A Page in Jug History

Delaware, Ohio resident Chris Page posted an emotional victory in the 77th Little Brown Jug by driving supplemental Ohio-bred entry Bythemissal to victory for the Burke Brigade. It was Burke’s fourth Jug win in eight years and second straight.

by Nicole Kraft

Chris Page was 11 years old when he clung to the chain-link fence around the Delaware County Fair racetrack and watched Magical Mike win the 1994 Little Brown Jug. From that day forward, the Ohio native fantasized that someday it might be him hoisting the Jug trophy in that winner’s circle.

After driving in 36,028 races, Page’s childhood dream finally came true Thursday.

Page, a resident of Delaware, was mobbed in the winner’s circle by nearly 200 family and friends after he steered favorite Bythemissal to victory in the $641,550 Little Brown Jug final. Trained by Ron Burke, Bythemissal, won by three-quarters of a length over Fourever Boy and Night Hawk in 1:51.1.

“I can’t even put it into words,” Page said. “It’s just a whole bunch of emotions. I’ve been coming to the Little Brown Jug since I was a little guy and standing on the fence cheering. To actually win, it’s just the icing on the cake for my career.”

Bythemissal, just the second Ohio-bred pacer to win the Little Brown Jug after BJ Scoot in 1988, has now won 10 races in his 12-race career and earned $830,525. He became the third horse in Jug history to win after a supplemental payment, following in the hoofprints of Wiggle It Jiggleit in 2015 and Courtly Choice in 2018.

The gelding was the pre-race favorite by virtue of wins this year in the $350,000 Delvin Miller Adios and $300,000 Max C. Hempt Memorial. Few observers, however, would have expected the son of Downbytheseaside, purchased as a yearling for $135,000 from the 2020 Lexington Select Sale, to be anyone’s best Jug shot when he started the year.

While most horses gain experience for a tough 3-year-old campaign by racing at age 2, Bythemissal suffered an injury that sidelined him until the late fall of 2021. He finally showed a flash of potential by winning his first race Nov. 30 for trainer Josh Green and owner Erik Good.

The gelding moved to Burke’s barn early in 2022 after Good sold shares to Burke Racing Stable, Weaver Bruscemi and Rich Lombardo Racing. The pacer soon proved his value, capturing eight of his first 10 races and beating many of the best horses in his class.

“When Josh sent him to me, he said he was the real deal,” Burke said. “When [Bythemissal] started training down, I said he was the best horse in the barn, and he showed it.”

If anyone knows a good horse, it is Burke, who has conditioned winners of more than 13,000 races and $288.6 million in purses.

Burke won the 2021 Jug with Lou’s Pearlman to cap a year in which the trainer was also inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame. Filibuster Hanover in 2017 and Limelight Beach in 2014 also put Burke in the Jug winner’s circle.

Unlike Burke’s previous horses, however, Bythemissal was not kept eligible to compete in the Jug. Lucky for his connections, Jug officials changed the rules in 2022 to allow any ineligible horse to compete for a supplemental fee — set at $45,000.

“We are pretty game bunch,” Burke said of the ownership team before the race. “It does not take much to get them to try and do something neat. He is as good as any 3-year-old I have had to this point. He really is a special horse. He deserves this shot.”

Bythemissal dominated in the first elimination heat, taking the lead right off the gate and pulling away from the field by four lengths at the finish of a 1:51.3 mile. Night Hawk was second and Atlas Hanover was third.

“He was super,” second trainer Mickey Burke said of the elimination win. “The horse went exactly the way Chris wanted to drive him and he paced home on his own. Chris says he couldn’t have been any better.”

Fourever Boy moved into the final by virtue of his elimination heat victory, though it was far from easy. The Dexter Dunn-driven pacer was parked much of the race before pulling clear in the stretch, winning by 1 ½ lengths in 1:51.4 to give trainer Tim Twaddle his first Jug heat victory. Six Feet Apart was second and Gulf Shores was third.

“It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience,” Twaddle said. “Everybody dreams of being in the Jug and it’s so hard to have a horse who is good enough to compete at this level. He just really special.”

The top eight finishers moved on to the final, and Fourever Boy shot out to an early lead, while Page tucked Bythemissal right behind the leader through fractions of :27.1 and :55.3. When the field rounded the three-quarters in 1:24.1, the race was on. Bythemissal had the lead midway through the stretch and neither he nor Page were going to give up an inch.

“You need to be aggressive,” Burke said. “You’re not going to win here just watching the race. You got to be in it.”

The victory was Burke’s second Jug in two years, and it puts the trainer in historic company as just the third person in history to train four Jug winners, joining Hall of Famers Billy Haughton with six and Stanley Dancer with four.

“The thing is, I’m not done,” Burke said. “I’ve got to catch these guys. I don’t like being second. I’ve got a lot more to go. But I’m thrilled to win this one… because it gave Chris his first, and he’s our guy.”

Page was equally excited to win with Burke, who he called, “the best trainer, not standardbreds but even thoroughbreds.” He recognized that the partnership has lifted them both to lofty heights.

“He’s took me from zero to a hero in my career,” Page said. “Like in the movie ‘Willy Wonka,’ I punched a golden ticket with Ronnie.”

The sun was setting on the Delaware Fairgrounds as Page jogged Bythemissal back to the barn, accepting congratulations every step of the way.

Waiting for him, standing by the chain-link fence was his 21-month-old son, Carter, who had just witnessed his first Jug dressed in mini white and blue colors that matched his father.

When asked if history might repeat itself a few decades in the future, Page just grinned.

“I don’t know,” Page said. “Whatever he does, I hope it makes him feel like I do right now.”

Ohio State journalism students Megan Husslein, Gabby Khodadad and Katy Popovitch contributed to this report.