Day At The Track

John DeLong reflects on eventful year

03:04 AM 22 Jun 2019 NZST
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John DeLong, harness racing
John DeLong is currently tied for first place with Sam Widger in the Harrah’s Hoosier Park drivers’ standings with 113 wins.
Dean Gillette Photo

Trenton, NJ — As he looks ahead to his 2,500th career driving win, harness racing driver John DeLong also took time to look back on a year of extreme highs and lows; and feels blessed to be back on a big-time high.

On June 2, 2018, DeLong and fiancée Tabby Canarr had what John termed “a life changing experience,” in a good way when their baby Jessica was born. Just over five months later, DeLong was on the opposite end of the emotional scale when he suffered what could have been another life changer in a truly bad way.

Fortunately, a worst-case scenario never occurred. There was a seven-week bout with pain and apprehension and, while that was certainly unpleasant, it was not life-altering enough to end the talented driver’s career.

He has recovered with a vengeance and currently is tied for first place with Sam Widger in the Harrah’s Hoosier Park drivers’ standings with 113 wins. He celebrated Jessica’s first birthday 19 days ago and is just nine victories shy of getting halfway to 5,000.

“Things are really good for me right now,” DeLong said.

But for a seven-week stretch, an uncertain future loomed due to an incident that occurred while working in his Anderson, Ind. barn last Nov. 6.

“We were putting hobbles on a yearling for the first time and I got kicked in the face,” DeLong said. “It was just kind of a freak deal. I’ve trained colts ever since I can remember. Me and my three brothers all trained colts with my dad (Jay) growing up. That’s just the risk you take, I guess. It actually caught us by surprise. Well, me anyway. I was picking up a back leg, and got cow kicked. I got hit on the left side of the face, broke my cheekbone and the orbital bone in my left eye.”

With some such mishaps, the pain is so severe a person goes into shock and doesn’t feel it, or at least is knocked unconscious. DeLong had no such “luck.”

“I didn’t get knocked out and I didn’t get a concussion, but the pain was unbelievable,” he said. “I had that pain all the way to the hospital. It was pretty bad.”

Upon arriving at the emergency room, he was referred to an ear, nose and throat surgeon. Until that visit, 1,000 thoughts ran through John’s mind.

“When I first got hurt, I was pretty down for a while,” he said. “My eye was swollen shut. But after my appointment with the doctor, I felt a lot better. I really didn’t know what was going to happen there for a while. I had quite a bit of damage.”

That’s like Warren Buffett saying he has quite a bit of money — a huge understatement.

DeLong underwent surgery to have two plates and eight screws inserted into his face and a very tender eye. There was ample nerve damage and he needed to have all his sinuses rebuilt (he goes back to the doctor in three weeks to see if another surgery will be needed to remove a plate).

Once the operations were completed, DeLong was confined to his home for a month, “because they said I had the chance of losing my eye if it got infected.”

Shortly before Christmas, John got his doctor’s clearance and the first thing he wanted to do was work on a trotting filly named GD Lone Survivor, who he had invested ample time in before the accident. Her maiden start came on the day he got kicked in the face, and her first few races were not up to DeLong’s expectations.

Armed with a newly designed mud apron to help knock down some of the dirt in his face, he trained GD Lone Survivor at his farm.

“I wanted to make sure if I took some dirt to the face a little bit, I would be able to take it,” he said. “I didn’t want my face to be sore or tender. Then I went to Cleveland (Northfield Park) and drove her and she finished second, trotted three seconds faster than she had been so I was pretty happy about that. It was good to get that out of my system and kind of get back on the horse.”

He was not rushing into anything, however, and took it easy through the winter. Upon returning to driving, DeLong opened in Ohio.

“I had a slow start when I first started back,” he said. “It probably isn’t the best stock over there but it’s OK. I wanted to ease myself back into racing so when we got to Hoosier I was ready to roll. It’s been good so far, no complaints. Stakes season is starting to get going here. Hopefully we’ll catch a couple good colts.”

John DeLong drove Homicide Hunter, the future world-record-setting trotter, at ages 2 and 3.      (Linscott Photography).

In 639 driving starts this year, DeLong has won 116, placed in 93 and finished third in 82. In 55 training starts he has nine firsts, seven seconds and seven thirds. There have been few remnants to remind him of his misfortune.

“To be honest, it’s a lot better than I thought,” he said. “I had a very good doctor; he was very confident in what could be done.”

As for his impending milestone, John was low key when asked if they mean something.

“The big ones do,” he said. “I’m the first person in our family to race horses professionally as a full-time career. These are something that probably down the road I’ll sit back and be pretty proud of what I’ve done. Right now it’s just kind of day by day and night by night. You just have to do the best you can. Every night you get in the truck and go to the track. If things are going good and you’re doing things right, those things will come.”

They have been coming in bunches since he made the move to Hoosier Park four years ago. A Wisconsin native who grew up learning the ropes under his dad, DeLong got his first win in 2005 driving Fox Valley Bono, a horse trained by his uncle “Bo” (William). He won the driving title at Running Aces during its inaugural 2008 season at the ripe old age of 19.

After making a name for himself at the Chicago area tracks, John moved to Indiana in 2015 and built a 36-stall barn and a half-mile racetrack on 35 acres that sits just two miles from Hoosier Park. He and Jay owned two stellar horses that encouraged him to make the move.

“Homicide Hunter was a 3-year-old and he was one of the driving forces in getting me to do it,” said DeLong, who drove the future world-record-setting trotter at ages 2 and 3. “I knew if I had a good horse to follow and get me going I should do it. Seventimesavirgin was a 2-year-old then, and when Seven was a 3-year-old, it just launched.”

Seventimesavirgin, a DeLong family homebred, won the Indiana Sire Stakes championship as a 3-year-old and was a Breeders Crown starter at age 4. (Dean Gillette photo).

Seventimesavirgin, a DeLong family homebred, won the Indiana Sire Stakes championship as a 3-year-old and was a Breeders Crown starter at age 4. She is racing this year and will then begin breeding.

Since driving predominantly at Hoosier Park, DeLong has won more than 1,200 races and $14 million. Needless to say, he’s happy to have made the move.

“Absolutely,” DeLong said. “I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing at this point if I hadn’t moved down here. I bought a farm, built a track and a barn and I live right on the farm. It’s kind of everything coming full circle. When I was a kid, I always wanted my own farm and wanted to catch drive and stuff like that, and now I’m doing it all.”

Can it get any better?

Sure it can.

On Nov. 16, the Saturday after he is done racing for the season, DeLong and Tabby will be getting hitched.

Which will be a lot more fun than it was getting kicked just one year earlier.

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