Minnesota’s Justin Anfinson on the long, satisfying road to the Courgaeous Lady podium

by Chris Lomon

The moments when he wasn’t smiling were few and far between for Justin Anfinson.

An 11-hour drive from Northfield, OH, to Kenyon, MN, could have been a tough road to travel for the standardbred trainer/owner/breeder, but on this occasion, every stretch of the 744 miles was well worth the time.

The reason for the happy return came courtesy of a 3-year-old Minnesota-bred pacing miss who stepped into the stakes spotlight and reached the podium against some top-rank rivals on Oct. 15.

Give Me This Dance, 40-1 on the tote board at Northfield Park in the $100,000 Courageous Lady, crossed the wire third in a time of 1:52.1.

For Anfinson, the bronze-medal performance was a genuine thrill, a chance for the bay filly to test her mettle on the big stage and prove that she belonged.

And, with Aaron Merriman at the controls, she most certainly showed she did.

“Aaron gave her a great drive,” said Anfinson. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure how she would do taking on those horses, but we were really pleased with what she did out there.”

After a winless 2021 rookie campaign in which she went 0-4-4 from 13 starts, Give Me This Dance has strutted her best stuff in her sophomore season, going 14-7-5 from 27 starts to date.

The well-traveled miss – her dance card includes wins in California – took everything in stride before and after the Courageous Lady.

Not surprisingly, Anfinson is a big fan.

“Just a great horse in every way,” he said. “She’s one that goes out there and steps up to each challenge that comes her way. We’re very lucky to have her in our barn.” 

Perhaps her Northfield result isn’t much of a surprise considering the person who has played a major role in orchestrating her big year.

Anfinson, a second-generation horseman, has shown a winning touch since he joined the training ranks 15 years ago.

A modest four-win first year was followed by a 94-win output in 2008.

Since that time, Anfinson, who trains Minnesota bred and open pacers and trotters for his family, and for other owners across the Midwest and Northeast, has racked up 665 wins and over $4 million in purse earnings.

Aside from Give Me This Dance, he’s had other standouts like 2018 Minnesota Horse of the Year, Burning Blaze, bred by Iowa-based Alan and Cheryl Sandbulte, who co-own with Edward Gutin, of Massapequa, NY.

Burning Blaze, a son of Wind Me Up-Cowgirls N Indians, notched a track record of 1:54.1 at Running Aces on September 15, 2018, en route to a 2YO Divisional Championship. No longer in his barn, the gelding has posted 15 wins and earnings of just under $140,000.

“I’m not sure what I’m most proud of when it comes to my career. We built the farm up and I’ve been able to train a stable in Minnesota, which was what my goal was, so that’s certainly something that I’m happy about.”

Just as he is about a prosperous summer.

“I had a lot of nice Minnesota-breds this summer, which has been really nice for us. Obviously, Give Me This Dance stands out. Wavzeka (a two-year-old pacing daughter of Arts Chip-Delco Dusty) really came on strong at the end, especially. I had a pair of three-year-old trotting fillies, CR Promise To You, and Wilamar Spark, who were both very good. I definitely can’t complain.”

Anfinson, Minnesota’s Fair Trainer of the Year in 2021, has made an impact beyond his own stable’s successes.

In 2019, the board of directors of Minnesota Harness Racing Inc. (MHRI) elected Anfinson to serve as president of the association. His uncle, the late Ron Banks, previously served as MHRI president and was inducted into the Minnesota Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2018.

“My dad always told me whatever I did, just work hard. And that’s always stayed with me in whatever I’ve done, including with the board. Racing here in Minnesota keeps growing and getting better each year and that’s what we all want to see. Doing that, while training, it can be tough, timewise, on certain days. I want to see the sports keep growing and we’re all working together to make that happen.”

Support for his roles comes from far and wide.

Along with his wife Stephanie and their two young children, daughter Morgan, 5, and son, Carter, 3, Anfinson receives a helping hand from plenty of people.

He’s grateful for all the backing.

“Having a couple of kids has really helped me with my patience in terms of the horses. But I’m very fortunate to have the support of my family in so many ways. Everyone helps out. My mom, my dad, his brothers, my uncles, they all help out. Everybody was watching the Courageous Lady. I had a lot of people call and text, to congratulate me. That means a lot. People here where I’m from, it meant a lot to them that a Minnesota-bred would get invited to the race, and that the horse did well.”

Anfinson has learned to roll with the punches in a sport where losses happen far more often than trips to the winner’s circle.

“That’s just the nature of the business, those ups and downs. That rollercoaster, it’s part of the business, which makes you appreciate the successes even more.”

Give Me This Dance’s most recent outing is an ideal example of that mindset.

On the long drive back to Minnesota – Anfinson, his wife and the filly stopped for the night at owner/breeder Jay De Long’s farm in Wisconsin before getting on the road the following morning – the horseman had plenty of time to think about his harness life, past and present.

And whatever recollection or look ahead happened to cross his mind, it was more than enough to make him happy.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career, to have nice horses and a lot of people, family, friends, owners and others, supporting me. I don’t really set my goals. I just try to run with the horses I’m granted each year and do the best I can. That’s my goal.”