Trainer Terry Leonard Reaches Milestone

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA



Long time Illinois based trainer Terry Leonard achieved his 1,000th win as a trainer at Tuesday’s Spring Preview at Springfield. (Photo courtesy of the Leonard Stable)

In an era where there’s year-long racing elsewhere in the country it’s not that unusual to see a driver reach the four-figure plateau in career dash winners rather quickly.


However, it’s still rare to see a trainer send out 1,000 winners in his or her career, especially in Illinois where the race dates have taken a substantial plunge for more than a decade.


Nevertheless, veteran Illinois circuit trainer Terry Leonard gave himself at belated birthday gift Tuesday—he was 72 last week—at the second Spring Preview at Springfield when his stable’s Illinois bred champion Fox Valley Gemini powered past in the second division of the male aged pace.


It was career triumph No. 55 in 108 starts, mostly in Opens, Invites and ICF stakes, for the eight-year-old Fox Valley Gemini, owned by Jim Ballinger of Aurora, Illinois.


For trainer Terry Leonard it’s been a lengthy but steady climb for the Harvard, Illinois native to reach 1,000 winners, a plateau that just a handful of current Prairie state conditioners have achieved—Tom Simmons, Nelson Willis, Perry Smith and Jim Eaton, are the others.


Terry ventured out on the Illinois circuit as a driver in the mid-1970s, a time when the state had nine racetracks conducting an extended Standardbred pari-mutuel meeting. Nowadays Hawthorne stands alone in the state with an extended meet where you can place a bet on its races.


The upcoming meeting on the State Fair Grounds at Springfield will again be non-wagering so sadly the first opportunity to make a bet on an Illinois harness race this year is September 9th, Hawthorne’s opening night.


The status of horse racing in Illinois has indeed changed since the son of the late Illinois Harness Hall of Fame horseman Bud Leonard began his long road to achieve the milestone of 1,000 winners, and most emphatically not for the better.


One of the strengths of the Leonard stable has been the barn’s consistency. For the last 10 years Terry has established a United States Trainer Rating (USTA) of over .300 with twice going over the .400 mark, in 2018 and 2019.



Three-time Illinois Harness Horse of the Year Fox Valley Gemini fittingly was the horse to give trainer Terry Leonard his 1,000th victory. (Four Footed Fotos)

Terry was the leading trainer at last season’s Hawthorne meeting for the fifth time in the last six years, no small fete. His barn has produced numerous Illinois champions, headed by 2011 Illinois Horse of the Year Well To Do Guru and, of course, the ICF standout Fox Valley Gemini, three times voted the state’s No. 1 Standardbred and who Terry once called: “The best horse I’ve ever had; he’s the horse of a lifetime.”


Three divisions for ICF sophomore filly pacers kicked-off Tuesday’s Spring Preview with South Gate Sally (Jamaica Patton) taking the opener for trainer Mark Walker in 1:55.1, My Daddy’s Revenge (Mike Brink) going wire-to-wire in 1:58 for the Brink stable in the second and Amanda Bombae (Richard S Finn) winning the third split despite a break in the last turn with a 1:59 mile for owner and conditioner Russell Powell.


A trio of 3-year-old colt paces were won by the late rushing Super Taco (Juan Franco) for trainer Dossie Minor in 1:56.3; Fox Valley Cayman (1:58.3), driven by trainer Tom Simmons, and the Simmons Stable’s front-stepping Fox Valley Steeler (Casey Leonard) in a quick time of 1:52.2, the fastest mile in the history of a Springfield Spring Preview event.


In the first of two sophomore filly trots Dawn Of Creation, trained by her driver Mike Brink, breezed in 1:59.2 when Zena Lou (Casey Leonard) went off stride on the lead. Lou Sangreal (Travis Seekman) coasted to her second straight Preview victory (1:59.2) for conditioner Steve Searle in heat two.


