Wilfong looks to build on 2023 success

After finally giving up on racing in Chicago, driver Kyle Wilfong has accelerated up the standings at Harrah’s Hoosier Park.

by James Platz

Harrah’s Hoosier Park’s 2023 meet provided an incredible opportunity for driver Kyle Wilfong to raise his profile at the Anderson, IN oval. The 32-year-old reinsman finished third in the standings last season and captured the Dan Patch Stakes steering Ponda Warrior. This season, he is off to a fast start in the meet’s early going and looks to build on that momentum.

“Last year was big for me,” Wilfong said. “I really got my foot in the door and everything just went great. From winning the Dan Patch and having a great stable behind me with Jay Hochstetler and a couple others, that’s been huge.”

Wilfong’s career as a driver began in 2007 with four trips behind the starting gate. He won three of those races. By 2011, he logged just over 1,200 starts while guiding 126 winners and earning three-quarters of a million dollars in purses.

“When I first started driving on the pari-mutuel scene, I was driving at Balmoral Park and going to Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, just mainly driving my dad’s horses,” he said. “Wherever we would get in, if we had three or four horses in at one place, I would be there. I really didn’t have a set schedule. After two years of doing that, I moved up to Balmoral full time and drove there until they closed their doors.”

When Balmoral closed in 2015, Wilfong moved to Anderson, but Illinois was still a big part of his schedule. He gradually moved up the ladder to become one of the top drivers at Hawthorne, winning multiple titles.

“I always got good work there,” Wilfong said. “I was first or second in the driver’s colony. I was so optimistic after they got the slot bill passed that something was truly going to happen. We’re so close, but nothing’s happened. I was living in Anderson and dead set that Hawthorne was going to be the answer for me. I moved a stable up there and it just didn’t work. I got tired of being on the road a lot.”

The fourth-generation horseman split time between Hoosier Park and Chicago through the 2022 season. In 2021, Wilfong finished 18th in the Hoosier Park driver standings with 19 winners and just over $320,000 in purse earnings. In 2022, he moved up to 11th in the standings, winning 49 races and banking $767,000 in earnings.

“I always ventured back to Hawthorne and the Illinois racing scene until last year,” he said. “With the direction that Illinois has gone, it was time to find my spot. I’m happy to be at home now.”

Focused primarily on Hoosier Park, Wilfong had an incredible season. He more than tripled his Indiana win total from the previous year, tallying 153, while raking in just over $3 million in purses. Nationally, he finished the year with 197 scores, second only to his 221 victories one year earlier. He set a personal best in earnings with $3.56 million, almost one million more than his previous mark established in 2022.

“I was thrilled to be third,” Wilfong said. “That was great. It was a big leap from where I had been in years past. It just all worked out.”

The driver admitted that his fortunes changed after teaming with Hochstetler to win the Dan Patch.

“For me it was huge,” he said. “I was getting some work, but the quality of work definitely seemed to really improve. It was big, it truly was.”

The driver/trainer tandem also found success with freshman trotting filly Ponda Title. The Muscle Massive lass won seven times, capturing the Indiana Sires Stakes Super Final and Trotter of the Year honors in the state while earning just over $480,000.

With Hoosier Park’s 2024 meet now underway, Wilfong finds himself in uncharted territory. After opening weekend, he topped the standings, and six days into the 160-day meet, he is again in the pole position after bagging six winners Thursday (April 4), bringing his early meet total to 12. It’s not the first time he has guided six horses to the winner’s circle on a card. He did so on Hawthorne’s Night of Champions in 2022, capturing half a dozen finals.

“I’m just trying to do better,” he said. “Try to do the best with every drive I get. When you do that, the better quality of horse comes. Over the years I’ve traveled to Hawthorne or Oak Grove or places like that just chasing work. I think the more you drive the better you’ll be at it.”

The years of hustle are paying off. Wilfong is enjoying early-season success and is within striking distance of a milestone. After Thursday’s six-win night, he sits at 1,980 career victories.

“To get close to 2,000, I’m thrilled,” he said. “It’s all about the next one.”