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.
By Mike Paradise
It’s hard to believe that nearly five months of harness racing is already behind us but here we are with Hawthorne’s Night of Champions upon us.
It’s already the 25th of September and thankfully, unlike last year when we had to endure rain and a sloppy racetrack for much of the evening, the weatherman says he’ll be much more cooperative this time around.
Eleven championships for ICF pacers or trotters of both sexes will be decided and right from the get-go we’ll see if the 2020 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year He’zzz A Wise Sky (pp 7, Kyle Wilfong) can take a major step to successfully defend that illustrious title.
The $64, 500 Robert S. Molaro Memorial championship jump starts the much-anticipated racing program. He’zzz A Wise Sky easily won last week’s Molaro prep. You can expect tonight’s pace to be much quicker, but the result could very well be the same.
Three-time Illinois Horse of the Year Fox Valley Gemini (pp 6, Casey Leonard) is the obvious danger. He does own a couple of wins over the star of the John Filomeno stable and the right kind of trip might see him get the job done tonight.
Fox Valley Reno (pp 2, Juan Franco) could offer fair wagering value from the inside.
Mike Pick: He’zzz A Wise Sky
The $120,000 Fox Valley Flan final should see much of the play going to the speedball Armbro Lark (pp 1, Charles Arthur) and Funky Wiggle (Kyle Wilfong), currently on a four-race winning streak for trainer Curt Grummel.
Armbro Lark got nipped in the final strides last week by Funky Wiggle. Can she get revenge tonight? There’s 10 times the purse money on the line. She’s certainly capable.
And what about the Herman Wheeler trained Creations Dream MV who appears to have gotten sharp at the correct time? Then there’s Louzotic’s younger sister Lous Xanadu (pp 3, Casey Leonard) who has the pedigree to pull off an upset tonight.
Mike’s Pick: Funky Wiggle
For the last two months Ideal Big (Casey Leonard) and Ryans Loan Shark (Travis Seekman) have been trading victories in ICF stakes for 3-year-old colts and geldings.
Last week Ideal Big Guy got an easy lead from the pole position and was never pressured, coasting to a comfortable victory over his rival.
However, Ryan’s Loan Shark last week went from an inside slot to the nine-hole after a “revised” draw, a day after the initial card was posted, and the ICF pacer did well to be second best.
Call it “Karma” is you wish but for tonight’s Robert F. Carey Memorial final it’s Ryans Loan Shark starting from the inside post one and Ideal Big Guy landing the seven.
I expect Ideal Big Guy to go out and maybe even get command again. Nevertheless, this time Ryans Loan Shark should be in better position for the stretch drive.
The question mark horse is Frontier Charley (pp 2, Todd Warren). The 2020 freshman colt Night of Champions winner has had health issues this year and didn’t make his first start until the State Fair meetings. Last week he was bet down to 5-2 after making a break at Du Quoin and raced poorly. Will he be a “stud” tonight or a “dud?”
It’s your call.
Mike’s Pick: Ryans Loan Shark
The fourth race Plesac championship for ICF trotters ages three and up looks to be a very competitive race.
Annas Lucky Star (pp 6, Kyle Wilfong) was a strong front-end winner in her elimination and could have command again. Talk About Valor (pp 2, Travis Seekman) didn’t have the same big effort as he did earlier in September with an Open win from the 10-hole but that can change tonight.
Louzotic (pp 1, Casey Leonard) has another nice endeavor but found the eastern invader Cruzen Cass (pp 5, Todd Warren) too tough in her elimination heat,
Meanwhile both veterans Primed N Powerful (pp 3, Cordarius Stewart) and Louscaramon (Kyle Husted) performed well in defeat.
Mike’s Pick: Talk About Valor
With five consecutive triumphs and doing it both on and off the pace, the Erv Miller stable’s Breeze At Sunset (Atlee Bender) will be hard to defeat even with the outside seven slot in the Beulah Dygert Memorial $68,500 contest.
A daughter of Southwind Breeze, the very likely heavy favorite faces a half-dozen three-year-old daughters of the ICF champion broodmare Lou’s Legacy, headed up by the Steve Searle trainee Loulita, beaten by only a neck by Breeze At Sunday in their Beulah Dygert elimination.
Mike’s Pick: Breeze At Sunset
The trio of last week’s first three finishers in final leg of the Erwin F. Dygert Memorial—Sombodygetdisfool, Rndmnunoredictable and Coco’s D’ Lascito—weren’t separated by much at the end of a 2:00.2 mile and that could be the case again in tonight’s $97,500 championship for 3-year-old state bred male sophomore trotters.