Owned and trained by his driver Dennis Gardner, last season’s freshman champion Goomster again showed his heels to his competitors in the first 3-year-old colt trot, drawing off by a widening dozen lengths in 1:56.4.  In the second split Ain’t No Mojo (Wyatt Avenatti) was a repeat winner for trainer Kevin Miller with a career best 1:57.4 mile.


As expected, the Nick Prather trained Skeeter Machine (Travis Seekman) again captured the initial heat for aged pacing mares, this time in 1:55 flat. It was back-to-back wins for Seekman when he guided My Uptown Girl to a 1:58 clocking in the homebred mare’s season debut for trainer Gerald Hansen in the other division.


Arcadia Sportacular (Casey Leonard), from the barn of conditioner Rick Schrock, came on to take the first aged colt division while Fox Valley Gemini (1:55) was much the best in the second.


The aged mare trot saw Carroll Hays’ Reign And Shine (Jamaica Patton) led at every pole with a 1:57.4 mile while the older colt trot went in easy fashion again to Lousdobb (1:58.1), Casey Leonard’s fourth win on the 16-race card.

At Long Last Racing in Illinois

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA


After an eight-month absence, and a two-day postponement because of adverse track conditions, harness racing returned to Illinois on Thursday at the State Fair Grounds in Springfield.


Tuesday’s scheduled card, and a possible follow-up program on Wednesday, had to be scrubbed because of rainy conditions on the dirt track.


Fourteen events went postward in the Spring Preview Thursday, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, with most horses making their 2023 initial start.


A second Spring Preview, also for strictly state breds, ages three and up, will be conducted next Tuesday at Springfield. The Du Quoin fairgrounds will host a Preview card for only two-year old ICF horses on June 3.


Annas Lucky Star (Juan Franco) made her 57th stop at winner’s circle Thursday at Springfield when she breezed in the Spring Preview for aged ICF trotting mares. It was her season debut as a nine-year-old. (Photo by Kandi Herzog)

The racing surface was still drying out Thursday and accordingly was listed as “good” by the stewards when the Terry Leonard Stable’s Keen Cathy (Casey Leonard) came from far out it in her debut to take the first of a trio of 3-year-old pacing filly divisions in 2:01.1 by one length over Incredible Lorean (Travis Seekman)


Last year’s 2-year-old division champion Fox Valley Kia (Phil Knox) led though much of the race but made a break at the top of lane.


Fox Valley Cha Cha (Jamaica Patton) handily won the second split in 1:59 flat for trainer Charles Arthur and despite being parked-out much of the way Dandy’s Showtime (Casey Leonard), from the barn of conditioner Terry Leonard, held off last year’s Incredible Tillie Final runner-up Rona Mae (Jordan Patton) by a whisker in 1:59.3.


The first of three sophomore colt paces went to Kevin Miller Stable’s Foxman (Wyatt Avenatti) comfortably in 1:58 flat. The well regarded three-year-old Fox Valley Cayman (Casey Leonard) from the barn of Tom Simmons breezed in 1:57 flat, and Kage Daniel (Juan Franco), trained by Tom Graham Jr, took the third colt heat in 1:56.2.


Lou Sangreal (Travis Seekman) dominated the first of two filly trots, pulling away to an eight-length triumph (2:01.2) for trainer Steve Searle while the Mike Brink Stable’s Dawn Of Creation (Mike Brink) eked out a nose decision over Zena Lou (Casey Leonard) in the second split that went in 2:01.2.


Driver Wyatt Avenatti was back in the winner’s circle after Aint No Mojo powered past in the sophomore ICF colt trot division in 1:58.2 for conditioner Kevin Miller while last season’s juvenile champ Goomster, driven by his trainer and owner Dennis Garner, left the second division in the dust with almost a nine-length conquest in 1:58.1


The Nick Prather trained Skeeter Machine (Travis Seekman) easily captured the aged state-bred pacing mare event in 1:59.2 and Fox Valley Gemini (Casey Leonard) hardly broke out in a sweat, crushing his field of older male Illinois bred pacers with a 1:56.4 mile.


