The 44-year-old has found his niche with standardbreds.
by Neil Milbert
Juan Franco is a rarity among the Central Americans and South Americans who have pursued horse racing careers in the United States and Canada. Instead of making his mark as a jockey, the 44-year-old from Guatemala has found his niche driving harness horses.
What makes his success at Hawthorne Race Course even more remarkable is Franco hadn’t even seen a harness race before he took the advice of his brother-in-law, Pedro Garcia, and came to now defunct Balmoral Park via California when he was in his early 20s. He didn’t make his driving debut in a pari-mutuel race until May 13, 2016.
The only other Central American to make a name for himself in North American harness racing is a fellow Guatemalan, Gilbert Garcia-Herrara, a very successful trainer based at Yonkers Raceway who plans to retire this year after being involved in the sport since the early 1980s. A protégé of Joe Anderson, he began 2022 in 10th place on the all-time list of winning trainers in North America with more than 3,600 victories and before retiring from the sulky 12 years ago he had 1,821 wins as a driver.
“I know who he is but I have never met him or spoken to him,” Franco said of Garcia-Herrara. “We come from the same town, Santa Rosa.”
In Guatemala, there are no pari-mutuel racetracks, standardbred or thoroughbred.
As was the case with Garcia-Herrara, when Franco was growing up his equine experience was limited to riding quarter horses “just for fun” on his father’s farm.
When he moved to California in the early 2000s he found work hot-walking thoroughbreds at now-defunct Hollywood Park, the same track where Garcia-Herrara got his start.
But by then Hollywood didn’t have harness racing and Franco didn’t hang around very long.
“I didn’t know anyone there, and it was very hard to communicate,” said Franco. “Then, I talked to my brother-in-law. He was working at Balmoral Park (in suburban Chicago) and we talked about jobs. He said that the harness horses are different horses than the thoroughbreds but they are similar and easy to work with. And here I would have a family relationship.”
So, after spending about three months in California, Franco came to Balmoral and went to work for (trainer) Don Freese, cleaning stalls and grooming “and then Don taught me how to jog horses.”
“After that, I worked for Brandon Simpson for a little bit and was like a second trainer to him,” Franco said. “When he left for the East, I lost my job. I got a job with Homer Hochstetler and learned a lot from him. Homer left and I lost my job again.”
But, again, Franco found work quickly, this time with Nelson Willis, a distinguished trainer on the Chicago circuit.
“I was working with young horses and breaking babies for him,” said Franco. “One day Nelson said: ‘Why don’t you get a driver’s license?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how.’ ‘No problem,’ Nelson told me. ‘I’ll help you out.’”
Franco drove in his first qualifying race at Hawthorne in January, 2016. After graduating to pari-mutuel competition that spring at the reins of Control Tower, a horse he qualified for Willis, he recorded his first victory in his 10th drive, winning for Willis with Parklane Dragon, a 25-1 longshot.
His first major accomplishment was winning that year’s Dave Magee series for 3- and 4-year-old fillies with Ryans Mistress for trainer Roshun Trigg, taking the first leg by 1 ¼ lengths (at odds of 27-1), the second by 1 ¾ lengths and the third by 2 ¾ lengths.
“Juan worked for me (as an assistant) up until he started catch driving,” Willis said. “If he’d have kept driving while he was so closely associated with me it would have been a conflict of interest.
“Everyone likes him. As a man, he’s a 10. And, away from the track, he’s a very, very good family man.”
Encouraged by Willis and with the blessings of Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association president Marty Engel and executive director Tony Somone, Franco ran for the organization’s board of directors four years ago. He was elected and has served ever since.
“I have horses for Marty and I told him that Juan would be very good for the backside because he speaks Spanish and most of the people working there are Spanish-speaking,” Willis said. “Juan is a hard worker; everyone respects him; and he does a great job of communicating with the people on the backstretch.”
Franco’s driving opportunities in Illinois have been limited because the cessation of racing at Balmoral and its sister track, Maywood Park, following their 2015 meetings left dual-purpose Hawthorne as the state’s only pari-mutuel harness track.
This year the problem was exacerbated by the decision of corporate overlord Churchill Downs, Inc. to close Arlington International Racecourse, one of the nation’s premier thoroughbred tracks, at the end of its 2021 meeting and sell the property to the Chicago Bears of the National Football League for redevelopment.
Meanwhile, the new harness track/casino in Chicago’s southwest suburbs that was authorized by the massive 2019 gambling expansion bill has yet to materialize.
As a consequence, this year the harness horses and thoroughbreds are time-sharing at Hawthorne. The first standardbred meeting began Jan. 7 and will end March 20 after which the thoroughbreds will take over the track until harness racing resumes with a July 1-Sept. 11 meeting.
Although perennial champion Casey Leonard, current leader Kyle Wilfong and accomplished veteran Mike Oosting are getting the majority of the better horses to drive at the current meeting, Franco nevertheless is doing relatively well. Going into tonight’s (March 4) program in 126 outings he had 13 wins, 16 places and 23 shows for earnings of $140,441 and a career best UDRS of .235.
“He doesn’t get the best horses but he gets a lot of checks,” Willis said.
Indicative of Franco’s popularity, one day last month when entries were drawn in seven of the eight races eight different trainers had him listed as their driver.
“One of the main things I like about Juan is he’s very patient with the horses and he drives them smartly,” trainer Steve Searle said. “Also, when the race is over he always has a little bit of feedback. He tells me if he thinks something needs to be changed or something needs to be done. He’s good to listen to.”
Franco made Hawthorne history on Aug. 4, 2018 when he drove Walter White, a gelding trained by Jim Eaton, to a 3 ½-length triumph in 1:53.3, equaling the track record for an older trotter set by Dink Adoo on July 15, 2005.
The most lucrative and prestigious conquest of his career came in 2019 on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions when he won the $100,000 Plum Peachy for 3-year-old filly pacers with Fox Valley Halsey in a three-horse photo finish clocked in 1:54.4.
“He’d bought a brand new helmet and paid $750 or something like that for it,” recalled Willis, the trainer of Fox Valley Halsey. “Before the race I said to him: ‘If you win this race I’ll buy that helmet!’
“It was muddier than hell that night and it was real close at the finish but he won it and I gladly paid for that helmet.”
Franco deeply appreciates all of the support he has received in establishing himself in Illinois.
“I thank God that I met the right people,” he said, “very good people who do things the right way.
“I also have a wonderful family — my beautiful wife, Heidi Hernandez; my 21-year-old son, Christian, who is playing professional soccer in Guatemala; my 19-year-old daughter, Jasmine; and my 15-year-old daughter, Natalia.
“We are able to watch Christian’s games on Facebook. Last month our girls went to Guatemala on vacation and saw their brother play. Our youngest got very excited about soccer. Now, she wants to try out for her high school team.”
While Franco has given no thought to leaving Illinois, he has done some driving in Indiana and Ohio and last year for the first time he went to the Oak Grove meeting in Kentucky for the first time “and enjoyed that a lot.”
As for a favorite horse, Franco doesn’t have one. “I’m driving a lot of good ones and it would be very hard to pick a favorite,” he said. “I just love what I’m doing. Every time I get into the bike I say to the horse ‘Let’s go out and do it.’”