By Mike Paradise
The end of summer officially came two days ago but you could have fooled a lot of people in the good sized crowd on hand for Saturday’s Night of Champions, the showcase event of Hawthorne’s 2017 harness racing meet.
When the horses went to the gate for the first of 11 lucrative ICF stake championships the temperature was a balmy 84 degrees. While the weather was very warm and humid, the action on the race track was even hotter and no doubt it had trainers and owners sweating out the outcome of each final.
Here’s how those eleven state-bred stake showdowns went with $1.38 million in purse money on the line.
(Race 2) $115,000 Kadabra Two-Year-Old Male Trot
Maybe it was only fitting that the initial champion horse of the gala evening was piloted by former Chicago Circuit kingpin Tony Morgan who made his first return to Illinois in 12 years to drive on the Night of Champions.
The four-time National Harness Driver of the Year got the call to drive Illinimight for the Mike Brink Stable and despite one road problem after another Tony steered the son of Cassis to a half-length victory over the even-money favorite Cruzen Cassie (Jared Finn) with a first season best time of 2:00.1.
Morgan dropped the 2-year-old trotter Illinimight into the fifth spot in the early going and when the horse in front of him, Majestic Caprice, went off stride, Tony had to snatch the lines of his trotter to avoid an accident.
True Detective (5-2, Casey Leonard) powered to the top soon after a 1:00.1 half-mile time but for a second straight week went off stride on the lead in the lane and eliminated himself
Meanwhile Illinimight ($6.60) was bottled-up in the last turn, however Morgan patiently got his 2-year-old in and around some horses going nowhere, ducked the Brink trainee from the middle of the track to the inside lane, and Illinimight took it from there and raked in the $57,500 winner’s share of the $115,000 Kadabra purse for owner Kevin Miller of Arthur, Illinois.
A double disqualification moved the fifth place finisher Fox Valley Strpwr (Freddie Patton Jr.) all the way up to third.
(Race 3) $135,000 Fox Valley Flan Two-Year-Old Filly Trot
The unpredictable freshman trotter Good Design put it all together for driver Kyle Wilfong and established a new track record for a 2-year-old filly trotter with a winning 1:58 flat mile over a late-charging Trotting Grace (Kyle Husted).
Owned by her breeder Mr. Lynn Wilfong of Kentland, Indiana, Good Design ($14.00) went off stride in 3 of her last 5 starts, all ICF stake races, but the fickle filly was on her good behavior when it counted on the Night of Champions as she rallied in the lane with a second-over trip from her 28-year-old driver and nailed down her fifth victory in her 10 first career starts.
The 3-5 Fox Valley Flan favorite Maui Mama had to settle for third
(Race 4) $175,000 Incredible Tillie Two-Year-Old Filly Pace
Fox Valley Jazzy’s driver Ridge Warren raised his whip high in the air in triumph near the finish wire as he guided the Dale Kanitz talented 2-year-old filly pacer to the $175,000 Incredible Tillie Championship.
The fourth straight win for Fox Valley Jazzy was achieved by a heads-up drive from Warren who left with his pacer, dropped her into third, came out and took command, and then took the favorable pocket trip behind the 3-5 favorite The New Americana (Mike Oosting) into the stretch.
Fox Valley Jazzy ($6.60) then stepped it up a notch and pulled away to a 1:54.4 victory for owner Cathy Finn-Kanitz of Olney, Illinois. The $87,500 winner’s share of the purse boosted the daughter of Yankee Skyscaper’s bankroll to just under $140,000 in her first season of racing
Rollin Coal (Casey Leonard) overtook Allbeastnobeauty (Bobby Smolin) for the runner-up honor.
(Race 5) $120,000 Beulah Dygert Three-Year-Old Filly Trot
The first betting favorite to win on the Night of Champions was the ultra-consistent three-year-old trotter Anna’s Lucky Star with her regular driver Kyle Wilfong in the sulky.
