The Illinois pacer extends his Night of Champions stakes-winning tally to an unprecedented sixth straight year.
by Neil Milbert
Fox Valley Gemini is a horse for the Illinois racing history books.
Hawthorne Race Course has become only surviving standardbred track in Illinois, making its $1,227,000 Night of Champions for Illinois-conceived and foaled horses the state’s paramount pari-mutuel event.
And in Hawthorne’s 131-year history no horse—standardbred or thoroughbred—has achieved anything comparable to what Fox Valley Gemini has done on the Night of Champions.
On Saturday night (Sept. 10) the 7-year-old gelding bred by Fox Valley Standardbreds, owned by Jim Ballinger, trained by Terry Leonard and driven by Casey Leonard was a Night of Champions winner for the sixth consecutive year.
Making up nearly four lengths in the stretch, he caught up with his arch-rival He’zzz A Wise Sky just before the wire and won by the $62,000 Robert S. Molaro Memorial for older male pacers by a neck in 1:50.4, his fastest time in 23 starts this year.
While Fox Valley Gemini was in a class by himself among the standardbreds, Hawthorne’s leading driver, Kyle Wilfong, put on one of the most dominant individual performances in the Night of Champions annals. He won six races and He’zzz A Wise Sky was one of his four second-place finishers.
With Wilfong in the sulky, He’zzz A Wise Sky was dispatched from the inside post position in the six-horse field as the 1-2 favorite, while Fox Valley Gemini left from post 4 as the 7-5 second choice.
He’zzz A Wise Sky was undefeated during Hawthorne’s summer meeting and in the 5-year-old horse’s three prior encounters with Fox Valley Gemini the defending champion was second twice and then fourth, losing by 4 ½ lengths on July 24.
The thrilling victory that avenged those losses was Fox Valley Gemini’s eighth this year and the 53rd of a 103-race career in which he has earned $705,137.
“He usually shows up for the big races,” Casey Leonard said. “He felt like his old self the last 1/16th. When I came off the turn I thought to myself: ‘I’ve got a lot of ground to make up.’ Not until the last 16th did I think we would win — he just took off.”
On the Night of Champions the son of Yankee Skyscraper and Epona has won the Molaro the last four years after taking 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. In last year’s race, He’zzz A Wise Sky, who also is a son of Yankee Skyscraper, wound up third as the 3-5 favorite after annexing the Carey Memorial at age 3 and the Incredible Finale as a 2-yuear-old.
He’zzz A Wise Sky had made two starts since his last meeting with Fox Valley Gemini, winning an open race at Hawthorne before coming in fifth in a Hoosier Park stakes race and finishing seventh in the $100,000 stakes at Scioto Downs in his last outing on Aug. 19. He was scheduled to compete in a Sept. 2 Molaro prep at Hawthorne on Sept. 2 but was scratched by the veterinarian and Fox Valley Gemini took that three-horse race in a 10 ½-length landslide.
“He’zzz A Wise Sky had those races where he wasn’t himself and then he had to take a couple of weeks off, while I had the luxury of racing,” Leonard pointed out, choosing to be gracious rather than gloating.
Leonard won two other races on the 12-race card, both of which also were photo-finishes.
• He captured the $88,000 Erwin F. Dygert Memorial for 3-year-old colt and gelding trotters with 3-5 favorite Lousdobb, leading most of the way and then holding off a powerful late move by Wilfong’s stalker, Fox Valley Cairo, to edge the 7-5 second choice by a head.
• He concluded the card by driving Pattycake Mooss to a neck victory over 1-2 favorite Apple Valley in the $105,000 Plum Peachy for 3-year-old fillies.
Clocked in a lifetime best 1:53.1, Pattycake Mooss won for the seventh time in 23 races for owner Alan Beals and trainer Gary Rath and her win price of $11.20 was the second biggest of a card in which low payoffs were the norm.
“I had confidence in Lousdobb but I didn’t know about the other two (photo-finishers),” Leonard said. “With Pattycake Mooss, I dropped in third (behind 75-1 longshot Fox Valley Hadley and 1-2 favorite Apple Valley after leaving from post 5). I knew the two I was following would get me through (without traffic problems).”
By the stretch call last year’s Incredible Tillie winner Apple Valley had taken the lead and Pattycake Mooss still was third with a 1 ½-length deficit to surmount.
“I didn’t think I could get to Apple Valley,” Leonard said of his stretch duel with her driver Travis Seekman. “We got up in the nick of time.”
Lousdobb earned his eighth victory in 10 starts this year after winning the Kadabra on last year’s Night of Champions. The son of Lou’s Legacy was bred by co-owner Flacco Family Farms and her trainer is Steve Searle.
