Day At The Track

Buggy pulling trotter returns to racing

01:43 AM 22 Aug 2019 NZST
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Cooper, harness racing
Firman Troyer with Cooper
Photo courtesy Firman Troyer

NORTHFIELD, OH — He may very well be the Roy Hobbs of harness racing.

In the classic baseball movie “The Natural,” Hobbs, portrayed by Robert Redford, endures 16 years between striking out a Babe Ruthian character known as Whammer and playing for the big league New York Knights as a 35-year-old rookie. A silver bullet delayed his debut.

Cooper, a bay six-year-old harness racing trotter, had been missing in pari-mutuel action for nearly four years, a lifetime for a racehorse, when he showed up to compete at Northfield Park in early June.

Where has he been?

He was busy pulling an Amish buggy around Sugarcreek, Ohio, a village in Tuscarawas County that’s about an hour south of Northfield Park.

Cooper, no longer an equine limousine, seeks his seventh straight victory Wednesday night in the 10th race at Northfield.

The masterminds behind the magical rebirth of the son of Canadian sire Kadabra, are longtime Sugarcreek friends Homer Stutzman and Firman Troyer.

“He’s a total surprise,” said Troyer, who owns and trains Cooper after purchasing him privately from Stutzman. “Every time he races, he amazes me.”

Stutzman, who bought Cooper at auction a few years back for a few thousand dollars, is not as surprised.

“When I first got him, he (had a) sore behind and he also had a kidney infection,” said Stutzman. “I called an equine chiropractor and he worked on him. It just took some time for him to come up to snuff.”

It’s also when Stutzman heard a sound that made him think Cooper wanted to once again trot for his dinner.

“I started hearing his hooves hitting the axles on the buggy,” he said. “That told me that he was really feeling good and stretching out.”

So, Stutzman reached out to Troyer earlier this year and encouraged him to give Cooper a second chance at the races.

“I have a day job in Sugarcreek, building doors at Provia Door, so training horses is a hobby of mine,” said Troyer. “Homer knows horses and he said he thought Cooper would do, so I decided to try him as a racehorse.”

After getting him in shape at a stable in Sugarcreek, Troyer shipped Cooper to Northfield for a morning qualifying mile on May 30. It was the first time he’d been on a racetrack since Sept. 6, 2015, when he failed to finish in a race at Flamboro Downs in Canada.

Not only did Cooper go wire-to-wire over a sloppy track to win the qualifier by 1 ½ lengths, he was timed his mile in 1:57 4/5.

“My first reaction was that I wasn’t sure the timing device was working,” said Troyer. “That was mighty fast.”

Cooper has not only won all six of his starts by an average margin of 6 1/2 lengths, he has dramatically lowered his winning time in each subsequent outing, turning in an eye-popping career best 1:53 2/5 last Wednesday.

“We never figured this would happen, but we’re enjoying every minute of it,” said Troyer. “Cooper is the best horse I’ve ever had. He has the nicest temperament. There isn’t a mean bone in his body. My little boy could race him.”

And what does Mark Steacy think of Cooper? He’s the trainer who had him in his failed first year of racing.

“What he’s done (at Northfield) is something you don’t see very often,” said Steacy. “I sent him back to his owner because he was just too slow. But good for him. Perhaps he just matured.”

Troyer isn’t sure what has gotten into Cooper, but whatever it is, he’ll gladly accept more of it.

“The future? I don’t know,” he said. “The future will just have to tell us what it is.”

By Bob Roberts, Special to The Plain Dealer, reprinted with permission

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