Illinois “Little Guy” Came Up Big

By Mike Paradise, for the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association

Covering harness racing in Illinois for the last fifty years I’ll admit there were plenty of times I silently rooted for the underdog to win a major race or the trainer of a small barn to come away with the big prize at the end of a racing season.


With that said, I’m sure there were many others in the prairie-state Standardbred industry who were also smiling when long-time owner-trainer Dennis Gardner’s young trotter Goomster was honored as the 2022 ICF Two-Year-Old Colt Trotter of the year at last month’s Illinois Horsemen’s Award Banquet in Springfield.


Goomster (Kyle Wilfong) surprised some people, including his owner and trainer Dennis Gardner, by rising to the top of his 2022 class in his first season of racing. (Four Footed Photo)

Going into the 2022 racing season Gardner never envisioned Goomster would end up as the best in his class. Heck, Dennis didn’t even think Goomster was the best two-year-old trotter in his barn.


“I thought his stable-mate Takemetodennyland was going to be the better of the two, “said Gardner. “But Goomster proved me wrong. He just kept on getting better and better as the season went on.”


Gardner got into the harness racing business in the mid-1990’s, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle. The 55-year-old Onley, Illinois native always had a modest size stable of horses that mostly competed on the Illinois County Fair Circuit with modest success.


Like so many other “little guys” in the business, Gardner thoroughly enjoys what he is doing and always dreamed of having “a good horse.”


“You’re always hoping to get that ‘good one,’” quipped Gardner. “Goomster has come along and become that for me.”


Goomster hauled in $120,125 for the West Salem, Illinois owner and trainer while winning a trio of major ICF stakes along the way. In his previous 23 seasons of racing Gardner’s horses only earned $50,000 or higher in three campaigns, none higher $61,928 in 2012.


Goomster and his freshman buddy Takemetodennyland combined for $157,545 in purse earnings in 2022.


The only time Goomster didn’t get a check in his12 freshman starts came about when the youngster was interfered with early in the $50,000 Governor’s Cup at Du Quoin.


“That happen because his rival, Niko’s Man, went off stride before the start and kind of went sideways into my horse, causing him to break,” said Gardner.”


Goomster finished his first season with 5 wins and 4 seconds in his dozen starts and came up big when it counted the most, capturing the $50,000 summer Kadabra championship at Hawthorne, the $30,000 Springfield crown, and the $144,000 Kadabra final on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions.


Trainer Dennis Gardner

“His win at Springfield meant the most to me,” said Gardner, “even more than the one on Super Night. It always has been my dream to win a big race at Springfield.”


Goomster’s freshman mark of 1:54.3 came in the Springfield championship. Bred by Vern Miller of Sullivan, Illinois the son of Cassis was the first foal of the Muscle Hill dam Sheeza Muscle Girl.


Goomster headed up a strong one-two punch for Gardner in last season’s Illinois two-year-old colt trotting class. His stable-mate Takemetodennyland made $37,420 in his first season going to the gate 14 times. Another Cassis offspring, Takemetodennyland was a five-time winner, proving best in the summer’s Kadabra elimination at Hawthorne. The consistent youngster was second in his Cardinal division and in the fall’s Kadabra elimination, and third in both the Springfield final and Du Quoin’s Governor Cup.”


Are you the “Denny” in the horse’s name? I asked Gardner.


“Yep, that’s my nickname,” he replied. “One of my good friends who passed away a couple of years ago was Walt Keyser and he always called me that. I named Takemetodennyland as a tribute to him.”


Denny bought Takemeodennyland for $6,500 at the 2020 Illini Classic Sale. The son of Pilgrims Stunner, out of the broodmare Broadway Hall, was bred at the University of Illinois veterinarian school.


“Takemetodennyland is a little handier than Goomster because he can get off the gate so well. Goomster is more of a closer, but he did get better getting out of there as the season went on.


“Takemetodennyland has a little bit of a breathing issue that I hope I can take care of for his 3-year-old season. I’ve recently started jogging both horses, and I want to them and a half dozen two-year-olds that I have, ready to go by June 1st for Springfield.”


Gardner went on to praise Goomster’s driver Kyle Wilfong, who ran away with the leading driver honors at Hawthorne last year. “Kyle did a terrific job of driving Goomster all season long. He always had my horse in position to succeed in a race.”