If Fox Valley Gemini is the king of the Hawthorne’s annual big dance Annas Lucky Star is the prom queen.
“What she has done over the years is just incredible,” Wilfong said after the 8-year-old who set the track record for aged mares with a victory in 1:53.3 in open company last month put on another of her stellar performances in the inaugural $62,000 Carl Becker Memorial trot for aged mares.
Wilfong put the prohibitive favorite on the lead at the start of the six-horse race and she stayed in front the rest of the way, defeating Primed N’ Powerful by 1 length in 1:54.4 for mutuel returns of $2.10 across the board.
“She has been good from the first time she qualified — she gives it 100 per cent,” said owner/breeder Danny Graham, looking back on a career that has seen the daughter of Cassis by Queen Jamie win 55 of her 122 races and bank $607.798. It was her third victory in a row and her sixth in 17 outings this year.
“She’s in perfect condition,” Graham said. “(Trainer) Nelson Willis takes fantastic care of her and Kyle has been her driver in 90 per cent of her starts.
“I couldn’t be any happier and prouder to win the Carl Becker. He was a good friend of the Grahams and all of the horsemen for a long, long time. And, as far as we’re concerned, he was one of the greatest race announcers who ever lived.”
The most lucrative of Wilfong’s six-pack of triumphs came with Fox Valley Kia in the richest race of the night, the $185,000 Incredible Tillie for 2-year-old filly pacers. She led all the way en route to a one-length victory that saw her stop the clock in 1:51.4, a track record for her age and sex.
“She exceeded my expectations,” Wilfong said. “That was a heck of a mile, being parked three wide the first quarter and then holding on to break the track record.”
Bred by Fox Valley Standardbreds, the daughter of Somestarsomewhere won for the seventh time in 12 races for owner Julie Collins and trainer Scott Nance. She did most of her prepping for the Night of Champions by racing at the county fairs and at the State Fairs at Springfield and DuQuoin.
Fox Valley Kia was the 1.70 second choice in the betting. The 2-1 third choice Rona Mae was second and 3-2 favorite My Daddys Revenge came in third.
Marvelous Mystery went off the 1-5 favorite in the $125,000 Fox Valley Flan for 2-year-old filly trotters and she lived up to expectations by winning for the 10th time in 12 races for Wilfong and her trainer and co-owner Curt Grummel. Her margin of victory over second place Radiant Diamond was 1 ¼ lengths and her time was 1:58.3.
“Marvelous Mystery has never disappointed us,” Wilfong said. “Even when she got beat (finishing second in races at Springfield and DuQuoin) she still gave it her all.
“Tonight she had a pretty easy trip. She kind of followed along for a while and when I asked her she had plenty left.”
The race was the final leg of the 50-cent pick 5 and, indicative of the dominance of favorites, the wager paid a paltry $2.25.
Wilfong again demonstrated his ability to bring out the best in young horses when he won the $144,000 Kadabra for 2-year-old male trotters. He started from post position 9 as the 2-1 second wagering choice, while 1-2 favorite Niko Man was on the outside in the 10-horse race.
After being fifth and sixth, respectively, in the opening quarter they moved into first and second place and they stayed that way for the rest of the race that saw Goomster win by 1 ¼ lengths in 1:58.2.
“It was just a matter of how he was going to get out of the gate and then how the race was going to play out,” Wilfong said following the gelded son of Cassis’ fifth triumph in 12 starts for owner/trainer Dennis Gardner.
Wilfong and trainer Nelson Willis collaborated for a second victory when Fox Valley Crete won the $93,000 Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial for 3-year-old colt and gelding pacers.
It was a mild upset that saw the winner go off as the 2-1 third choice in the wagering behind last year’s Incredible Finale winner Fox Valley Ozzy at 8-5 and Get E Up at 6-5.
Fox Valley Crete spent the opening half in second place before dropping back to third. When Wilfong called on him in the stretch he asserted himself on the outside and defeated Kingofmyheart by 1 ¼ lengths. Get E Up finished third and Fox Valley Ozzy faded to fourth after taking an immediate lead and maintaining it into the stretch.
Owned by Megan Rogers Racing Stables, Inc., the erratic Fox Valley Crete established a lifetime mark with a time of 1:52.2 in going to the winner’s circle for the sixth time in 13 starts this year. In his six losses his best effort was a third.
“Good trip, bad trip,” said Wilfong. “At Springfield and DuQuoin things didn’t work out but I kept saying, ‘I think he can go with his group and put his nose in front when it matters.’ Tonight the trip worked out.”
