Ozzi is Awesome

Southwind Ozzi dominated the 74th Little Brown Jug for first-timers Vincent Ali Jr., Alma Iafelice and trainer Bill MacKenzie.

by James Platz

One of the hallmarks of the fall harness racing schedule is the week of racing at the Delaware County Fair that concludes with the Little Brown Jug. The events leading up to the Great American Harness Race and the Jug Day card are distinctly Delaware. Consider the sight of nearly 50,000 fans encircling Delaware’s famed half-mile, bringing with them canopies, lawn chairs and coolers layered six or seven deep as far as the eye can see. Add to that the midway and unmistakable voice of Roger Huston calling a Grand Circuit card that features some of today’s top equine athletes, and the result is an experience every true racing enthusiast should add to their bucket list.

The 74th edition of the Jug may have lacked the star power of previous years, but the race attracted Adios champion Southwind Ozzi, arguably the hottest sophomore pacing colt currently racing. Entering Thursday’s (Sept. 19) contest, the son of Somebeachsomewhere—Southwind Solara secured wins in five of his last six outings, the latest a 1:49.4 score in the $253,000 Pennsylvania Sires Stakes (PASS) championship.

Thursday, with the sun well into its descent, Southwind Ozzi and his connections etched their names in Little Brown Jug lore with a dominating performance.

“We never thought about going to the Little Brown Jug. I was hoping that he could make a lot of money in Pennsylvania Sires Stakes and I would be happy with that,” said Vincent Ali Jr., who owns the colt in partnership with Alma Iafelice. “It’s been awesome. The place is great, the people are great; it’s a lot of fun. It’s really like a country fair.”

The team behind Southwind Ozzi, including trainer Bill MacKenzie, arrived in Delaware as first-time participants in the Little Brown Jug. Only driver Brian Sears brought experience to the camp, himself a winner with Vegas Vacation in 2013. Sears provided a steady hand in the first division, guiding the favored pacer to a 1:50.3 score in the $128,000 first division, a clocking that at the time equaled a national season’s mark. Following him across the wire, nearly three lengths back were Air Force Hanover, Stag Party and Shake That House, all advancing to the final heat. As a helpless onlooker, Ali recalled his experience from the grandstand.

“I’m a nervous wreck. My wife actually videos me during the race. My kids, I have four children, they get a bigger kick out of watching me during the race,” he said from the winner’s circle, clutching the Jug trophy. “Pulling first over at the half in the first elimination, I’m a nervous wreck saying, ‘He’s first over!’”

While Southwind Ozzi’s connections were wide-eyed and taking in their first Jug experience, trainer Blake MacIntosh looked to repeat after winning last year with Courtly Choice. He enlisted the services of Brett Miller, and the Ohio native was excited to earn his first Jug heat win when he piloted Fast N First to a 1:50.2 national season’s mark in the second $128,000 division of the first heat. Miller moved three-wide on the backstretch before hitting the wire first in the last few lunges in a blanket finish that included American Mercury, Artie’s Deal and Semi Tough. The win, however, did not come without some uneasy moments.

“Up the backside when I tipped him out around them he was pacing very strong and I thought maybe he had a shot at getting close to the front. But going into the last turn, the colt tried to pull up,” Miller said. “He was actually heading to the draw gate and he went about five wide and I really had to slow him down to get him back down to the inside. When that happened, I didn’t think there was any shot he would come back and win. If he wouldn’t have pulled up, he would have won easily.”

Miller was excited heading into the final heat. Fast N First was slotted in post position two, and the Bettor’s Delight colt appeared to be his best shot to date at victory in a race he has followed since childhood.

“My whole life growing up watching the races, it’s been a dream. As a kid, I couldn’t fathom even being in the race. Now to have a horse that has won a heat is pretty exciting,” he said. “I’ve never even come close to winning.”

An announced crowd of 48,126 watched as Sears and Southwind Ozzi dashed Miller’s shot at victory and MacIntosh’s bid for two straight Jug trophies. Starting from the rail in the $384,000 final heat, a race reduced to six starters after the scratches of Artie’s Ideal and Shake That House, Sears was unhurried early. In fact, as the gate swung into the turn heading to the start, Southwind Ozzi was last to join.

“We were down to a six-horse field. I wanted to get out of there not too far back, but I was just looking at any place other than the two hole,” the driver said. “I knew that I wanted to put my horse in the middle of the track.”

The plan worked to perfection. Sitting fourth early, Sears moved Southwind Ozzi first up and the colt responded. Racing out of the last turn, he kicked clear with a burst to stop the clock in 1:50.1. Miller and Fast N First had to settle for second, nearly two lengths back. American Mercury, driven by Tyler Buter, rounded out the trifecta. With his fourth straight trip to the winner’s circle, the sophomore added another $192,000 to his seasonal bankroll, which now stands at $736,935.

Reflecting afterward, Sears savored a day where he finished in the winner’s circle. There have been other Jug Day programs where he entered Delaware with a good horse, but left with no hardware. He was also happy to deliver a win for the connections.

“It’s so difficult to win this race. Not only do you need the horsepower, but it has to be your day. You’ve got to have a combination of things go your way, that’s why it’s so difficult. Sometimes strange things happen. You can come in here with a horse like Rocknroll Hanover and not come out of here with a victory,” he said. “It’s a great honor to get the opportunity to drive these nice horses for people. They don’t get the opportunity to win these races every year, and I’m in them every year. I’m not saying I’ve got a big opportunity, but at least I’m in them. For some of these people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and this will stay with them.”

The question now is where will Southwind Ozzi pop up next? Ali said that the approach is to take the schedule a week at a time. He said there are a few options, including supplementing to Lexington, the Breeders Crown, or both. He reiterated that decisions are not based on purse money, but instead if the colt is ready to race. MacKenzie echoed that notion when talking about the path for his charge.

“As long as he’s healthy and he’s good and he is doing what we need him to do, he’s going to the next race,” said the trainer. “That’s just what we’ve been doing since the day we qualified him. He makes our decision easy. You’re not going to hit every dance.”

For the moment, Ali, MacKenzie, Iafelice and Sears can bask in the moment as champions of one of harness racing’s most treasured races. The decision on where their champion starts next can be decided another day.

“It’s awesome,” MacKenzie said standing in the Jug barn, soaking in the experience. “This is what everybody in this business wants to do, be able to compete in these kinds of races, let alone win them.”

Wiggles returns

The Jug Day undercard was filled with a bounty of compelling races, but seldom will a contest carrying a purse of $5,250 garner as much attention as Thursday’s 12th race. The event signaled Wiggle It Jiggleit’s return to competition after being away for nearly three years. Now seven, the gelding is known for winning one of the most exciting Jug finals in the history of the event, when he fought back in the stretch to capture the 2015 edition. Thursday he finished second to Celestial Arden N as the favorite, circling the Delaware oval in a time of 1:52. Celestial Arden N claimed victory in a time of 1:51.2.

“It’s the best day of the year and Wiggles is racing,” said Montrell Teague, who was satisfied with the result. “I was happy with it. Pacing in 1:51 on a half-mile track is not what we were looking to go. I would have rather been in the first division going in 1:54.”

Teague said that Wiggle It Jiggleit and the connections received a warm response from fans as he made his 2019 debut.

“It’s been great. Everybody has been coming over here to see him and say congratulations and thank you for bringing him back. They’ve loved it,” he said.