The overwhelming 1 to 5 favorite grinded her way through the first turn and took over the lead at the first quarter, reached in 28.3, from the early pacesetter Daisy Lou Duke (Kyle Husted).
Kyle then backed the pace down, taking the Terry Winemiller trained filly to a 30.1 second panel. The field started to bunch up in the third quarter but the home-bred public’s choice still had plenty left in her tank and pulled away in the lane by almost three lengths in the 1:56 flat mile.
Bred by her owner Danny Graham of Salem, Illinois the Cassis filly is now 15 for 17 in her first two seasons and has never lost a race outside of her filly division. Anna’s Lucky Star’s ($2.40) career purse earnings now stand at $144,690.
Beatrice (Casey Leonard) held off the late charge of Lous Credit Report (Mike Oosting) for second place.
(Race 6) $115,000 Erwin F. Dygert Three-Year-Old Male Trot
Picky Picky Valor ($10.20) picked the right night to win his first major ICF stake race because this one came with an $115,000 pot on the line. Mike Oosting got the catch drive behind the Gerald Hansen trained gelding and did a heck of job putting the improving trotter into position to prevail.
Saddled with the 10-hole and second best to division leader Luscipher the last three times they met, Picky Picky Valor shot out from the start and dropped into third. Oosting came out with the winner near the half (:57.1), cleared him to the top and this time Picky Picky Valor showed his heels to Luscipher and his eight other sixth race foes as he ended up more than three lengths the best.
The victory for Shelley Steele of Monee, Illinois saw Picky Picky Valor’s sophomore season earnings shoot up $102,120 with the $57,500 winner’s portion.
Muscle Image (Tony Morgan), who was stuck inside, came on nicely for second while the pace-setting Band’s Houdini (Kyle Wilfong) took home the third place share of the six figure pot.
(Race 7) $60,000 Plesac Three-Year-Old Male Trot
As expected the Pennsylvania invader Tricky Nick was a convincing winner in the Plesac Championship, just as he was in last week’s Prep for state-bred 3-year-olds and up trotting colts and geldings.
Capably steered by his regular driver Jim Pantaleano, Tricky Nick had to work hard to get ahead of the early leader Primed N Powerful at the 28.3 first quarter. However, a couple of soft middle quarters by Tricky Nick pretty much assured the outcome wasn’t in doubt for the chalk players who sent the son of Band’s Gold Chip off at 1 to 5.
Tricky Nick ($2.60) is trained by Richard Perfido for Mt. Bethel, Pennsylvania owner Tom Mattingly.
The 70-1 longshot Fox Valley Shout (Matt Avenatti) was second, beaten three-plus lengths while Riet’s Kid (Tony Morgan) ended up third.
(Race 8) $195,000 Incredible Finale for Two-Year-Old Male Pacers
Jim Ballinger’s unbeaten Fox Valley Gemini (Casey Leonard) showed again he’s much the best of this year’s crop of ICF freshman pacing colts and geldings, and likely locked-up 2017 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year honors with his impressive ninth triumph in a row.
Watching the race I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought the Terry Leonard trainee was in deep trouble as they headed into the last turn. Casey sent out Fox Valley Gemini from the nine-slot and dropped the 3 to 5 choice into sixth. The winner came off the inside lane on the backside as did Molina who was racing in front of Fox Valley Gemini.
However, Molina wasn’t gaining any ground on the leader Fox Valley Hijinx (Kyle Husted). Casey had to take Fox Valley Gemini three wide in the final turn to get around the stalling Molina but when the field straightened out for the stretch drive the winning Yankee Skyscaper gelding put on a burst of speed and simply drew away from his competition.
The $97,500 winner’s share of the $195,000 pot sent Fox Valley Gemini’s freshman earnings soaring to $167,320 for his Salem, Illinois owner who had no less than 47 cheering family and friends join him in the winner’s circle.
Backstreet Lawyer (Mike Oosting) came on for second and Fox Valley Hijinx ended up third.
