The 'Burke Brigade,' after a stupendously successful season in 2011, as expected took the lion's share of Pennsylvania harness racing awards for that season in balloting recently conducted by the Keystone Chapter of the U.S. Harness Writers Association.
Ron Burke, also voted national champion, of course claimed Keystone honors as Trainer of the Year, and Burke's ownership division, Burke Racing, and "teammates" Weaver/Bruscemi, longtime Burke owners and supporters, took down the state's Owners of the Year prize.
Burke trainees voted best in their categories include Foiled Again, the ironsided Free For All pacer who was named Pennsylvania-Sired Horse of the Year, and Sweet Lou, voted co-Pennsylvania Sire Stakes Horse of the Year after a brilliant campaign in the Commonwealth that went a step further when the colt posted the fastest time ever by a freshman, 1:49, in the Breeders Crown.
Also earning a share of Sire Stakes honors was Stormin Normand, a freshman trotting gelding who was the only horse in Pennsylvania last year to win all of his preliminary legs and his Sire Stakes Championship, and who figures highly in Hambletonian talk this campaign.
The "Burke Brigade" rules the roost at The Meadows, the track near Pittsburgh, and several other award winners come from the western part of the state. Chief among them is Tom Loughry, Jr., who was selected for the Mary Lib Miller Award, the group's highest honor. Loughry, second trainer for the Rocky Top Stable, responded immediately with vigorous and successful CPR after fellow horseman Bill Daugherty, Jr. was stricken at Amulet Farms and had to be helicoptered off; the medics said that it would have been unlikely for Daugherty to survive without Loughry's help.
You can't really talk about western Pennsylvania without mentioning Dave Palone, who earned Driver of the Year honors. As of this typing, Palone is 17 wins away from 15,000 career visits to the winners circle, and less than 200 triumphs shy of Herve Filion's North American record of 15,180. Also carrying the Westside banner was star Invitational trotter Sir Caviar, voted best among diamond-gaited horses with more than 50 percent of their starts "at home."
Other winners were Breeders of the Year Hanover Shoe Farms, the No. 1 harness breeding establishment in the world, who again set a world record with graduates banking $28.9 million in 2011; and transplanted Kiwi mare Royal Cee Cee N, who ruthlessly controlled the best distaffers sent to face her as she earned Pacer of the Year in the more than 50 percent local start category.
The Keystone Chapter President has chosen to honor the inseparable Ralph and Ginger Jones with a special President's Award for their myriad contributions to the success of racing in the Commonwealth, especially on the fair circuit, where for years Ralph and Ginger worked side-by-side as judge and clerk. The couple still are present at many state events, with Ginger assisting Ralph with present visual and ambulatory difficulties, but their minds are still as sharp as a colt's and a filly's.
The awards will be distributed throughout the early racing season at sites where the winners campaign or do their business.
by Jerry Connors, for the Keystone Chapter of the U.S. Harness Writers Association