Annas Lucky Star (Juan Franco) now nine-years-old, started her season off by romping to her 57th career victory in the older mare trot affair. The 2022 Erwin F. Dygert Memorial champion Lousdobb (2:00.2) won for fun (a dozen-plus lengths) in the aged male grouping for trainer Steve Searle, giving Casey Leonard his fifth winning drive of the day.


Elsewhere, other Illinois champions were in action recently and with impressive results.


Fox Valley Landen (inside, Kyle Husted), shown here edging out Fox Valley Cayman (Casey Leonard) in last season’s Cardinal stake, was a 1:51.1 winner in just his second three-year-old start (Four Footed Foto)

Yes, He’zzz Back: Triple ZZZ Stable’s He’zzz A Wise Sky (Kyle Wilfong) motored to a 1:49.2 winning mile last Friday in Hoosier Park’s $16,000 Open 2-3 in his usual front-end style.


Wilfong hustled the six-year-old John Filomeno trained homebred out from the outside seven-hole to a sizzling 26 flat first quarter. After a 27.2 second panel, the former Illinois Harness Horse of the Year coasted to consecutive 28 flat last quarters for his first season win.


He’zzz A Wise Sky’s next opportunity to add to his $533,133 career bankroll is this Friday night when he leaves from the two-slot in a seven-horse handicapped field in the Indiana track’s featured $22,000 Open 1-2 Pace.


Awesome Homecoming: Two-time defending ICF aged pacing mare Fox Valley Exploit (Kyle Husted) found the return to the Husted stable just what she needed to turn her fortunes around.


The six-year-old mare uncorked a wicked 26.1 last quarter and won by more than one-length with a lifetime best 1:51 flat mile in a conditioned pace at Hoosier last weekend for driver Kyle Husted and his wife, trainer Amy Husted.


Fox Valley Exploit made her first seven starts of the season out east, mostly at the Meadowlands, with some success, winning twice and banking almost $16,000 with trainer Noel Daley.


She’ll compete Saturday at Hoosier in a $18,000 Open 2/3 pace, where the mare will tangle with the well-regarded Gregory Kain ICF mare Scorecard Dandy, among others.


Happy Landing: Fox Valley Exploit wasn’t the only Husted stable horse to dazzle recently. Their promising three-year-old gelded pacer Fox Valley Landen powered past an open field of horses earlier last week at Hoosier, stopping the timer with a fast 1:51.1 clocking in just the Somestarsomewhere pacer’s second outing of the season.


Kyle Husted gave Fox Valley Landen a perfect trip and the gelding delivered a 26.1 last panel to propel him to a new lifetime mark for owners David Brigham (Michigan), John Schwartz (Illinois) and Kyle Husted (Illinois)

Covid Nurse Living Her Dream

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA


Good things can eventually come to those who persevere though some rough times. You need not look any further than Julie Collins, the proud owner of last season’s champion Illinois bred two-year-old filly pacer Fox Valley Kia, as a spot-on example.


Growing up as a teenager in Highland, Indiana, about 20 miles from Balmoral Park, Julie would go with her dad to the far south Chicagoland racetrack to watch the horse’s race. As the years went by her love for horses only grew and her hope one day was to have her own horse.


However, as the years rolled by it appeared her fondest wish wasn’t meant to be.


Julie got married, raised four children as a single parent (one who overcame Leukemia), and she became a nurse, and not just any nurse but a traveling Covid nurse through the peak pandemic years.


Julie was in New Orleans when the pandemic was at its deadliest height there. Also, she made work stops in other states at the pinnacle of the lethal virus, sometimes wondering if she would ever come back home. All the while her “horse owning dream” was still in the back of her mind.


