By Mike Paradise
Covering Illinois harness racing through five decades I’ve been privileged to watch the cream of the crop of ICF pacers and trotters grace our state’s racetracks.
Every era has produced its own illustrious state-bred champions. Here are my choices of the best ICF harness horse in each decade starting back in the 70’s.
Taurus Bomber: The decade the 1970’s
Owned, trained and driven by Connel Willis, this son of Adios Bomber was a fixture every summer in the 70’s at Sportsman’s Park. Week after week he took on some of the best open company pacers on the grounds.
From the age of four through seven Taurus Bomber won 38 races in 95 starts, usually in Invites, Jr. Free For Alls, and some older ICF stakes, while banking over $334,000.
As an aged horse Taurus Bomber owned victories over such elite Chicago-circuit pacers as Smashing Don, Goose Filter, Pacing Boy, Pretty Direct, Thorpe Messenger, Title Holder, Jim King and Robbie Dancer. While Taurus Bomber’s wins and earnings as a 2 and 3-year-old are not available on the USTA’S Pathway system he did visit the winner’s circle many times as a youngster.
His most memorable triumph came in 1974 as a 3-year-old in the $44,500 Pete Langley Memorial Final at Sportsman’s when he came from eleventh at the half and swept past the field. In 1976 his1:57.3 mile was the fastest that summer by an ICF pacer.
Taurus Bomber was inducted into the Illinois Harness Racing Fall of Fame in 1982.
Incredible Finale: The decade of the 1980’s
The first ICF harness horse to become a millionaire ($1,165,508) and he did it in just four years of racing for trainer and driver Tom Harmer and owners George Steinbrenner and Charles Day. The son of Shadow’s Finale out of the Meadow Skipper broodmare Queen Margie was bred by Bob Gangloff of Logansport, Indiana.
In 1985 Incredible Finale became the fastest ICF 2-year-old in history with a 1:55.3 mile at Sportsman’s. As a freshman he captured 11 of 18 starts, including the Cardinal Final.
It was as a 3-year-old in 1986 that Incredible Finale showed he can race with the best sophomore pacers in the country when he won both the $425,500 American National at Balmoral Park and Maywood Park’s Windy City Pace, the first ICF pacer to do so. He raked in $707,444 that year, winning 15 races in 28 trips postward and setting a new track record at Maywood with a 1:53.3 mile.
Incredible Finale earned another $170,386 at the age of four when he took his lifetime mark of 1:53.2 at Sportsman’s and went 6-for 25 in his final year of racing in 1988.
He was then sold to Fox Valley Standardbreds and became one of the most successful studs in Illinois history. His offspring include such ICF champions as Mini Me (1:49), Incredible Tillie (1:49.2) and Fox Valley Memory (1:51.1). A dozen of his sons or daughters went on to become Super Night champions.
Incredible Finale entered the Illinois Harness Hall of Fame in 1991.
Big Tom: The decade of the 1990’s
He’ll go down in history as one of the all-time best ICF pacers. Owned by Illinoisans and John Leahy, Tom Lewandowski and trainer Joe Anderson, Big Tom won more than half of his lifetime starts (44 for 82) and hauled in $1,539,630 in five racing seasons with $1.48 million of that total coming in a four year span (1997 through 2000).
Big Tom was the first horse to win three Super Night championships in a row, taking the Orange and Blue 2-year-old colt crown at Sportsman’s, the Pete Langley Memorial at three at Balmoral and the Dan Patch as a four-year-old, also at Balmoral.
As a freshman Big Tom won 11 of 15 starts with “Little Joe” at his lines and at one time rattled off seven wins in a row and ended his first season with, $372,427 in purse earnings. At three he added another $194,386 to his card in just 13 starts, finishing first in six of them.
In 1999 he was almost unbeatable as a 4-year-old. Big Tom won 19 of his 23 starts and was disqualified from two other first place finishes at Maywood Park. At one time the very talented pacer strung together 10 consecutive triumphs including the $200,000 American National championship, easily defeating the 6-5 favorite Red Bow Tie.