Interestingly, the same three trotters will line up tonight alongside each other with the 3, 4 and 5 posts, with Sumbodygetdisfool (Todd Warren) in the middle between the tonight’s likely pacesetter Coco D’ Lascito (J D Finn) and Rndmnunpredictable (Casey Leonard).
Tonight, expect a faster pace and a quicker final mile time.
Mike’s Pick: Rndmnunpredictable
With championship victories at both Du Quoin and Springfield as well as triumphs in his last two legs of the Kadabra, the Mike Brick stable’s Fox Valley Cairo (pp 4, Ridge Warrior) should receive most of the backing from the betting public in the $114,00 final for ICF two-year-old colt and gelding trotters,
The Herman Wheeler freshman colt First And Goal (pp 5, Kyle Husted) does come off a convincing victory in his series leg a week ago and might be in peaking at the right time.
Trainer Curt Grummel sends out a pair of consistent youngers in Lou’s Di Nomite (Kyle Wilfong), third or better in 9 of 11 season starts, and Lousdobb (pp 8, Casey Leonard) who has hit the board in 7 of his 9 career outings.
Between them they’ve only missed one purse check each.
Mike’s Pick: Fox Valley Cairo
The $138,000 Incredible Finale championship for ICF juvenile pacing males brings out the two youngsters that between them have dominated the state-bred freshman ranks—Fox Valley Ozzy (pp 8, Casey Leonard) and Get E Up (pp 6, Kyle Husted).
The Gary Rath stable’s Fox Valley Ozzy went undefeated in his first six starts before the Kyle Husted trained Get E Up beat him twice at Springfield.
However, after Get E Up made it four straight wins with championships at both the Springfield and the Du Quoin State Fairs, Fox Valley Ozzy returned the favor in last week’s last Incredible Series leg with his seventh trip to a winner’s circle.
It’s a given those two will receive the bulk of the play but let’s not discount their opposition of Cole Thornton, Frontier Bombay, Major Grin, Magazine Theme, Pericles, Kingofmyheart, Bigday Bombay and Fox Valley Crete,
Mike Pick: Fox Valley Ozzy
The two-year-old Illinois bred pacing filly division has been the most topsy turvy of any of the Night of Champions groupings.
Rmissashlee (pp 10, Ridge Warren) earned the post series points (125) of the 10 finalists. Dandy’s DMN (pp 7, Kyle Husted) was an earlier series leg winner and took a division of the Director’s Award at Du Quoin. Lady Bombay (pp 4, Atlee Bender) proved best in the other Director’s Award split for trainer Ertv Miller and might offer fair wagering value.
Then there’s Rollnroz, (pp 9, Archie Buford) winner of leg two of the Incredible Tillie series and this season’s Springfield champion. Let’s not forget about Apple Valley (pp 5, Kyle Wilfong) with only five career starts but victories in two “Tillie” series legs. She has a big shot too.
Also, Swanky Diamond (pp 1, Casey Leonard) notched her maiden victory last week in her Incredible Tillie series leg, Eris, Pattycake Mooss, Fox Valley Captiva and Iwannarocknroll all have hopes of a surprise victory tonight.
Mike’s Pick: Apple Valley
The center of attention in the $75,000 Plum Peachy championships for sophomore filly pacers is Hart’s Heart who won all four legs of her Night of Champions series and the Du Quoin’s Time Dancer final as well for trainer Mike Brink.
However, Hart’s Heart (Kyle Wilfong) didn’t draw well for tonight’s Plum Peachy showdown with the nine-post, and she did lose to Scorecard Dandy (pp 2, Juan Franco) at Springfield.
Hart’s Heart has been hammered at the betting widows in her last four trips postward and that may be the case again. But is she a shoo-in tonight?
Mike’s Pick: Hart’s Heart
The crème of the Illinois bred aged pacing mares put on the show in the championship of the night. It’s the $68,500 Tony Marello Memorial final with a 10-horse field.
As we pointed out in yesterday’s story, it gives us the unusual situation of watching full sisters, Fox Valley Exploit (pp 3, Kyle Husted) and Allbeastnobeauty (pp 10, Todd Warren) slugging it out.
Both distaffers won 2020 Night of Champions stake events. Allbeastnobeauty is the defending Maurello champion. Fox Valley Exploit took the 3-year-old Plum Peachy championship. Tonight’s draw certainly favors the 4-year-old sister over her older 6-year-old sibling.
We probably will see some swift early fractions and that could set things up for perhaps a surprise ending from Maurello hopefuls Ashlee’s Joy, Dune Dame, My Uptown Girl, Shelly In My Mind, the 2019 Maurello winner Skeeter Machine, or Fox Valley Lolo, Harper, or Rollin Coal.
Mike’s Pick: Fox Valley Exploit
Sit back and enjoy this very special night of Illinois harness racing.