When the pandemic finally eased, Julie returned home and got reacquainted with Illinois horseman Phil Knox, who she dated a few years earlier.


Fox Valley Kia (Kyle Wilfong) shows her winning form in last year’s $185,000 Incredible Tillie two-year-old championship at Hawthorne. (Four Footed Foto)

Julie felt she earned enough money to give horse ownership a shot and her boyfriend, and trainer Phil, picked out two yearlings at the 2021 horse sales, each for $7,500—Buck Art, a Pennsylvania bred colt, at the Blood Horse Sale in Ohio, and a week later the same amount at the Walker Standardbred Sale in Sherman, Illinois for the filly Fox Valley Kia.


Buck Art did okay, making almost $12,000 as a freshman while on the other hand Julie hit the jackpot with filly Fox Valley Kia who raked-in $131,052 in her first 13 trips to the gate and came away with the richest prize of her division on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions with a victory in the $185,000 Incredible Tillie final.


“It was thrilling to watch her win the championship,” said Julie. “It was also a little terrifying. I worried about the filly, about Phil, and what would happen in the race.” And she realized there’s “so much money at stake.”


An admitted novice of our sport as a new horse owner, Julie has taken a year’s sabbatical from nursing and has been helping Phil with the horses (she bought two more yearlings last fall. Julie acknowledges she has a ferocious appetite to read “everything she can about harness racing.”


Being a horse owner also gave Julie a fresh perspective of the Standardbred industry. “I never knew there were so many wonderful people that were there for a newcomer like me,” said Julie. “When I became a horse owner all my friends were nurses. Now I also have lots of great horse friends.”


“Tom and Benita Simmons have been especially great,” said Phil. “They’ve helped us so much, always there if we needed something.”


Fox Valley Kia’s road to her first season success didn’t start out auspiciously. The filly was disqualified from second to fourth debuting at the Carrollton Fair with Knox. She did win a modest $1,428 pot in her second outing, and was third best the next time out, both at Springfield.


The first pair-mutuel victory for Fox Valley Kia came in Hawthorne’s summer Incredible Tillie Consolation with her trainer Phil Knox driving. (Four Footed Fotos)

Fox Valley Kia’s first pari-mutuel start came at Hawthorne in late July where she managed a $600 check for Julie with a fifth-place finish. A week later the freshman pacer won at the Urbana fair. The filly started to show she had untapped ability when she prevailed in the Hawthorne $12,000 summer Incredible Tillie Consolation.


Another win at Mt. Sterling had the Somestarsomewhere filly primed for the Illinois State Fair at Springfield where Scott Nance took over as the listed trainer when Knox was serving a suspension by California stewards for a non-serious infraction.


It was at Springfield where “Kia” showed she was indeed a major force in her division. The filly won her Illinois State Colt Fair stake elimination and made it six straight triumphs with a season best 1:51.2 mile in the $30,000 final, both with Cordarius Stewart in the sulky.


A strong second place effort followed in the $50,000 Lt. Governor stake at the Du Quoin State Fair had her ready for a shot at Hawthorne’s $185,000 Night of Champions Incredible Tillie. The talented filly advanced to the championship with a second-place finish in her elimination, this time with Kyle Wilfong at her lines. Kyle took her right to the front in the championship where she led at every pole with a 1:51.4 clocking to the delight of Julie and Phil.


Fox Valley Kia’s first outing as a three-year-old will come on June 7th in the Downstate Classic at Decatur. A week later she’ll race in the three-year-old Violet pace at Springfield.


  Illinois Champ About Ready: Three-time Illinois Harness Horse of the Year Fox Valley Gemini is qualifying today at the Fair Grounds in Springfield for his initial pari-mutuel start as an eight-year-old. The Terry Leonard trained pacer has 53 career wins and earnings just under $697,000 for Atwater, Illinois owner Jim Ballinger.

