Time to rename Illinois’ Night of Champions?

Time to rename Illinois’ Night of Champions?

September 29, 2021

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Fox Valley Gemini scored on Illinois Night of Champions for fifth year in a row. Other stakes winners on the card that carried more than $1 million in purses were: Fox Valley Ozzy, Lousdobb, Rndmnunpredictable, Breeze At Sunset, Funky Wiggle, Apple Valley, Ryans Loan Shark, Bootsy Bombay, Fox Valley Exploit, Talk About Valor.

by Neil Milbert

Maybe Hawthorne Race Course ought to change the name of the premier event in Illinois harness racing from the Night of Champions to the Fox Valley Gemini Festival.

The 6-year-old gelding extended his Night of Champions winning streak to five years in a row on Sept. 25 when he won the $64,000 Robert S. Molaro Memorial for older male pacers for the third straight year after capturing the Robert F. Carey Memorial for 3-year-old colts and geldings in 2018 and the Incredible Finale for 2-year-old males in 2017.

With Hawthorne’s perennial driver champion, Casey Leonard, calling the shots from the sulky for his trainer father, Terry Leonard, and owner Jim Ballinger, Fox Valley Gemini spent much of the race in second place, stalking his pacesetting nemesis, He’zzz A Wise Guy.

The leader paced the quarter in :27.2, the half in :55 and three quarters in 1:22.1.

Fox Valley Gemini moved the within a head at the stretch call and overtook He’zzz A Wise Guy with less than an eighth of a mile remaining. In the closing strides, Fox Valley Ren also edged in front of He’zzz a Wise Guy, forcing last year’s Illinois Horse of the Year to settle for third.

Fox Valley Gemini’s comfortable margin of victory over Fox Valley Ren was 2 1/2 lengths, while He’zzz A Wise Guy was 2 3/4th lengths back.

Dispatched as the 7-5 second choice in the betting, Fox Valley Gemini was clocked in 1:50.1 as he snapped a string of four straight second-place finishes and scored his sixth victory in a 16-race campaign in which he has come in second eight times.

He’zzz A Wise Guy, meanwhile, has made 20 starts and has a record of 8-3-7. The 4-year-old horse was the 3-5 favorite in his unsuccessful attempt to annex a Night of Champions championship for the third consecutive year. He too had won the Carey Memorial at age 3 and the Incredible Finale as a 2-year-old.

“The biggest thing tonight was the draw,” said Casey Leonard. “I drew (No. 6) inside He’zzz A Wise Guy (No. 7 in an eight-horse race) and that was the key.”

He’zzz A Wise Guy’s driver, Kyle Wilfong, was of the same opinion. “If Gemini draws outside of me it’s totally different,” Wilfong said. “I wouldn’t have had to park so long on the first turn and wouldn’t have had to go so hard in the first quarter. But give credit to Gemini; he’s a terrific horse.”

The Molaro was the first of 11 championship races for pacers and trotters on a program with a total pot of $1,009,500 and Leonard won four of them.

His other conquests came with Fox Valley Ozzy in the night’s richest race, the $138,000 Incredible Finale for 2-year-old male pacers; Lousdobb in the $114,000 Kadabra for 2-year-old male trotters; and Rndmnunpredictable in the $97,500 Erwin Dygert Memorial for 3-year-old male trotters.

Playing the role of the 4-5 favorite Fox Valley Ozzy won for the eighth time in 10 starts for owners Stephen Mc Mackin and David Samuelson and trainer Gary Rath. In both of his losses he came in second, a neck behind Get E Up, the 6-5 second choice in the Incredible Finale.

At the outset, Get E Up came from post 6 to play the role of the pacesetter. Fox Valley Ozzy was in fifth place at the quarter after leaving from post 8 and Leonard gradually put him in contending position. In the stretch he swung three-wide to engage in a three-way battle with Get E Up and Kingofmyheart.

Fox Valley Ozzy finished a length in front of Kingofmyheart and Get E Up was third, 3/4ths of a length behind the second place finisher. The winning time was 1:54.

Both Lousdobb and Rndmnunpredictable are trained by Steve Searle. The former is owned by Flaccco Family Farms and All-Wright Racing and Flacco Family Farms is the sole owner of the latter.

