy.
Longshots Loyz Say When (Marcus Miller) and Shady Maple Spirit (Juan Franco) finished a non-threatening second and third, respectively.
It’s Another Lou Lou: It was another patience drive by Casey Leonard that produced the first double-digit winner on the program when he guided the 10-1 longshot Lousdobb ($23.40) to the two-year-old gelding’s triumph in the $114,000 Kadabra championship.
It was the second consecutive Night of Champions winner for the Illinois trio of driver Casey Leonard (Harvard), trainer Steve Searle (Grant Park) and breeders Flacco Family Farms (Alexis).
Lou’s Di Nominte (Kyle Wilfong) had command through most of the race with the betting favorite Fox Valley Cairo (Ridge Warren) right behind him while Casey was content to have Lousdobb) racing in sixth, some nine lengths off the pace.
Fox Valley Cairo collared Lou’s Di Nomite by mid-stretch while Lousdobb was gobbling up the ground. Another Lou’s Legacy offspring, Lousdobb powered past with a new career mark of 1:58.4 for owners Flacco Family Farms and All-Wright Racing LLC of Morton, Illinois.
Lou’s Di Nomite finished second and Romantic Warrior (Gary Rath) came on for third.
Doing It the Hard Way: Despite a grueling wide mile and having to race three-wide in the last turn the Gary Rath stable’s Fox Valley Ozzy got the job done in the $138,000 Incredible Finale championship for freshman pacing colts and geldings.
The World Of Rocknroll gelding was Casey Lenard’s fourth Night of Champions winner on the card. Fox Valley Ozzy covered the mile in 1:54 flat and worn down the early leaders Get E Up (Kyle Husted) and Kingofmyheart (Marcus), who finished third and second, in that order.
It looked like a cavalry charge in the early going with several horses sprinting out and from the eight slot Fox Valley Ozzy found himself parked out from the get-go. Nevertheless “Ozzy” persevered for his eighth victory in 10 season starts for Marengo, Illinois owners Stephan Mc Mackin and David Lee Samuelson.
Sweet Victory: Trainer Jim Molitor made a return visit to the winner’s circle when his 2-year-old filly pacer Apple Valley took the Incredible Tillie championship in 1:55.1 by one and one-half lengths.
Driver Kyle Wilfong dropped the Major Bombay filly into sixth in the early going as Fox Valley Captiva (Marcus Miller) and Dandy’s MBM (Kyle Husted) took turns on the front end.
Wilfong moved the $3.40 winner out of sixth on the backside and Apple Valley took air from that point on and still made a strong surge inside the sixteenth pole for her fourth win in seven first season starts for owner Michael Perrin of Glenwood, Illinois.
Bombs Away: The biggest upset of the evening came when Bootsy Bombay, driven by Kyle Husted, popped at almost 12-1 odds in the $76,000 Plum Peachy final for sophomore pacing fillies.
It was the first win of the year for the Nick Prather trainee who was almost five lengths the best for Peoria, Illinois owner James Greer. Bootsy Bombay was also the Night of Champions victor as a 2-year-old.
Bootsy Bombay ($25.40) was parked past the first quarter pole (28.3) before Husted was able to drop the Major Bombay filly into third. Kyle was able to squeeze his filly out in the last turn and once the field straightened out, Bootsy Bombay rolled past with authority.
The overwhelming favorite Hart’s Heart (Kyle Wilfong) was the bridesmaid on this night while Clearly The Bomb (Travis Seekman) took third.
Clearly the Best: Kyle Husted’s Fox Valley Exploit continued her dominance against other ICF fillies or mares by drawing off to a five-length romp in the $66,000 Tony Maurello Memorial championship.
The 1:53.1 mile gave the four-year-old Sportsmaster mare her third consecutive win on the Night of Champions, having captured the Incredible Tillie at two and the Plum Peachy at three for Husted and co-owner David Brigham of Litchfield, Michigan.
Fox Valley Exploit grabbed the early lead, gave it up to Allbeastnobeauty (Todd Warren) and then came out of second before the 57.2 half and left her nine rivals in 7he dust for win No. 7 of the year and increased her career bankroll to $292,107.
It’s closing night Sunday for the 2021 Hawthorne meeting. God willing, I’ll be back writing about Illinois harness racing for my 49th consecutive year when the 2022 winter meet begins the first week of January. Until then, stay healthy, and thanks for being a IHHA web-site reader.