Q. & A. with Driver Casey Leonard

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA


We had an opportunity to have a chat with multiple Illinois driver champion Casey Leonard on a variety of subjects pertaining to his craft.

Illinois nowadays is down to two tracks for Standardbred racing, Hawthorne, and Springfield. While both are one-mile ovals, they’re quite different in many ways. Hawthorne is a clay and limestone track. Springfield is strictly dirt and it’s more of an oval than Hawthorne with a much shorter stretch (510 feet to Hawthorne’s (1,310) and more sweeping turns.

Q-What’s the biggest difference for a driver between the two tracks?

    A-“We get to the first turn much sooner at Hawthorne and that can effect a driver’s strategy. You can get a horse to a 26 or 27 first quarter at Springfield much easier. If you’re leaving hard from the outside at Hawthorne that takes a toll on a horse. Their first turn is much flatter than Springfield’s. With the stretch less than half as long than Hawthorne’s, Springfield favors horses who race up close.”


Q-You get past performance proofs a couple of days before a racing program. How do you select which horse to drive when you have more than one choice in a race?

  A-“Of course I’ll always take one of the horses from our barn. In the past my next choice was the horse I thought was best in the race but that has changed over the years. I lot of us will go with a trainer that will use us on one of their better stake horses at the meeting.”


Casey Leonard going to the starting gate with Illinois bred champion Fox Valley Gemini. (Four Footed Foto)

Q-Do you handicap a race before you drive in it?

  A-“Absolutely. I’ll look to see how I think the race could play out and where I could be in it. I key on the favorite in a race.”


Q-Do you decide before the start if you’re leaving or not?

   A-“Lots of time I do but that can change going to the gate. For instance, if I see that the favorite has an outside post and it appears he isn’t going out, I may try to leave with my horse to get good early position.”


Q-When do you know if the track favors horses on or close to the front or those coming from out of it?

  A-“Usually after a race or two. Hawthorne’s racing surface has been inconsistent. However, it was better at their last meeting.”


Q-Is it an advantage to be behind a horse in a race that you have driven in the past?

  A-“Yes, especially with older claiming horses. You know what to expect from them.”


Q-Would you agree that classification is the single most important handicapping tool for a horse racing player?

  A-“Definitely. Having a horse at the right level is utmost important. It can be rough for a trainer with a claimer. Sometimes they don’t want to lose a horse and feel they need to put them in tougher than they want.

  “Sometimes, they’re put in a at level where they simply aren’t good enough.  Even in a stake race there are times when a driver knows he’s not behind a “stakes horse” but rather a “stakes-payment horse.”


The 45-year-old Harvard Illinois native comes into the 2023 Illinois racing season with 3,256 career dash winners and over 3,100 of them attained over the last 12 years. Casey won numerous driving titles with the now defunct Maywood Park and Balmoral Park racetracks and was the leading driver for six consecutive years (2016 through 2021) at Hawthorne.

Opportunity Knocked . . .Amy Husted Answered

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA


When Illinois horseman Kyle Husted last year designated his wife Amy as the stable’s listed trainer to give his wife some “recognition” she deserves, no one had any idea it would propel her into the Hawthorne harness racing annals.


“Amy is there at the barn every day training the horses. She does it all and I just help her. While we make decisions together, she is the boss, said Kyle. “That’s why I made the move to list her as the trainer.”


When the Hawthorne meet ended Amy finished on top of the trainer standings in her very first year as the Husted stable’s chief conditioner . . . and made history at the Chicago circuit racetrack.


Research show that the 27-year-old New York State native was the first women to win the trainer title in the 53 years Hawthorne has conducted harness racing.


“Wow, that’s awesome,” said the surprised young lady when informed of her accomplishment.”


It wasn’t until the last evening of the Hawthorne meet the trainer title was decided.


“Nerve-wracking is the best work to describe that night,” said Amy.



