Inaugurated at old Sportsman's Park in 1989, the 21st consecutive Super Night of Illinois harness racing will take place at Balmoral Park Saturday night with something special missing this year . . . Hall of Fame driver Dave Magee.
The 55-year-old driver with over 11,000 career dash winners will instead be up north in Canada to guide the talented Illinois bred 3-year-old trotter Southern Rocketop in the C$1 million Canadian Trotting Classic at Mohawk Raceway against the nation's No. 1 horse.
Through the first 20 editions of Super Night-the last 11 at Balmoral Park after the demise of the Chicago circuit's premier in-town harness track in 1998-Magee has indeed been "Mr. Super Night," driving 26 Super Night stake champion winners, more the twice as many as any other driver.
How many other Super Nights as Magee missed?
"None," answered the Green Bay, WI native. "This will be my first."
Magee was offered the opportunity to drive Southern Rocketop after the trotter's second place finish in early August in his Springfield stake elimination. Dave weighed the plusses and minuses and then decided to commit to the Robert Taylor trainee who had an ambitious stakes schedule ahead.
"When I made the decision to commit to driving Southern Rocketop I had to contemplate the fact that that I would be missing my first Super Night. The power (drives) I had on Illinois breds were in the two-year-old trotting divisions and they don't go on Super Night. I really didn't have any prohibitive favorites to drive for this Super Night. I had some nice 2-year-old filly and colt pacers, and of course Thisbigdogwilfight in the older division, but no big favorites.
"Also, I had never driven in the Canadian Trotting Classic. When I initially committed I wasn't sure that Muscles (Hill) was going there because there was talk that he might skip it so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to come up to Canada to drive. And I like to drive good trotters," said Dave.
In his first drive behind Southern Rocketop Dave guided him to a 1:54.4 victory in the $50,000 Springfield Final on August 20. Nine days later they finished third behindin Balmoral's $200,000 American National, beaten eight lengths, and then came a solid second in the $540,000 World Trotting Derby at DuQuoin, beaten only one length by Muscles Hill.
Last Saturday Southern Rocketop was an easy 1:53.2 winner in his Canadian Trotting Classic elimination.
"Southern Rocketop wasn't 100 per cent the first two times I drove him but he was strong to the wire in the World Trotting Derby he felt great in last Saturday's Classic elimination..
"He is one of the best trotters I've ever raced," said Magee. "I drove Continentalvictory and she's obviously was a great one, but Southern Rocketop is right up there among the best (trotters) that I've driven."
The long-time Chicago circuit kingpin may have been absent when the first of two nights of Super Night eliminations were raced last Saturday at Balmoral but he certainly wasn't forgotten by his colleagues.
About four or five dozen horsemen gathered to watch on the Balmoral Park paddock television his drive last week behind Southern Rocketop at Mohawk. Soon after they teamed-up to cross the finish line first a spontaneous applause began, and it grew louder and louder.
"I've been around a long time and that's the first time I've ever seen anything like that," said Balmoral's paddock judge Greg Kash.
Either have I but maybe we'll get to see it a second time this Saturday when Super Night 2009 is conducted for the first time without Illinois all-time No. 1 driver.
Mike Paradise writes a daily column for the IHHA at www.harnessillinois.com.
Michael F. PARADISE