Seaford, DE --- “Dead-mouthed runaway” is not a phrase the average person wants to hear describe a horse they’re about to get on. Nevertheless, caretaker Nicky Ratledge knew just what she was doing when she decided to ride Courser Hanover, one of her charges in the Delaware stable of harness racing trainer Tim Crissman. She’d asked him to let her try it time and again, but knowing the gelding’s nearly notorious tendency to pull, Crissman advised her against it. She kept asking though, and in April, she finally got on him. Ten minutes later they were off on a trail ride. “He loved every minute of it,” Ratledge said. Proof of that is in the horse’s recent performance on the racetrack. Less than a week after his first trail ride, Courser Hanover made it to the winner’s circle at Harrington Raceway after taking a new seasonal mark of 1:53.1. In the weeks since he’s won twice more. “He’s got a little more confidence now,” Crissman said. Crissman is just happy to see the horse racing. The day he claimed the son of Astreos-Cindy B for $15,000 at Harrah’s Philadelphia in 2013, the then-7-year-old broke a pastern bone. “They said he’d never race again,” Crissman recalled. He didn’t want to give up on the horse though. Eight months after the injury, Courser Hanover -- a $180,000 yearling in 2007 -- made it back to the track. In 2014, he won five races and earned just under $19,000 for Crissman. The trainer says it was dealing with the horse’s behavior that made the return to racing difficult. “He’s his own worst enemy,” Crissman said. He said that in spite of his age and past injury, Courser Hanover wants to go fast -- all the time. “I’ve never sat behind a horse that can pull as hard as him,” Crissman said. “He’s a dead-mouthed runaway.” Numerous bridle changes suggested by Tony Morgan, the pacer’s regular driver, and various training regimens have resulted in minor improvements in Courser Hanover’s behavior during the past two years, but the horse is still known to get out of control on occasion. Not too long ago, one of Crissman’s grooms tore ligaments in his leg as he was sitting on the jog cart, straining against the stirrups in an effort to maintain control of the horse. “You go to hook him up and he turns into a Tasmanian devil,” Crissman said. That’s why he didn’t want Ratledge riding the pacer. He was sure she’d get hurt. “I would have never got on him,” he said, adding that Courser Hanover gets agitated and starts kicking when you put the harness on him. Ratledge knew she had the right idea though when she put the saddle on the pacer and he didn’t move an inch. She says he enjoys being out on the trail -- he doesn’t pull -- and in turn is a happier horse all around. “He’s found himself,” said Ratledge, who rides Courser Hanover a few times a week now. “He went from being sour to being a lovable horse.” Crissman agrees that the pacer’s experiences under saddle have increased his composure. “He’s got more confidence in his ability,” Crissman said. “Before he just wanted to go around the track as fast as he could and he’d stop. He’s gotten to the point now where he’s trying.” From 15 starts this year, Courser Hanover has racked up six wins, four seconds and three thirds. He won a $7,500 claiming event at Harrington Raceway just last night (May 21) in 1:55.1 on a sloppy track. “He’s better now,” Crissman said. “I hope he stays that way. He’s a little easier to put up with when he’s making money.” by Charlene Sharpe, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
Seaford, DE --- Trainer Justin Brenneman was scrolling through an online listing of horses for sale when one name brought him to a stop. Winbak Red. The old trotter instantly brought to mind Brenneman’s childhood at Ocean Downs. There he’d grown up, learning the ins and outs of harness racing from trainers and grooms with decades of experience with Standardbreds. It was there he watched Winbak Red transform from a green 3-year-old to an open trotter for trainer Richard Ringler. And so Brenneman had no qualms about selling his only racehorse to buy Winbak Red, now 12, for $2,000 with partner John Barth. “I’ve always liked old classy horses,” he said. “Most of them like to race and they like to win.” Brenneman, 25, purchased Winbak Red (Muscles Yankee-Red Oak’s Angel) the first week of March. The trotter had spent the winter racing at Miami Valley Raceway. Though he managed a win in 2:00.1 on Feb. 8, Winbak Red came back to trot a mile in 2:07 in a $5,000 claimer the following week. He raced once more in Ohio, finishing fourth in 2:03.2, before heading east. Brenneman was optimistic he’d be able to get the horse back on track. “He was sound so I thought I could make a couple changes to help him,” he said. Brenneman, who works for a trainer in Delaware and usually keeps a horse or two of his own on the side, said the first thing he did was change Winbak Red’s shoeing -- back to the way it was when the trotter was winning the open at Harrington Raceway. “I put four aluminums on with toe weights in the front the way Richie (Ringler) used to,” Brenneman said. Eager to keep the horse off the qualifying list, he put him in at Rosecroft Raceway two weeks after buying him. Brenneman figured if nothing else the trotter, who raced in the snow in Ohio, would pick up a few seconds just by racing in the more moderate temperatures of his home state. Winbak Red did more than that. He came from behind for driver Frank Milby to win by four lengths in 1:56.3. “I thought he’d trot more than he was out there (in Ohio) but I didn’t think he’d go in 1:56,” Brenneman said. If he was impressed then, he was even