Half-mile specialist Coaches Corner continues winning ways at Yonkers

by James Platz

Tuesday night (Dec. 5) at Yonkers Raceway, Coaches Corner and Jason Bartlett bested a field of older horses to win the night’s opener by two lengths, tripping the timer in 1:51.2. Since arriving at the East Coast track, the Always A Virgin—Carobbean Pacetry sophomore is a perfect six-for-six, with an even more impressive winning streak dating back to August on the Indiana fair circuit. His former owner and trainer, Byron Hooley, would have been hard pressed to predict the recent string of success with the challenges he presented as a 2-year-old.

“He was just a mess,” Hooley said of the spring and summer of 2022. “He just didn’t know how to behave himself. As a 2-year-old he was just a wreck when I would take him to the track. Actually, that’s why I didn’t take him to the fairs as a 2-year-old. He was just a handful.”

Hooley is a regular on the Indiana Sired Fair Circuit, so his decision to keep Coaches Corner at Harrah’s Hoosier Park Racing & Casino speaks volumes. That first season he made a dozen starts with the gelding, a private purchase as a yearling. Coaches Corner produced a single victory while hitting the board three more times.

“As a 2-year-old I was never comfortable with him,” said Hooley, who campaigns horses under the name of Summit Pacing Acres. “Something would trigger him and this sucker would take off. I just had to be leery around him. I took him to Delaware and he raced second in the Standardbred. Hoosier Park just didn’t fit him.”

The struggles at Hoosier Park continued this spring for Coaches Corner. In six starts he managed a third-place placing by the judges.

“I always thought he was good enough to be at Hoosier, but things just didn’t work down there,” Hooley said. “He had drivers pick off him and he drew bad.”

Although the gelding couldn’t put it together at Hoosier Park, the trainer had made an equipment change that worked wonders. Hooley employed an open bridle on his pupil in hopes of making the pacer more manageable. The owner said his charge “grew up” and became a different horse once he moved to the fair circuit.

“All of a sudden he just settled down and realized there was nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “He grew up at the fairs and began to relax a little bit. I think he realized what his purpose was and just got better and better.”

Hooley had been apprehensive to take the pacer to the fairs at 2, but decided to give it a try this season. His son, Derek, steered the 3-year-old in many of his starts, including two immediate fair wins. Moving back to Hoosier Park for two attempts produced mixed results. Coaches Corner finished out of the money in an Indiana Sires Stakes eligible event, but returned a week later to win a fair start at the Anderson oval with Clint Coy in the bike. Beginning at Portland in early July, the gelding began an incredible streak. Over the next nine starts, Coaches Corner collected eight wins to close out his fair run, including six consecutive.

“There wasn’t anything at the fairs that could handle him,” Hooley said. “It was kind of fun winning, and Derek’s boys had a ball. We didn’t make a lot of money, but it was fun doing it. I think it set a nice foundation for him to do what he is doing now.”

During the summer, Coaches Corner established new speed marks in fair stops at Converse and Portland before claiming the $25,000 Governor’s Cup Championship. His lone defeat came in Grand Circuit action at the Indiana State fair when he finished third behind the Erv Miller entry of Coach Stefanos and Frankie Frankie on Fox Stake Day. After securing an ISA Elite division in late August, Coaches Corner was sold at the Blooded Horse Summer Sale, bringing $65,000 and topping the sale. He was purchased by Hoosiers Jeff Fought and Brian Carsey, although they almost missed out on buying the sophomore.

“Brian was supposed to go to the sale and couldn’t get there in time,” said Fought, who now lives in Florida. “He was driving there and told me, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ I told him, ‘It’s fine, I can bid online.’ I had already set up a Proxibid account. The horse is in the ring and we’re just starting to get a hurricane down here. Our power went out as the horse is in the ring. I lost my internet connection so I couldn’t bid.”

Running out of options, he called Brian Smith, the Proxibid consultant managing the sale on site.

“I had his cell phone,” Fought said. “He said, ‘I noticed you stopped bidding.’ I explained the situation. He bid the horse in for me. It just about didn’t work out.”

But it did work out. Fought and Carsey acquired their target, and Coaches Corner has exceeded expectations, reeling off seven-straight since entering Per Engblom’s barn. Six of the wins have come at Yonkers. The other, which produced his 1:50.3 mark, was secured at Harrah’s Philadelphia.

“We knew he was a nice horse,” Fought said. “We paid the premium for him because of the conditions that he fits. But the plan from the start was to send him straight to Yonkers. He’s shown in Indiana how good he was on a half. Our plan was to see how far he would go in the conditions and he has 100 per cent exceeded our expectations.”

Coaches Corner has banked $110,146 this season, with $63,200 added since he changed hands.

Beginning with his victory at Portland, the gelding has reached the winner’s circle in 15 of 16 starts. His current winning streak, which began Aug. 16, is nine races. His 18 seasonal wins place him in a tie for second for total wins in North America by a horse regardless of category. Only Dunkin,’ also a sophomore pacer, has more with 21 scores. Fought and Carsey felt Coaches Corner would be a good fit for Yonkers, but even they have been surprised by how he has moved up the condition ladder.

“We felt like he would stroll through the six-win category,” Fought said. “From five wins on up he’s been with older, upper-condition horses. We thought we would be okay up through the middle conditions and then you have to see what you have from there. These last three wins he’s been beyond what we thought he was going to be.”

Saddled with post 8 Tuesday night, Coaches Corner and Bartlett overcame the outside position to, once again, claim victory. This time he did so by racing third through a :55 opening half before moving first up and putting away leader Birthday by 2 lengths.

“He’s had a few that have impressed me, but that one there way more than any,” Fought said. “He didn’t have the lead and he showed that he’s not a one-trick pony. He had to come first up against them and work awful hard from the 8-hole. When he came first up and went by a pretty good horse and did it impressively, it was an eye opener.”

Hooley no longer owns the horse, but he, his son, and grandsons still cheer for the gelding. It doesn’t hurt that Fought roomed with Derek in college and is a long-time family friend.

“He’s become a family horse,” he said of Coaches Corner. “We all follow him. Right now, he’s at the top of his game. He’s been fun to watch.”