In the $85,000 Beulah Dygert Memorial for 3-year-old filly trotters, Wilfong drove Funky Wiggle to his ninth victory in 11 starts for his owner-breeder Dr. Patrick Graham and trainer Grummel.
Despite drawing the outside post position in a 10-horse race, Funky Wiggle played the role of the ultra-strong 1-2 favorite.
“My heart sank when she drew the 10-hole,” Wilfong said. “The gate is not her friend but tonight she got out of there easily (and was third at the first call before asserting herself). Once she got to the lead and was out there trotting there was never a doubt.”
In what would prove to be the night’s only landslide victory, Funky Wiggle won by six lengths over Creations Dream MV in 1:54.2.
Illini Jetset produced the night’s biggest payoff when he kicked back a $15 win return in $154,000 Incredible Finale for 2-year-old colt and gelding pacers.
Co-owned by trainer Erv Miller and driven by Todd Warren, the 6.50-1 shot in the field of 10 was clocked in a career-best 1:52.3 when he gradually moved up from eighth at the quarter call to gain the lead by the stretch call and best pacesetting 4-5 favorite Ghost Shark by 3/4ths of a length.
A product of the University of Illinois Department of Animal Services breeding program, Illini Jet Set had won only once in his nine previous races but was out of the mutuel money only twice.
“He has had some close calls (in his losses),” Warren said. “I didn’t want to be in the mix early. If Ghost Shark hadn’t been used so hard (in responding to challenges by Fox Valley Landen and Fox Valley McKee) I might have had some trouble.”
With Travis Seekman back in the sulky, Talk About Valor, the defending champion in the $62,000 Plesac Trot for aged males took owner Shelley Steele and trainer Gerald Hansen back to the winner’s circle and in doing so he matched the track record of 1:53.2 set last month by Jack Vernon.
It also was a lifetime best clocking for the 7-year-old gelding who moved from third in the opening quarter to second after three quarters and then overtook Wilfong and 9-1 shot Primed N’ Powerful, the leader for most of the race, to win by 1 length and pay $2.20 as the 1-10 favorite.
This was the 28th triumph of Talk About Valor’s 75-race career and his 12th in 18 starts this year.
For his trainer this has been a memorable month — the previous week Hansen recorded the 1,500th victory of his career.
Another defending champion, Fox Valley Exploit, went back to the winner’s circle in the $62,000 Tony Maurello Memorial for aged mare pacers.
Driver Kyle Husted co-owns the 5-year-old mare with David Brigham and his wife, Amy, is her trainer.
Fox Valley Exploit was the 1.10-1 favorite and Scorecard Dandy was the close second choice at 1.30-1, and that’s the way the race played out. Scorecard Dandy gained the lead in the opening quarter, Fox Valley Exploit moved into striking distance in second place and that was the status quo until the favorite took command just before the wire to win by 3/4ths of a length in 1:52.4.
“I was really worried about Scorecard Dandy,” Kyle Husted said. “She beat me a couple of times.
“Fox Valley Exploit doesn’t like slow fractions. Thankfully, Kyle Wilfong (Scorecard Dandy’s driver) didn’t walk us around the track.”
Consistently in the mutuel money, Fox Valley Exploit went to the winner’s circle for the eighth time in 26 races this year and for the 29th time in 67 lifetime starts.
Kyle credited his trainer wife for the mare’s success.
“Amy is the person in charge,” he said, “the backbone of the operation.”
Finish Lines: According to Casey Leonard, Fox Valley Gemini’s owner, Jim Ballinger, recently purchased his full brother, Fox Valley Bruin, at the Land of Lincoln yearling sale… Fox Valley Gemini was one of four Night of Champions winners bred by Fox Valley Standardbreds… When Becker Memorial winner Annas Lucky Star set the track record of 1:53.3 for aged trotting mares on Aug. 6 in an open race the runner-up was Plesac winner Talk About Valor.. .The 32-night summer meeting that began June 30 ended Sept. 11, the night after the Night of Champions… After winning the driving championship at Hawthorne’s Jan. 9-March 20 winter meeting, Wilfong took the summer title in a landslide with 70 winners to 50 for runner-up Atlee Bender and 49 for third place Casey Leonard. In contrast to the driver’s race, the race to become the champion trainer went down to the wire — Amy Husted earned the first championship of her career was 26 with winners to 25 for Miller. Coming in third with 20 was Terry Leonard, who’d won his fourth championship in five years at the winter meeting… Hawthorne’s fall/winter thoroughbred meeting will begin on Sept. 23 and continue for the rest of the year… Harness racing is scheduled to continue Sept. 15, 16, 22, 23, 29 and 30 at the State Fairgrounds in Springfield. Hawthorne will provide the purse money for the programs but there will be no wagering.