more impressed the following week when Winbak Red came back to win against some of the track’s top trotters in 1:56. “He was in tougher but Frank (Milby) said he was very handy,” Brenneman said. For Brenneman it was simply validation of his respect for “classy old horses.” Winbak Red has made every year of his decade-long career a winning one. The trotter won his first race at Rosecroft Raceway in 2006 as a 3-year-old. He stayed in the Mid-Atlantic area for several years, winning races at Harrington and Dover, where he set a then lifetime mark of 1:55.3 as a 5-year-old. Winbak Red had the best year of his long career in 2011 with a move to the Empire State. The trotter won 14 times and earned $101,820 -- nearly a quarter of his lifetime earnings -- that year alone. He set a new lifetime mark of 1:55.1 the following year at Pocono Downs but has slowed down since. Brenneman is hopeful though that these latest wins are a sign of more to come. Though Winbak Red made just $7,906 last year, the trotter has already earned $8,385 in 2015 with just eight starts. Brenneman plans to start racing him at Harrington Raceway later this month. In the meantime, he’s letting him enjoy some time off in the field. “I just try to keep him happy,” Brenneman said. by Charlene Sharpe, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
Seaford, DE --- This spring, unraced 3-year-old pacing filly River Runs Thru It was galloping around with a herd of broodmares. A relatively quick six months later, she’s won three of her last five starts and earned nearly $13,000. “She’s been doing everything right,” said Mike Patterson, the filly’s owner and trainer. River Runs Thru It (Riverboat King-TJ Run) won her most recent start at Dover Downs on Nov. 4, taking a new lifetime mark of 1:56.1. Patterson, a lifelong horseman, couldn’t have been prouder after watching his prize filly -- the only horse in his stable -- make a move from last to cross the wire first. She’s come a long way from the filly that left the broodmares to run up to the fence the first time Patterson saw her. He started working with River Runs Thru It, who he essentially got for free, in April. The filly is the sixth foal and fourth winner out of TJ Run p,1:54s ($157,031). Although she’d started training as a 2-year-old, she was turned out for the winter and had yet to return to jogging in 2014 when Patterson took her on. He admits the filly’s solid red coat made him hesitant. “I was a little prejudiced,” he said, adding that he had experience with a number of chestnut pacers by Riverboat King during his years working for trainer John Wagner and hadn’t been impressed. He further doubted his decision to begin training River Runs Thru It the first time he asked her to go a little faster than her preferred jogging pace. “I chirped to her and she flashed her tail,” he said. “I thought, ‘oh great she’s temperamental.’” The filly seemed happy enough to jog though, so Patterson kept going with her, eventually beginning to turn her the right way of the track for some training miles. Things went well until she got stuck at 2:20. Patterson, who stables at Les Givens’ farm in Seaford, credits Les and Brandon Givens with helping to get the filly down to qualifying time. With some training company and a few equipment changes, River Runs Thru It was ready for the races by July. She proved to be a little shaky at first, making breaks on and off at Ocean Downs throughout July and August, but Patterson says tighter hobbles and a few steady miles toward the end of the meet gave her confidence. “Once she found out she could do it she started wanting to do it,” Patterson said. The filly won her first race in 1:59.3 on Sept. 25 at Harrington Raceway for driver Tony Morgan, who has since become her regular reinsman. She followed that up with a second place finish from the eight hole two weeks later. On Oct. 16, she bested the non-winners of two competition, lowering her mark to 1:57.1. She rounded out her time at Harrington with a third place finish on Oct. 23. Patterson says she never faltered that night, in spite of the fact that she had a broken line pole dangling from her neck the entire mile. “I don’t think she’s had a bad race since she’s come to Delaware,” he said. Patterson, who was happy just to see River Runs Thru It get qualified, is thrilled to have seen her progress from a gangly, out-of-shape green filly to a steady, confident racehorse earning checks every week. While she didn’t have the stakes success some of his past horses, including Mad Libs p,1:53.4z ($237,549) and Shaaga p,1:55.2f ($72,527) had, she’s made his time worthwhile. “All horses are not made to be good 2-year-olds,” Patterson said. “Sometimes you just have to have patience and wait for them to grow up.” by Charlene Sharpe, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
