by Chris Lomon
Luck on the racetrack, she said with a laugh, wasn’t on her side after she walked down the aisle, but Melissa Essig would eventually hit her best stride.
It was a horse racing match made in heaven when up-and-coming standardbred conditioner Melissa Beeman married accomplished driver Joe Essig — a winner of 3,754 career races, as well as 87 more training triumphs — on Feb. 9, 2009.
Not everything, however, lived up to the same good fortune of the special day.
At least not in the days and weeks after the vows were exchanged.
“Our biggest challenge was that when Joe and I got married, we couldn’t get any of our horses to finish higher than sixth place,” Melissa said. “When we got married, at the beginning, nothing seemed to go well with the horses for us. It was very challenging. But then we got Dontfusswithruss and Russell Mania. They put us on the map, and things started going forward from there. When we got those two, everything turned around.”
And then some.
The dynamic duo of Dontfusswithruss, an Indiana Sires Stakes champion at both two and three, who earned over $530,000 throughout his illustrious racing career, and Russell Mania, also an Indiana Sires Stakes champion, thrust Essig into the Hoosier State racing spotlight.
A bay trotting son of Elegant Man [IN], Dontfusswithruss won 24 of 119 starts, along with $537,214 in career earnings.
Russell Mania, also a son of Elegant Man, was bred by Aaron Stutzman.
Essig campaigned the bay gelding from June 2012 until November 2014.
Both horses are named after Essig’s father, longtime horseman, Russ Beeman. Her mother, Jacalyn, bred Dontfusswithruss.
“Dontfusswithruss won most of the legs for the 2- and 3-year-old Sires Stakes,” said the trainer. “They both won their Super Finals on the same night [September 8, 2012], at Indiana Downs. That’s my proudest moment.”
But it’s by no means her only memorable one.
Both unraced at two, Little Rocket Man and Shamwow were a force throughout the 2019 Indiana Sires Stakes season.
Not bad for a duo that didn’t exactly turn heads before they went postcard.
Bred by Victory Hill Farm Inc. [IN] and co-owned by Russell Beeman and Jack Freeman, Little Rocket Man finished eight lengths behind Rockie Got Framed in 1:58-flat in his first lifetime qualifier.
“We didn’t think that much of him training down until he got behind the gate and lined up beside other horses to race,” said Essig. “I didn’t realize we had a good one. We didn’t race him at 2. He’s a ridgling, and he had a complicated surgery, so by the time we got him ready, it was too late in the year. My dad wanted to turn him out and we brought him back as 3-year-old. He just wasn’t interested in racing until he had the chance to go up against other horses.”
When the opportunity came, Little Rocket Man fired on all cylinders.
In his first lifetime start, on April 15, 2019,he crossed the wire a convincing winner in 1:53:4 at Hoosier Park.
Little Rocket Man hasn’t missed a beat since the milestone victory.
The bay sports an impressive 11-1-2 mark from 17 career engagements, all contested at Hoosier Park.
Shamwow, a homebred owned by Cornerstone Stock Farms, was also unraced at 2.
At 3, the son of Always a Virgin [IN] won six of his 12 starts, posted five second-place finishes, and earned $197,075 for his connections.
The bay gelding, owned by Jeff Fought Racing and David Fought, didn’t see Indiana Sires Stakes action until last July, making his debut in the fourth leg of the 3-year-old colt pace a winning one.
LeWayne Miller drove Shamwow to a rallying one-and-a-half length score in a snappy 1:49.4.
A key to such success stories and others, offered Essig, is in maintaining a manageable operation.
“We try not to keep a huge stable, so we can keep focused on what we’ve got. We have 17 right now, and a couple more coming in. We race 2-year-olds if we think they are fit and strong, but if they need their time, we’ll turn them out. We have some nice babies that we really like, and none of them are at the point where we think we should turn them out. They are all training well, so hopefully, we’ll have a good year with our 2-year-olds.”
Simply having the opportunity to race again in Indiana is a win for Essig and other horsepeople across the state, who like many others throughout North America, have been greatly affected by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Spectator-free standardbred racing is expected to commence at Hoosier Park on June 16.
“It’s been very stressful. We have all these horses and you are trying your best to stay in communication with your owners. When you didn’t know when the date would be for the return of racing, it made it tough. We were in Florida longer than normal. We just wanted to get back home and get racing started. We just focus on what we have in the barn.”
Essig will soon have a much clearer picture of how the season might play out for her stable.
And, just as it has been since she arrived on the standardbred scene in 2008, she’ll have plenty of familiar faces to help her build off that stellar 2019 campaign.
There has also been a new addition to Team Essig.
“I have my niece, Faith Beeman, working for me now. She’s grooming. This is the first year that she was able to get a license and paddock. She’s really excited. My husband, my father and I, we all jog and train the horses together. It makes it fun.”
Even more so when you have a solid one-two punch to call upon each week.
Essig is hoping this year yields a few more highlights she can add to her racing resume.
With her post-nuptial racing misfortunes now well behind her, does she think 2020 can be a strong season?
“I do,” she said.
It seems like a most fitting response.