As a 5-year-old Big Tom went on the road, competing at the Lloyd Arnold Series at Los Alamitos (3rd), the Isle of Capri at Pompano (2nd), in prestigious Classic races at Dover (3rd), Freehold (2nd), and others at the Meadowlands where John Campbell drove him to $275,000 Classic Final title.
In the year 2000 a robust $527,225 in money won was added Big Tom’s purse earnings. Three years later he was inducted into the Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Plesac: First decade of the 2000’s
One word can describe this ICF trotter: Dominating.
The home bred was simply too good for other state-bred trotters and no race showed it more than on Super Night 2000 with regular driver Tim Curran in the Su Mac Lad 3-year-old stake as Plesac drew off by19 and one-half lengths, one of his 11 victories that year for owners Wendy and Richard Balog of St. Charles, Illinois..
Sired by Armbro Charger, Plesac was out of the Balog’s broodmare Astute Yankee and named after their good friend Dan Plesac, the now MLB Network sports analyst who appeared in over 1,0000 games as a relief pitcher on the major leagues. The one-time Valparaiso resident also was a part-time harness trainer in Illinois.
At two Plesac was victorious in 8 of 13 trips postward, including his last seven with triumphs in the Lincoln Land, the Cardinal and the Sarah Myers. He was second behind Dreamaster in the American National final.
In 2000 Plesac was a well-traveled horse. His Cardinal win at Balmoral in May was followed by a second place finish in the Connors at Hazel Park, a Classic conquest at Woodbine, an unsuccessful trip to the Meadowlands before at sweep at Springfield and a fourth place finish in the $550,000 World Trotting Derby at Du Quoin. After his Super Night romp Plesac competed in the Kentucky Futurity at Lexington and the Breeders Crown at Mohawk, before capping off the year by winning the $215,000 Matron Final at Dover Downs.
Plesac’s $490,000 money won in 2000 was followed by two giant years in purse earnings when he battled the best older trotters in the country in his 4 and 5 year old campaigns. He secured over $800,000 in both 2001 and 2002. In fact in a three year period (2000 through 2002) he made over $2.2 million.
Plesac’s last year as a racehorse was in 2003when he took his career mark of 1:52 3 with Mike Lachance in a $50,000 Su Mac Lad stake elimination at the Meadowlands.
Plesac’s $2,501,759 lifetime earnings remain a record for an ICF harness horse. He became a member of the Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2003 soon after his 5-year-old season.
Well To Do Guru: Second Decade of the 2000’s
Owned and bred by James and Marilyn Gorman of Schaumburg, Illinois, he was one of those rare horses who just got better as he got older with his best seasons coming in his final years of racing at the age of seven and eight for the Terry Leonard Stable.
As a freshman the Richess Hanover gelding out of the Gorman’s mare Guru’s Girl competed only three times, never hit the board and made just $320 in 2006. At three the made three trips to a winner’s circle and put $28,851 on his card.
Well To Do Guru blossomed as a 4-year-old with Casey Leonard at his lines, lowering his mark to 1:51.1 and making over $76,000. Then he just kept getting better and better. From 2008 through 2012 the pacer earned just a shade under $600,000 while winning 34 races in those four seasons and he never started more than 28 times in a year.
Well To Do Guru was named the 2011 Illinois Harness Horse of the Year after a 13-win campaign that included a sweep of Maywood Park Pacing Series with victories in the Cook County, Egyptian and Cook Country stakes. Well To Do Guru pulled in $217,354 as a 7-year-old and had a winning 1:49.3 mile for the second straight season.
At eight, Well To Du Guru chalked up nine more victories, three in Balmoral Park Invites and the other six in ICF stake races that incorporated another sweep of the Maywood Park Pacing Series. The pacer added another $175,000-plus in season earnings.
Well To Du Guru was retired from racing after one start in 2013 with a career bankroll of $726,358. The gutsy pacer finished third or better in 98 of his 148 lifetime starts winning 41 times.