Laurel, DE --- “It was amazing.” That’s all 20-year-old driver Brandon Henley could say about winning five races on one card at Ocean Downs. “Races were just working out for me,” the Bridgeville, Del. resident said. The five-win night at Ocean Downs on Sept. 2 is so far the highlight of what has already been an exciting season for Henley, who has nearly tripled last year’s earnings already with $190,114 in money won as a driver in 2013. In his third year driving, Henley, with a 2013 UDR of .265, has won 59 races lifetime and amassed earnings of $268,720 in 525 starts. Not bad considering he spends his days as an electrician. “Eventually I’d like to have my own stable and just race horses,” he said. In the meantime, he spends the first part of his day doing electrical work and heads to the barn in the afternoons. With the help of his family, including grandfather Melvin Cannon, Henley maintains a stable of five horses that he races in Maryland and Delaware. They include Scootin Cammie and Lady Gamelton, the horse Henley won his first race with. While that Rosecroft Raceway win is one he’ll never forget, when asked what his most memorable win was Henley couldn’t decide. “I like all my wins!” he said. Henley said it was through helping his grandfather as a child that he became interested in harness racing. After learning to jog and train he was hooked. What is it about sitting in the bike that he likes? “How a horse grabs on,” he said. “How they feel when you move them off the rail. A lot of things go on when you’re on the track.” He earned his driver’s license primarily through qualifying Cannon’s horses. Although he knew he wanted to drive, Henley said he always told himself he wouldn’t go out and ask for drives. “I figured if people liked the way I drove I’d get catch drives,” he said. Sure enough, over time Henley has managed to pick up some catch drives. He stayed quite busy at Ocean Downs this summer and was excited to be listed in every race at the half-mile track on Labor Day. He says he’s thankful to all of the trainers who have given him drives, particularly Garey Jump, who puts him up on all of his horses. Maryland trainer James Wilkins is another trainer who has taken to using Henley. “He’s done a good job for me,” Wilkins said, adding that Henley had steered pacer Pilgrims Easel to three wins at Ocean Downs. Henley, who admittedly got his start driving cheap horses, does not dwell on how good or bad a horse is when he’s on the track. “I just try to get a horse in the best position I can,” he said. “I started off driving bad horses. I was always driving the ones that had problems and just had to learn to drive them through it and make the best out of the race.” He believes that has helped him pick up more mounts. “I just try to drive the best I can and give them the most honest drive I can,” he said. by Charlene Sharpe, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent Courtesy of the United States Trotting Association Web Newsroom
For harness racing trainer Marvin Callahan, amazing is the word that comes to mind when he thinks about star pupil Abelard Hanover.
While the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds barn in Virginia that was destroyed in a Valentine's Day fire will be rebuilt, harness racing officials say its size will depend on the funding available. Tom Eshelman, general manager of the Shenandoah County Fair, said the barn that several Virginia horsemen called home would definitely be replaced but insurance money would not cover the cost.
Julianne Watkins believes in bucket lists. That's what she'll tell you when you bring up her striking harness racing roan broodmare. "I'd always wanted a strawberry roan," she said.
In October, harness racing horseman Danny Minton's green 3-year-old pacing filly qualified in 2:02.4 on her first trip to Harrington Raceway. Minton, quite pleased with her performance considering it was the first race of her career, dropped her in at Harrington Raceway.
Led by harness racing trainer Janet Davis, horsemen racing at Harrington Raceway and Dover Downs have already donated $6,000 to go toward providing needy children with clothing and toys this Christmas.
When harness racing trainer/driver Jonathan Nikodemski purchased Blue Time Frosty two years ago, the gray gelding was underweight, covered in fungus and had thrush in all four feet. As they say though, good things come to those who wait.
When announcer Pete Medhurst got the chance to start calling races at Ocean Downs, he was already working in a radio station in Virginia Beach. Rather than miss his first chance to announce full-time, he decided to make the four-hour round trip four days a week.
Delaware horsewoman Jeanmarie Kurowski spent the summer living a dream. No she didn't win the Hambletonian or train any record-setting Standardbreds. She spent the summer harness racing at Ocean Downs. While it might not be the lofty aspiration of most horsemen, for Kurowski, a newcomer to the sport, it was exactly what she'd hoped for.
Twenty years and hundreds of horses later, Maryland based rescue Horse Lovers United is still going strong. 'We've helped hundreds of horses have a new life after harness racing,' HLU president Lorraine Truitt said.
Anyone who's ever been to Rosecroft Raceway knows John Wagner. The green, white and red clad harness racing driver and trainer has been a staple at the five-eighths-mile track since his father began racing there in 1949. Although racing has been a bit tenuous in Maryland in recent years, Wagner is still going strong in the mid-Atlantic area.
Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. The line, heard in a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, has become something of a catchphrase at Les Givens' farm in Seaford, Del. The current harness racing star of the Givens stable, the trotter registered simply as Windshield, has been unstoppable in the First State, where he has dominated Delaware Standardbred Breeders Fund competition.
Horsemen from the little town at the southeast corner of Maryland are making their presence felt across the state at Rosecroft Raceway. Two of the tight knit group of harness racing trainers based at the Pocomoke City Fairgrounds have found the winner's circle in recent weeks, with William Brittingham, Jr.'s Golly Me coming home victorious twice and Cliff White's Cedar Hall Boy achieving a new lifetime mark of 1:55.