Casey on a Roll: Primo Giovanni, owned by the Engel Stable of Illinois (Northbrook) came from eight lengths off the pace at the half and powered past to capture last night’s third race $12,000 Open Pace in 1:51.1.
The six-year-old gelding is trained by Terry Leonard and was one of four consecutive driving wins for his son Casey on the nine-race program.
By Mike Paradise
It was a year ago when the distaff pacers Fox Valley Exploit and Allbeastnobeauty made Illinois history by each winning championships on the same Super Night program.
The then three-year-old Fox Valley Exploit completed her sweep of the Plum Peachy stake series for driver-trainer Kyle Husted on Hawthorne’s 2020 Night of Championships and later that evening her older sister Allbeastnobeauty captured the Tony Maurello Memorial crown for aged mares with conditioner Todd Warren at her lines.
This time around those two siblings will instead go head-to-head with eight other state bred fillies or mares in this year’s $65,000 Tony Maurello Memorial championship.
The family showdown comes about in Saturday’s last race on the 2021 Night of Champions, one of 11 ICF championships to be decided.
Both Fox Valley Exploit and Allbeastnobeauty were sired by Sportsmaster and are the daughters of The Big Dog broodmare She Likes It All, the 2005 winner of Balmoral’s three-year-old Hanover stake back in 2005 for Joe Anderson.
Fox Valley Exploit, owned jointly by Husted and David Brigham of Litchfield, Michigan, won her Maurello elimination last week in 1:53.1 by two and one-half lengths while well in hand to her Altamont, Illinois driver and trainer.
Fox Valley Exploit will go to the post Saturday night with a $259,607 career bankroll in less than three years of racing. The now four-year-old mare has won 20 of 37 lifetime starts and boasts a remarkable 68.1 per cent winning clip when in strictly ICF races.
Allbeastnobeauty also was a comfortable winner in her $15,000 Maurello elimination, pacing her mile in 1:53.1 in front-steeping fashion for Warren.
The Illinois bred older sister was good as a two- and three-year-old but has been even better as an aged pacing mare.
In her freshman campaign Allbeastnobeauty made close to $49,000 when she raced out of the barn of Springfield horseman Mike Brink. Almost $19,000 of that total came with her third-place finish in the Incredible Tillie.
In her second season she hauled in $101,947 while winning both $25,000 State Fair finals at Springfield and Du Quoin. Allbeastnobeauty went into a sale in November of that year and was purchased by the Virgil Morgan stable.
Allbeastnobeauty notched victories in three Ohio Opens in 2020 at the Daytona Raceway, raking in more than $109,000 as a four-year-old.
Last year at the age of five she competed the first half of the season in Ohio before joining the Todd Warren stable in May when her racing fortunes really took off.
After a third-place finish in a Hawthorne Open Allbeastnobeauty uncorked a five-race winning streak for her Indiana owners Brookside Stable (Grabill) and Keith Ravis (Leo) that included a pair of Chicago circuit Opens and victories in both her Maurello elimination and its $68,000 final.
The draw certainly went better for the younger sister in Saturday’s showdown. Fox Valley Exploit landed the three slot while Allbeastnobeauty is on the outside looking in with the 10-hole.
Even though the two sisters will get plenty of play at the betting windows, the Maurello championship is by no means a two-horse race.
A solid field of mares await the siblings by way of Ashlee’s Joy, Dune Dane, My Uptowne Girl, Shelly On My Mind, Skeeter Machine, Fox Valley Lolo, Harper, and Rollin Coal.
As we all know anything can happen once the starting card draws away. That’s why we call it gambling.
Marcus In Town: Former Chicago circuit driving champion Marcus Miller is back in his home state Saturday to handle some horses in Night of Champions events.
The now 32-year-old Olney, Illinois native has driven more than 2,000 horses in a season for eight consecutive years, winning more than 200 times in seven of those campaigns, dipping below 200 only during last year’s Covid shortened racing season.
Marcus will finish this year with more than $3 million in purse money won for the eighth straight year.
Saturday’s matchups between Marcus and Atlee Bender may very well be the first time they’ve competed against each other in a pari-mutuel race as brother-in-laws.
Here’s An Oddity: Saturday’s fifth race Beulah Dygert Memorial championship will see the likely betting favorite Breeze At Sunset (Atlee Bender) as the only three-year-old filly in the seven horse field not a daughter of the Flacco Family Farm’s highly successful Illinois sire Lou’s Legacy.
Breeze At Sunset is by the Prairie State stallion Southwind Breeze. BC’s Rose, Ting Ting, Loulita, Lous Livia, Lou Lou Lamour, and Lous Voodoo Woman are all by Lou’s Legacy.