Sent off at 10.70-1 odds from post-position eight in the Kadabra’s field of 10, Loussdobb was sixth in the early stages before surging into second at the stretch call to challenge 1-5 favorite Fox Valley Cairo, a stalker who’d come from second to take the lead from Lou’s Di Nomite on the front end. The gelding then went on to win by 3/4ths of a length in a career best time of 1:58.4, snapping a four-race losing streak in recording his fourth triumph in 10 starts.

The script was somewhat similar for Rdmnunpredicable early in the Erwin Dygert but by the time he hit the stretch he was in command and he went on to win by 8 lengths—widest margin of the night—in 1:59.2.

A 96-1 longshot, Loyz Say When, placed and 28-1 longshot Emsroscopcoletrain showed.

Rndmnunpredictable’s victory was his fourth in a 15-race campaign.

“They named him right because he is random and unpredictable,” Searle said. “There have been times when he should have won but he ran or some other stuff. But he behaved well tonight and that was the main thing.”

In the $68,500 Beulah Dygert for 3-year-old filly trotters the 4-5 favorite Breeze At Sunset lived up to expectations by winning by 2 ½ lengths in 1:58 for driver Atlee Bender, trainer Erv Miller and owner Bowie Racing LLC.

Breeze at Sunset bided her time in third place before making her compelling stretch move. BC’s Rose was second and Loulita was third after leading for the opening three quarters.

It was the eighth victory in 14 starts for Breeze At Sunset.

“She has a little bit of an attitude and she was inconsistent at the start of the year,” said Bender, the son-in-law of her trainer. “It took us awhile for us to turn her around. She has to be in the race or she doesn’t try at all.

“Tonight we got the trip I wanted. I wanted to stay close to (Loulita’s driver) Casey Leonard and see what he did off the car. I saw he was leaving hard so I figured if I could stay close we would be all right. My filly felt really good. Late in the stretch I knew we had it.”

Funky Wiggle whizzed her way to the fastest mile by a 2-year-old trotting filly in Hawthorne history when the 1-2 favorite won $120,500 Fox Valley Flan by 3 lengths in 1:57.2 with Kyle Wilfong at the reins for her owner, Dr. Patrick Graham, and trainer Curt Grummel.

“It was one of my old horses whose record she broke so it was kind of bittersweet,” Wilfong said, looking back on Good Design’s 1:58 mark set in 2017. “She was a horse owned by my dad and my grandma.

“With Funky Wiggle we had a lot of options going in. When (even-money second choice) Armbro Lark was off the gate (leaving from the rail) I decided to push forward.”

After Funky Wiggle came from post 6 to immediately assert herself she refused to be caught.

“She was prepped for this race and everything set up just perfect,” Wilfong said.

Armbro Lark came from third to finish a non-threatening second, trading places with Lou’s Xanadu, who wound up a distant third.

The track record victory enabled Funky Wiggle to end her 12-race freshman year with eight triumphs and three seconds on her report card.

“She can do it any way — on the lead or coming from out of it, and she can handle any surface,” Grummel said.

Wilfong was back in winner’s circle with another member of the freshman class when Apple Valley was the valedictorian in the $117,000 Incredible Tillie for filly pacers.

“Kyle is an awesome driver,” said James Molitor, who trains Apple Valley for owner/breeder Michael Perrin. “She has trouble through the turns and were worried about her. He babied her through the turns and waited on her — she’s got a move.”

Apple Valley made her move on the outside in the stretch — after being sixth at the quarter, fifth at the half and third at the three-quarter mark–taking charge and prevailing by 1 ½ lengths in a career best time of 1:55.1 as the 7-10 favorite. The victory was her fourth in seven outings.

Fox Valley Captiva was second after leading most of the way and Dandy’s Mnm faded from second to third.

Molitor also won the $79,000 Robert F. Carey Memorial for 3-year-old colt and gelding pacers with Ryans Loan Shark, a gelding the trainer co-owns with Flacco Family Farms and David Falzone.

Driven by Travis Seekman, Ryans Loan Shark stalked Ideal Big Guy for the entire race before catching the 1-2 favorite at the wire and winning a photo-finish by a neck in 1:56.2. Late-mover Diamond Diesel was third.

