Day At The Track

The wait was worth it for Jodee Sparks

02:17 PM 30 Jan 2015 NZDT
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Jodee Sparks
Jodee Sparks got his first win in the sulky by driving E W Fisher across the finish line on Dec. 13 at Sports Creek Raceway
Jodee Sparks Photo

Trenton, NJ --- Jodee Sparks was just one race away from getting his harness racing driving license.

And then it took him nearly 20 years to get his first driving win.

But that’s the tale of the 43-year-old Linden, Mich., resident. Sparks left his life as a trainer to go off and make a living in his early 20s and returned to harness racing in his early 40s.

After training 16 winners before his sabbatical, Sparks got his first win in the sulky by driving E W Fisher across the finish line on Dec. 13 at Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek, Mich.

“That was cool,” Sparks said. “You could hear the crowd cheering. It was exciting.”

It was also a long time coming.

As a kid, Sparks was tight with high school classmate Matt Maynard, whose father owned horses.

“We were best friends,” he said. “And that’s what we did. If we wanted to go anywhere or do anything, first we had to go feed the horses or whatever.”

Sparks eventually got a groom’s license and did all his qualifying drives by the time he was 22, but...

“Back then you had to have a lot more drives, and when you got all those done, you had to rate a mile,” Sparks said. “I rated my mile and I was off four seconds. All I had to do was race the mile and they would have given it to me, so they said ‘Come back and do it again in a week.’ But I didn’t come back.”

There’s a good reason for that. Jodee’s name had been put in a pool at the nearby General Motors in Flint. Just before he was scheduled to go back to race the mile, he got hired by GM. He hated to leave the horses, but really had no choice.

“It was tough, but my parents and grandparents...nobody had a lot of faith in the horses,” he said. “It was kind of one of those sayings, feast or famine. They wanted me to go to a secure, good-paying job with benefits.

“Sometimes I look back and wonder, ‘What if I hadn’t done that, could I have made a lot of money?’ But also, when I came back, I saw a lot of the same faces as when I left and they didn’t really go anywhere. Some did, but a lot of them didn’t.”

Jodee started at GM on Jan. 26, 1995, and for the next 15 years didn’t think much about the horse business.

“I never even went to the track or did any gambling,” he said. “Back in the day the Detroit papers put the results and entries in there, so I kind of looked at them, it was in the back of my mind for a while.”

Instead, he embarked on a racquetball career and was club champion just before returning to racing. One day Jodee ran into Matt Maynard’s wife at the grocery store, the two re-connected “and it fired me back up.”

“Matt had a lot to do with me getting back in it,” Sparks said. “He had a farm at his house. I was laid off, I (bought) a horse (Imadragon) and I was able to go to his farm all the time and hang out with him. It was cool doing that, I dug it.”

A year later, Maynard gave Imadragon to another trainer but she withdrew after a year. Jodee then moved the horse to trainer Joe Cirasuola’s farm and began training Imadragon himself.

“Joe’s one of the best trainers in Michigan, he’s like a horse genius,” Sparks said. “It was kind of like a horse apprenticeship working there.”

It was also the start of a great friendship. Cirasuola hired Jodee’s wife Amanda as a groom, and the two are at the farm every day.

“It’s a lot of fun and a great experience,” Sparks said. “Joe has really played a big role in getting me on the track. He said he was going to buy me a set of winter colors for Christmas and he surprised me with the winter colors, a winter training suit and a set of summer colors.

“He also gave me qualifying drives and deserves a lot of credit. He’s been very good to me and my family and I’m very grateful to be part of his program.”

Sparks completed his drives to get his license at the end of the 2013 meet at Sports Creek. He was unable to use it at first and wanted to get some drives in for fear he would lose it if he remained idle. It should come as no surprise that Cirasuola provided Sparks with his first winning mount.

“E W Fisher was a really nice horse, just coming back off a layoff,” Sparks said. “He made a lot of money the year before. He’s a classy old horse (whose last three starts have been at Woodbine -- all wins).”

The horse entered the race at Sports Creek as the favorite, which put a little pressure on the driver.

“More than anything I didn’t want to mess up,” Sparks said. “A lot happens out there, it’s pretty intense when all the horses are around you.

“They just let me go to the front and no one really challenged me. They came at me the last turn, one guy got up to my wheel, but the horse turned it on and drew off on him and we won by seven. I had a two length lead the whole race, kind of hung in there and more than anything worried about not screwing it up.”

He didn’t screw it up, and his return to harness racing is heating up. He is currently training one horse owned by his mother-in-law and is hoping to pick up some more drives if possible (he had eight in 2014).

“I don’t know who’s going to put me up,” he said. “I’m kind of old to start a driving career, but I’ll take whatever comes my way. There is no pressure on me to drive to make a living. I make a pretty good living.”

His seniority date at GM is on Jan. 26 and he is hoping to retire from there after 10 more years and spend more time with the horses.

“I never thought I would get this involved again,” he said. “If I could financially do this I would do it every day. It’s more exciting than building trucks. GM is a pressure cooker in there anymore. I come out here to the farm and I enjoy it around all the horses. It’s like a big playground for me.”

by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent 
Courtesy of the USTA news website
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