(Race 9) $60,000 Robert S. Molaro Three and Up Pace
Kyle Husted gave Gibbs ($8.80) a ground-saving three-hole trip and the Jim Eaton trained 9-year-old pacer took advantage of it and captured the $60,000 Molaro for Lake Orion, Michigan owner Rick Howles.
Crankin’ It Up (Jim Pantalaeno) won the early battle to get command with the 3-5 favorite Evergreen Elite (Mike Oosting) right behind him and Gibbs in third. They stayed that way through the 57.2 half. Mid-way in the last turn Husted moved Gibbs out and was eye-ball to eye-ball with Crankin’ It Up to the three-quarters with Evergreen Elite locked-in behind them.
Oosting did eventually get Evergreen Elite out to a clear path but there was no catching Gibbs on this night. Crankin’ It Up held on for second, beaten by almost two lengths in the 1:52.2 mile.
(Race 10) $180,000 Robert F. Carey Three-Year-Old Male Pace
The 3-year-old colt and gelding showdown was a wide-open stake expected to give us some fast fractions and it did just that as the hard-charging Captain Rhett came roaring down the lane to pop at 11-1 in 1:50.3, the fastest mile of the night.
Marcus Miller got the catch drive behind the winning Jim Horvath trained gelding and he bided his time in the middle of the pack while Sporty Redhot (12-1, Juan Franco) held out the 99-1 longshot Ima Skydancer (Bobby Smolin) through sizzling fractions of 26.4 and 54 flat to the half.
When those two pacers went into retreat, the late closers came a calling.
It was Captain Rhett ($24.20), owned by Illinoisans Harvey Grief (Odell) and Robert Verdun (Pontiac) who proved to be the fastest, flashing past and adding $90,000 to his 3-year-old earnings now at over $140,000.
Fox Valley Inferno (Kyle Wilfong) edged out Slzburgerslzburger (Kyle Husted) for second place.
(Race 11) $165,000 Plum Peachy Three-Year-Old Filly Pace
After going winless in her first nine starts of the year San Antonio Rose ($6.40) certainly got good at the right time as she sped to a front-stepping third straight victory in the Plum Peachy Final.
Kyle Husted pulled the Nick Prather trained filly out of second after Boogie On Down got to the first quarter in a quick 27 flat. San Antonio Rose took the field to a 54.3 half and to the three-quarters in 1:22.2 and opened up a huge lead.
Fancy Creek Jolene came on with a rush after her but was the bridesmaid at the end of the 1:52.2 mile, a new mark for San Antonio Rose. The 60-1 longshot Filly Forty (pp 10, Jim Pantaleano) finished third.
San Antonio Rose is owned by George Pollock of Rushville, Illinois and D Kay Bartlow of Augusta, Illinois.
(Race 12) $60,000 Tony Maurello Three and Upward Mare Pace
The tightest finish on the card came in the finale when Bucklegirl Bobette gave Kyle Wilfong his third championship drive by nosing out Fox Valley Charm (Mike Oosting).
The Bob Walker trained winner was the third Night of Champions horse to win from the nine-post.
Five mares sprinted away for early position with Fox Valley Charm making the top and Bucklegirl Bobette dropping into fifth.
After a 28.2 first panel Bucklegirl Bobette made a strong move and cleared to the front and went on to hold a late surge by the pocket pacer of Fox Valley Charm to win in 1:53.3 for Illinois owners Hart Walker (Jerseyville), trainer Bob Walker, Charles Walker and Robyn Klinger, all from Carrolton.
The four-year-old Duneside Perch mare’s victory was her seventh in an even dozen trips postward.
It’s the Finale: The curtain comes down on Hawthorne’s meeting Sunday evening with five $30,000 ICF Consolation stake on the nine race program .
The Jackpot High-Five Pool has a carryover of nearly $180,000 and management is estimating the pool will swell to $500,000 on the fifth race wager that does have a mandatory payout on closing night.
With harness racing for 2017 in Illinois coming to an end I’ll be writing a once a week column through the rest of the year every Friday right here on the IHHA web-site