The 2.40-1 second choice in the wagering, Ryan’s Loan Shark, won for the fourth time in a 17-race campaign that has seen him show marked improvement during the past two months. He has placed in three races and showed four times.

“We start them slowly and eventually they’ll come around,” Molitor said. “Going into the race at DuQuoin (the Dudley Hanover that he won on Aug. 28) he had a big spider bite and his leg was swollen, and we almost didn’t race. After that start his leg blew up and we almost didn’t come (to Hawthorne). But he’s a tough horse.”

Ryan’s Loan Shark showed his toughness when he made his next start on Sept. 18 and finished a distant third in his Carey elimination race and then outdueled his elimination conqueror, Ideal Big Guy, a week later in the main event.

Kyle Husted was another who made a twin-killing on the Night of Champions.

Immediately after driving Bootsy Bombay to victory for owner James Greer and trainer Nick Prather in the $76,000 Plum Peachy for 3-year-old filly pacers he returned to win the last race of the night, the $65,000 Tony Maurello Memorial for aged mare pacers with Fox Valley Exploit, a 4-year-old he trains and co-owns with David Brigham.

Bootsy Bombay was an upset winner of last year’s Incredible Tillie and she again was the underdog in the Plum Peachy because of losses in all 11 of her prior races this year.

But she pulled off another surprise by scoring a 4 ¾ victory at odds of 11-1.

Husted had Bootsy Bombay in third place at the quarter and the half and she dropped back to fourth three quarters of the way before exploding in the stretch and winning in a lifetime best time of 1:55.1.

“They did a little equipment change,” Husted said. “They changed her bridle and put ear plugs on her to help her relax.”

Bootsy Bombay also was listed in the program as a first time Lasix user.

“Lasix absolutely helped her,” Husted said. “When a horse is unmanageable, as she tends to be, they tend to bleed and Lasix definitely helped that. This time she was really good.”

Hart’s Hart placed as the 3-5 favorite after taking a short-lived stretch lead, while Clearly The Bomb was a closing distant third at odds of 73-1.

Fox Valley Exploit played the role of the 3-10 favorite in the Tony Maurello and she put on a stellar performance, taking the lead before the half-mile mark and going on to an overwhelming 5-length triumph in 1:53.1.

Skeeter Machine came from behind to claim second and My Uptowne Girl earned third place in the 10-horse race.

“I was questioning whether Kyle (Husted) moved too early but it panned out,” his delighted co-owner Brigham said following Fox Valley Exploit’s seventh victory in 17 starts this year.

In the $68,500 Plesac for older trotters of both sexes Travis Seekman guided Talk About Valor to his seventh conquest in a nine-race campaign in which he has finished worse than second just once.

Owned by Shelley Steele and trained by Gerald Hansen, the 1-2 choice of the betting public started from post 2 and settled in second place for the first three quarters. While the 6-year-old gelding was biding his time, the 2-1 second choice, the 7-year-old mare Anna’s Lucky Star, was setting the pace.

Approaching the stretch, Talk About Valor was called on and he responded by taking the lead and going on to defeat Anna’s Lucky Star by 1 ¾ lengths in 1:55.3. Late closer Louzotic finished third.

“Tonight he gave us exactly the trip we wanted,” Hansen said of Talk About Valor.

“He has had some health issues — both of his back legs — and that’s why we (usually) only race him every two or three weeks. He has come a long way. Now, he’s probably done for the year.”

Finish Lines

The 63-night meeting that began May 7 concluded Sept. 26. Casey Leonard was the champion driver for the sixth year in a row and his father, Terry Leonard, regained the trainer title that he held in 2018 and 2019 before finishing third last year. After missing the preceding two programs because of a severe cut to his thigh with a chain saw while working at his father’s farm, Casey returned to action on Sept. 24 and drove 10 winners during the last three nights, giving him 126 for the meeting, 14 more than the total for Wilfong, who was second. Terry was credited with training 48 winners, 12 more than the number for runner-up Dean Eckley.

The thoroughbreds now are moving into Hawthorne for their fall meeting that is scheduled to begin Oct. 8. The standardbreds will return for a Jan. 7-March 20 winter season.

During both meetings construction will continue on the $400 million project that will turn the track into a racino. Management hopes to have the racino taking bets sometime next fall. In the Sept. 26 edition of HRU it was erroneously reported to be a $4 million project.

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