Twin Cedar Alstar (Kyle Husted) victory on Hawthorne’s 2022 meet enabled Amy Husted to win the meet’s leading trainer award. (Four Footed Fotos)

Amy and the Midwest division of the Erv Miller stable were tied going into closing night each won a final on the Night of Champions, one day earlier.


Amy’s hopes rode on the barn’s two-year-old ICF trotter Twin Cedars Alstar in the Kadabra Consolation who made breaks in his previous two starts at Hawthorne but earlier in the summer won comfortably at Springfield.


“Twin Cedar Alstar has bad feet,” continued Amy. “He liked the dirt track at Springfield. However, sometimes Hawthorne’s racing surface can be a little hard and he can have trouble with it. Fortunately for us, he handled the track well when Kyle won with him on closing night.”


Amy then had the sweat out two of the races that followed to stay on top of the standings.


“I used to work for Erv so all kind of things were going through my mind that night.”


The Miller stable’s Fox Valley Shania appeared to be a “lock” to compete in the Fox Valley Flan showdown after beating the eventual ICF two-year-old champion trotting filly Marvelous Mystery in both the Springfield and Du Quoin finals, however Shania went off-stride at 1 to 9 odds in her “Flan” elimination, finishing up the track.


Shania was once more a heavy favorite in the Consolation but again couldn’t stay flat for the mile and finished out of the money,


Next up was the Incredible Finale consolation for freshman ICF colt and gelding pacers where Fox Valley Patriot needed a win for Team Miller to tie Amy. Patriot performed well but ended up that night.


Finishing on top was “awesome” for the gal who has been around horses all her life.


Her father is the retired driver/trainer Jimmy Cruise Jr. Her month Robin is a Farrington. Her late uncle Bob Farrington is of Rambling Willie fame and her grandfather on her dad’s side is Jimmy Cruise Sr., both in the national Hall of Fame.


“I guess it was destined that I would have a career in the Standardbred industry, “quipped Amy.


“My parents divorced when I was about eight. My mom went to work for Erv Miller in New Jersey. I started jogging horses at 14 then worked for him and later for Tony Alagna.


The star of the Husted Stable is the six-year-old ICF pacing mare Fox Valley Exploit who is unbeaten on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions. (Four Footed Fotos0

Amy and Kyle met in New Jersey at a Halloween party, and she came to the Midwest five years ago to be with her future husband, working alongside him every morning,


The “Queen” of the Husted stable, hands down, is the now six-year-old mare Fox Valley Exploit who has a special place in Amy’s heart. “She’s creeping up in on a half-million dollars in lifetime earnings ($440,179). The mare always gives you her best.”


Fox Valley Exploit is a perfect four-for-four on Night of Champions. Only Fox Valley Gemini from the Terry Leonard stable has fared better, going six-for-six on Hawthorne’s gala evening of racing.


The pride of the stable is 2 for 7 on the east coast competing in the high conditioned ranks under the care of trainer Noel Dailey. “Last year she was really good out east early last year,” said Amy. “She made over $35,000 racing against some very good mares at the Meadowlands.


Another Strong Bench for Team Miller

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA


Quality and quantity are a formidable combination in any sport, including harness racing. It paid off for Team Miller in last season’s Illinois bred colt two-year-old pacing division and it could very well be the key of getting the job done again as three-year-olds.


The Midwest division of the Erv Miller Stable under the care of Atlee Bender and his wife Hanna Miller came away with the top prize when the stable’s Illini Jetset pulled off a bit of an upset in the $154,000 Incredible Finale showdown on the 2022 Hawthorne’s Night of Champions with a heady drive from Todd Warren.


Going into the race Illini Jetset competed in the shadow of stable-mate Fox Valley Jasper who started off his freshman campaign by rattling off six consecutive victories including the summer’s $50,000 Incredible Finale final and a sweep of the Illinois Fair Colt State championships at Springfield.


