The father-and-son duo of Terry and Casey Leonard have dominated the trainer and driver standings, respectively, this year at Chicago’s Hawthorne Race Course.
by Neil Milbert
Although the Hawthorne Race Course meeting won’t reach the finish line until Sept. 22, driver Casey Leonard and his father, trainer Terry Leonard, could take the remainder of the month off, resting assured that they would retain their respective championships.
Going into Thursday’s start of Hawthorne’s four-night racing week, Casey had driven 167 winners, 58 more than second place Kyle Wilfong, and Terry had trained 62 winners, double the number of second place Nelson Willis.
This will be the sixth straight driver title for Casey, who has been No. 1 at every meeting since Hawthorne resumed harness racing in 2016.
For Terry, it’s the second consecutive trainer title and his numbers already have exceeded those of last year when he sent out 55 winners.
“It’s been a good year for us; the only bad part is there isn’t more racing in Illinois,” said Terry, who is the son of the late Illinois Harness Hall of Fame horseman Bud Leonard and got his start as a driver/trainer in the early 1970s when the state had as many as 10 tracks and there was year-round racing.
The highlight of the meeting for Casey and one of the most memorable accomplishments of his driving career came the last weekend in August when he won eight straight races on back-to-back programs. The eight winners are believed to be a track record.
Harness racing has had an on-again-off-again existence at Hawthorne since the 128-year-old track introduced the sport in 1970 and, as a consequence, a lot of historical information has gotten lost in the shuffle so it can’t be said for certain that it’s a record.
But both publicity director Jim Miller, who has worked at Hawthorne for 23 years, and long-time track announcer Peter Galassi believe that it is.
“I think Tony Morgan won seven in a row one night but I can’t think of anyone who won eight races,” Galassi said.
Galassi pointed out that Casey’s feat on the second night was a greater accomplishment than his performance on the first night because it came on a 15-race card whereas on the first night 25 races were contested and two of the conquests came in races on which there was no wagering.
The reason for the bloated programs was because of the rainstorm-related cancellation of the two days of racing earlier in August at the DuQuoin State Fair, a mini-meeting that Hawthorne oversees.
The star of the Leonard stable continues to be Jim Ballinger’s 4-year-old gelding pacer Fox Valley Gemini, Illinois Horse of the Year the past two years.
Competing mainly in open company this year, Fox Valley Gemini’s 14-race resume going into the meeting’s homestretch showed nine triumphs, two seconds and one third.
“Overall he has had a successful year for the opportunities he has had,” Terry said. “He has missed quite a few weeks because his races didn’t fill. We sent him to Minnesota for the Dan Patch and he got sick and didn’t race well (finishing fifth in the eliminations and 10th in the final).”
Fox Valley Gemini is scheduled to return to Illinois-bred competition in the main event on the state’s harness racing calendar, Hawthorne’s Sept. 21 Night of Champions, which offers in excess of $1 million in purses.
Among the most noteworthy members of Fox Valley Gemini’s supporting cast in the 18-horse Leonard racing stable is the 3-year-old gelding pacer Fox Valley Triton and a pair of pacers in the filly and mare division, the 5-year-old Iowa-bred Rockin N Runnin and the 4-year-old Illinois-bred Fox Valley Sierra.
In his 11 starts since being added to the stable in May, Fox Valley Triton has five wins, four places, one show and one fourth. On the Night of Champions he is expected to duel his summer-long rival Meyer on Fire in the richest race, the $150,000-plus Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial.
Rockin N Runnin was sent to Terry’s 103-acre training base farm near Harvard, IL by his trainer/driver son, Ross, who has a 21-acre farm and training track in Indiana near Harrah’s Hoosier Park. After missing all of last year because of injuries, she was acquired by Ross, Dandy Farms Racing and Greg Samples earlier this year. With Ross at the reins she won Hoosier’s $20,000 Bill Thompson and she currently has a four-race winning streak.
Fox Valley Sierra won four in a row after being purchased by Terry, Peter Kouchis and Evernight LLC this summer. She then recorded a second, a pair of thirds and a seventh before resuming her winning ways at Hawthorne on Sept. 8.
