The opportunity for young harness racing drivers to advance on the Chicago circuit is here and Casey Leonard is taking advantage of it. The third generation Illinois horseman is off to his best start and currently among the top five at both Balmoral and Maywood Parks.
"With the purses going so far down we've had some drivers leave to compete for better money and that's given other drivers like me more opportunities" said Casey. "So far it has been working out well for me.
"You like to think you can hold your hold with the guys who are here all year long. That's what you're shooting for. But the bottom line is that you need to win races. That's what it's all about."
And winning races is exactly what the 32-year-old Harvard, Illinois driver and trainer is doing. Going into Wednesday's card at Balmoral Casey had 11 winning drives in 49 opportunities, a 22.9% winning clip and at Maywood he's at 9.5%, going 8 for 84. His combined total is 19 for 133, a winning percentage of 14.3.
"I would like to keep my winning percentage up this year," continued Casey. "I'd like to keep it around 10 per cent. If I can go out and drive a winning horse one every 10 times that would be huge."
Casey's late grandfather Bud Leonard is a member of the Illinois Harness Hall of Fame. His father Terry, a former IHHA Executive Board Member, has been a successful long-time fixture in our prairie state, and his brother Ross has been competing in both Canada and in Indiana.
"Ross oversees the stable we have in Indiana and I do the same for the stable here in Illinois," said Casey. "My dad kind of oversees it all. I handle all the owners and I make the decisions here when to put a horse in and at what level but dad has the ultimate last call."
Casey has a different mindset when he competes at Balmoral and Maywood.
"At the mile track you have to have the power. You need to drive for trainers who have their horses ready to go on a big track," said Casey "On the half-mile track you can get lucky and win a race. Others guys can make a mistake and maybe you can capitalize off their miscues."
The Leonard's farm in Harvard is in the northeast corner of the State of Illinois while Balmoral Park is situated in the far Chicago southeast suburb of Crete.
"Balmoral is a 100 mile trip for us," said Casey. "It can be a long night if you're in a late race there. It's not unusual to get back to the farm after 2 o'clock in the morning."
Casey said he planned to qualify the barn's star pacer Well To Do Guru last night at Maywood Park. The now 6-year-old ICF pacer was a multiple Free For All winner on the Chicago circuit in 2009 and also won Maywood's Associates stake.
"Our track as been so good I haven't had to ship him to Maywood for any training. We plan to give him a few starts in Chicago and if the purses don't go up he'll be sent to Hoosier Park to race," added Casey.
Mike Paradise writes a daily column for the IHHA at www.harnessillinois.com
By Mike Paradise, for the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association