However, at Du Quoin the 6-5 favorite was a disappointing fourth place finisher in his division of the Director’s Cup, and a week later made a break and ended up sixth in his Night of Champions elimination, failing to advance to its lucrative final.


Atlee Bender, assistant trainer, and driver for the Midwest Division of the Erv Miller stable, sees a strong ICF three-year-old colt assembly for this season. (Four Footed Photo)

“Fox Valley Jasper started out really good, but he wasn’t healthy later in the summer,” said his driver and assistant trainer Atlee Bender. “The horse also was a little sore. Those two things took its toll on him, so we stopped with Jasper after he failed to make the (Incredible Finale) final.”


With Jasper out of the championship the stable’s fate in the finale rested on the shoulders of Mister Sleaze (Travis Seekman) who came from seventh to win his eight-horse elimination, and Illini Jetset (Todd Warren) who was second best in his elim.  The stable’s other freshman pacer Fox Valley Patriot finished just a head behind Mister Sleaze but impeded another horse and was disqualified to fifth, missing the final.


Set off at 8-1 odds, Warren gave Illini Jetset a second over winning journey on the Night of Champions.


“Todd did a very nice job of driving the horse,” continued Bender. “Illini Jetset has a really good brush, but he was on the small side as a two-year-old and a bit frail. He’s doing well training in Indiana, and he’s gotten bigger and stronger.”


Illini Jetset’s $69,300 first place Incredible Finale money propelled the University of Illinois bred youngster’s initial campaign bankroll to just a shade under $100,000 in purse earnings for the trio of Doug Overhiser (New Smyma Beach, FL), Sara K. Miller (Stroudsburg, PA) and the Erv Miller State Inc. (Wind Gap, PA)


“I was very happy the way Mister Sleazy ended his year. He raced well in the Hawthorne championship and finished strong, too. He’s a big horse and that hurt him some as a two-year-old. He’s gotten bigger and he has gotten stronger. He’s filled out nicely. I’m looking forward to his three-year-old season.


“Fox Valley Patriot was a nervous horse as a two-year-old. He acts better now. I’m hoping he can continue to mature.”


The stable’s Fox Valley Shania was the only freshman filly trotter to beat the two-year-old Illinois champion Marvelous Mystery and she did in both the Springfield and Du Quoin championships, however she went off stride in her Fox Valley Flan elimination at 1 to 9 and missed that stake’s final.


“Shania is way stronger than she was a year ago, added Atlee. “She had a problem in her behind area and it caught up with her later. That’s why she made some breaks toward the end of her season. I think she’ll do very well as a three-year-old.”


As for Bender, his career has grown leaps and bounds from just a couple of years ago.


In 2020 the 31-year-old Bender had only 42 drives and four winners. One year later the Goshen, Indiana native saw his driving opportunities jump to 764 trips to the gate and his winning drives mushroom to 113. Last year he was even busier and did even better with 1,096 starters and 166 winner’s circle visits.


Even more importantly for Atlee, purse money won from his drives shot up from $70,875 three years ago to $1.11 million in 2021 and $2.36 million 12 months later.


Getting Ready: A trio of defending ICF division champions qualified yesterday at Hoosier Park preparing for their 2023 debut.


Aged Pace titleholder He’zzz A Wise Sky finished second while pacing on 1:53.3. Two-time state-bred aged trotting champion Talk About Valor was timed in 1:55.4 while finishing third. Apple Valley, last year’s Illinois bred filly pace champ, breezed in 1:55.3.


The three-year-old Illinois bred Ghost Shark was sent off at 1 to 9 when he breezed on the front end with a 1:51.3 mile in his second leg of a series at Pocono. He races in a third series leg on Saturday.

Seekman’s Arrow Pointing Upwards

By Mike Paradise for the IHHA


Travis Seekman is a couple weeks into his 18th season as a professional driver and the arrow is pointing upward for the modest Michigan native. The thirty-two-year-old Seekman is coming off his best campaign in the sulky, going over the $1 million plateau in purse money for the first time.