In addition to driving the horses in his father’s stable, Casey has done a lot of driving for other prominent trainers at the meeting, most notably Willis, Mike Brink, Steve Searle and Tom Simmons. Searle has used him with the 2-year-old filly trotter Lous Abigail, while Simmons has put him in the sulky behind the 2-year-old gelded trotter Fox Valley Quest and both are projected as probable favorites in their Night of Champions races.
Casey celebrates his 42nd birthday today (Sept. 11) but he didn’t begin driving regularly in pari-mutuel races until 2009. He grew up on the family farm and as a teenager drove in races at county fairs in Wisconsin and Illinois before going to college at Western Illinois University.
After earning a business management degree, he managed warehouses in Iowa and Illinois until 2001 when his uncle, Gary Leonard, died. Gary had partnered with Terry in training standardbreds and his death left a void at the farm.
Casey returned home to help his father train the horses that Ross was driving in races at the Chicago tracks. He would accompany Ross to the track and warm up the horses before they competed.
Eventually, he began driving the family-owned-and-trained horses and then he gradually branched out. His first big success story was with Well To Do Guru, who became 2011 Illinois Horse of the Year for owner/breeders James and Marilyn Gorman and whose victory in 1:50.4 at Maywood Park ties him for the fastest mile ever paced on a half-mile track.
The Well To Do Guru success story had a sub-plot, namely Casey’s emergence as a driver who brought out the best in his horses.
Trainer Dave McCaffrey (now the executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association) began using him regularly and before long he was driving stakes horses for the likes of Erv Miller and Homer Hochstetler.
“Then Maywood and Balmoral were still going strong,” Casey said. “One year I won more than 200 races and over $2 million and I wasn’t the leading driver at either track.
“Compared to then my numbers are way down — my drives, my wins, my earnings. This might not even be one of my top five years (in those categories).”
In the educated opinion of McCaffrey, who remains involved in standardbred racing as an owner: “If Casey was racing five nights a week at both tracks (Balmoral Park and Maywood) like Dave Magee and Tony Morgan did for years and years, he’d be making $400,000 or $500,000 a year in personal earnings the way they did. That’s what his numbers and five per cent share of the purse money would translate to.”
Casey captured driver titles at Maywood in 2013 and 2014 and at Balmoral in 2014 and 2015. Then, those tracks went into bankruptcy and were forced out of business and for harness horsemen Chicago became a one-track town.
In October 2016, after the Hawthorne meeting ended, Casey was faced with the prospect of no more racing in Chicago until the following May. Coping financially meant taking a job working as a grain merchandiser and in logistics for the DeLong Co. in Clinton, WI, about 20 miles from the family farm.
The resumption of racing at Hawthorne meant working for DeLong Co. by day and moonlighting in the sulky by night.
This major multi-tasking project didn’t stop him from continuing his reign as Hawthorne’s leading driver.
The emergence of Fox Valley Gemini as an Illinois racing superstar enabled Casey to stop working full-time for the DeLong Co., do some driving at Hoosier after Hawthorne closed and, when the Indiana track’s meeting ended, help his father at the farm. He plans to follow the same schedule this fall.
The hitherto bleak situation in Illinois racing has brightened considerably, thanks to this spring’s massive gambling expansion bill that will allow Hawthorne to become a racino and another racino strictly for harness racing to be built in Chicago’s far south suburbs.
At next Tuesday’s (Sept. 17) hearings for 2020 Illinois racing dates real estate developer Rick Heidner’s Playing in the Park, LLC will seek 12 programs in December (2020) at a track he intends to build in Tinley Park. Partnering with Heidner is Tim Carey, president of family-owned Hawthorne.
“Our new governor (J.D. Pritzger) got something going,” said Terry. “But there’s not many Illinois-bred babies around and it’s going to take a while to get that breeding program going again. We’ve bred a few in Illinois this year (before the legislation was passed).
“Whether it will ever be like it was 30 years ago I don’t know.”