One of the chief reasons why Travis had over 102 winning drives in a shortened racing Illinois season along with $1.11 million in money won, his best ever, was another stellar season by the veteran Gerry Hansen trained trotter ICF Talk About Valor.


Talk About Valor was a 13-time winner last year with Travis Seekman at his lines enroute to being named the Illinois Aged Male Trotter of the Year. (Four Footed Fotos)

For the second consecutive year the gutsy now nine-year-old star of the Hansen stable was named the Illinois Aged Male Trotter of the year and justifiably so. Talk About Valor captured13 of 26 starts and banked over $155,428 for his Monee, Illinois owner Shelley Steele. Nine of those victories came in prairie-state Open trots, all with Seekman at the lines.


Travis took over the driving chores behind the trotter in May of 2021 after the Yankee Valor gelding had been sidelined since mid-September of the previous year. Talk About Valor was scratched out of the Plesac final in Hawthorne’s 2020 Night of Champions after tearing a suspensory.


Seekman’s achievement with the talented trotter over the past two years has been extraordinary—20 victories in 37 tries, a 54+ winning percentage. However, Travis says all the praise should go elsewhere.


“All the credit to Talk About Valor’s success should go to Gerry (trainer Hansen),” said Seekman. “He’s done a great job with Talk About Valor over the last couple of years, especially when you consider all the suspensory problems the horse has had to deal with. Gerry picks his spots with the horse well. When he does race him, the horse is always ready for a big effort.


“Talk About Valor is an easy horse to drive. He’s versatile. You can race up front or from behind and he always gives you his top effort. He’s a game and gutsy horse and it’s been a pleasure to drive him.”


Seekman guided Talk About Valor to an easy four length first place finish yesterday at Hoosier Park with a 1:58.4 clocking. Travis was content to take a two-hole trip behind the pacesetter who went to the three-quarters in a leisurely 1:29.4.


Last year Travis also handled the Tim Roach trained ICF youngster Ghost Shark in his initial season when he made over $65,000 and took a mark of 1:51.3 in a division of Du Quoin’s Director’s Cup.



Travis Seekman had his best money-making season in 2022 when his drives went over the $1 million plateau in purse earnings for the first time. (Four Footed Fotos)

Ghost Shark dropped in first six career starts, racing mostly on the front end before winning out of a hole at Du Quoin in late August and following a week later with a triumph in his Incredible Finale elimination racing ibn similar fashion. He finished second in the championship, his last race as a two-year-old.


“I had little choice but to race him on the front early on because he was strong headed. They made some rigging changes on him, and he became much more manageable. The horse can pace a quick quarter.”


“Ghost Shark was as good as any in his division, one of the best ICF freshman groups in years. He’s grown a little over the winter, but he was a big horse as a two-year-old. He’s starting to mature and was a perfect gentleman in his recent qualifiers.”


Ghost Shark went to the front in his first qualifier on March 18 at Hoosier Park and came home in 27.1 at the end of his winning 1:54 flat mile, pleasing Travis.


“The idea was to race him on the lead and use him for just the last quarter. It was a cold and windy day, and the judges took 2 or 3 seconds off what was needed to qualify, so we were happy with his race.”


Ghost Shark again qualified on another windy morning two weeks later on April 1st, cutting leisurely fractions of 28.4, 29.4 and 30.1, before finishing first in 1:57.2.


“They had 50 mile an hour winds and rain here the night before the qualifiers and I don’t think it calmed down much that morning when we raced,” continued Travis. “We faced a strong wind in the last half and the track was a little off, so his time is misleading. He again was very controllable.”


Ghost Shark made his initial start of the year last week at Pocono Downs dropping a head decision in a $20,000 first leg of the Bobby Weiss three-year-old series.  Tyler Butler got the catch-drive behind the Illinois bred pacer who paced a quick 1:51.1 mile despite not competing since last September.