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Fowlerville, MI -- On Monday, July 22 there was a five-horse Billings Trot at the Fowlerville Family Fair in Michigan posted as the last race on a lengthy harness racing card that featured Michigan-bred colts and fillies and being not far from his home, Steve "You're Never Too" Oldford not only participated but he came away with yet another driving victory when he guided Blasco to a gate to wire triumph in a 2:05 clocking over National Forces, driven by Jerry "the Jet" Mihelich. When the wings of the mobile starting gate folded Oldford sent Blasco to the front and they led the others by the first quarter in a soft 33 seconds. However, Steve picked up the pace when "Fast Freddie: Davis came calling on the outside and the trotted by the half in 1:04. Up the backside the two leaders were still heads apart until Blasco rebuffed the challenge and went on to a one length victory. Sitting a two-hole journey paid dividends for Mihelich as his Natural Forces rambled home for second money. Third place went to Stirling Boudica driven by "Michigan Miriah" Wright. The race winner, Blasco, is owned by Oldford Racing and trained by Oldford. Oldford, whose quickly becoming the face of amateur racing, owns many standardbreds employs many trainers and will travel almost anywhere to drive spirited steed. But in recent years he's become a member of multiple amateur racing organizations. Currently the vice president of the CKG Billings Harness Driving Series Steve was recently awarded the Harness Racing Museum's Amateur Driver if the Year Award. It was the sixth time Oldford has received that honor.. A few seasons ago Oldford was named National Amateur Driver of the Year and now with 11 wins, four seconds, nine thirds and a .416 UDR he's got a good chance at yet another national driving award this season. by John Manzi, for the Billings Series

Warrior Inside started life as a winner. A Kentucky thoroughbred, the chestnut brown bay gelding racehorse trained at Churchill Downs in Louisville. In his debut last March in New Orleans, he placed second in a field of 63. But his fourth race at Churchill Downs was his last, coming in eighth. He'd developed career-ending bone chips in both front knees. Life after racing for most horses usually ends in one of two ways. Animals with good genes are used for stud service in hopes of producing superior stock. Others are sent to slaughter at rendering plants in Canada and Mexico. Furniture store chain IKEA made headlines in 2013 when traces of horse meat were found in the store's famous Swedish meatballs, which were sent out to several countries across Europe.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that 80,000 horses annually get processed for meat. More: Oxford firefighters, Oakland Co. deputies rescue horse trapped under ice More: Woman gets jail for neglect of horses in western Michigan (L to R) Mr. Palmer and Warrior Inside play with each other at their stalls inside Willowbrooke Farms in Plymouth, Michigan on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. This farm caters towards retired race horses enrolled in the Canter USA program that rehabs, retrains and finds new homes for thoroughbreds who leave racing at young ages when they become injured or are not fast enough to win. . (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)   Warrior Inside got lucky. He ended up at Canter Michigan, one of the few sanctuaries in the country that gives losing horses another shot. "When horses broke down, they would just get rid of them," said Canter Michigan's horse trainer Jennifer Blades on owners of racetracks. "Now, they're not allowed to do that, so that's made more horses come in through the Canter program." Warrior Inside, known as Indy by his handlers, is one of nine horses at Canter Michigan. The organization in Commerce Township, founded in 1998, today has 19 affiliates nationwide rehabbing former racehorses for new careers as show horses or for law enforcement. Blades, said most of the horses she sees “just weren’t fast enough” or suffered an injury — common for young horses. Jennifer Blades, the owner and operator of Willowbrooke Farms in Plymouth poses for a portrait with Warrior Inside, a former race horse on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. The farm caters towards retired race horses enrolled in the Canter USA program which rehabs, retrains and finds new homes for thoroughbreds who leave racing at young ages when they become injured or are not fast enough to win. . (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)   Road to recovery Indy's trainer, Tim Glyshaw, donated the horse to Canter Michigan which sent him to Michigan State University's large animal clinic for surgery in May. Afterward, he spent six months in rehab at a Lansing-area farm.  But surgery and rehab is expensive. Horse operations usually cost between $3,000-$4,000 and rehab an additional $2,000-$3,000, Blades said. Canter Michigan relies on fundraisers and support from other nonprofit agencies. In December, the ASPCA granted $225,000 to nine equine rescue groups, including the Michigan and national chapters of Canter. After rehab, Blades said, training begins. “We start with groundwork,” said Blades. “We put them in a crosstie and they learn to be groomed, handled and to be quiet. A lot of the racehorses are very jumpy and they will kick at you and will bounce around a little bit to break the ties.” Warrior Inside, a former race horse, burns off energy inside Willowbrooke Farms in Plymouth on Tuesday, February 5, 2019.  (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)   Not all horses receive the same training, since every equine is different. Some horses may only be able to spend 20 to 30 minutes outside, while others can last for an hour, Blades said.   “When I go to work with a horse, I have a basic plan, but I have to adapt it according to how they’re doing that day or each horse individually,” she said. “And they have their good and bad days just like we do. Some have more of a work ethic and really want to be good, and others don’t really want to be bothered."   Horse racing in Michigan  According to the Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a group dedicated to improving horse racing in the state, the rise of the sport in Michigan began in 1933 when Gov. William Comstock signed a law legalizing horse racing with wagering. Northville Downs became the state’s first racetrack, opening in 1944. Others soon followed, including Jackson Harness Raceway, Hazel Park Race Track and Detroit Race Course. Harness racers move down the home stretch at Northville Downs race track on Saturday, May 14, 2016 in Northville. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier)   Horse racing hit its peak in the late 1980s, with eight tracks operating across the state, in cities such as Flint, Saginaw, Mount Pleasant and Muskegon. But the industry began to decline with increasing competition from other types of wagering, starting with the creation of the Michigan Lottery in 1972. Casinos built on Indian reservations became big in the 1980s, and Detroit saw the opening of three casinos in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Simulcasting, where guests could watch and bet on multiple live races in one location, helped keep racetracks open a little longer, but could not solely save them. Muskegon Race Course closed in 1997, with many of the other racetracks following suit into the late 2000s.  Last year, Hazel Park Race Track abruptly closed after nearly 70 years of business.The track was one of two racetracks still operating in the state, and the only track offering thoroughbred racing. Shortly after the closing of Hazel Park, home builder Hunter Pasteur Homes announced that Northville Downs will be sold and converted into a mixed-use development. The track plans to stay open through the 2020 racing season, and hopes to operate at a new location after the property is sold. Canter Executive Director Robbie Timmons said the group received two horses from Hazel Park right after the track closed, with another brought in last September. One equine has already found a new home.    However, Blades does not expect any horses from Northville Downs, since it only has standardbred horses, which are used in harness racing. Canter only trains thoroughbreds, with the majority coming from places like Ohio and Kentucky. A new life Willowbrooke Farms in Plymouth, caters to retired race horses enrolled in the Canter USA program that rehabs, retrains and finds new homes for thoroughbreds who leave racing at young ages when they become injured or are not fast enough to win.  (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)   How long it takes to get a racehorse ready for adoption can vary. Blades said horses are available for sale within a couple of months. But equines that have been injured might not be suitable for adoption until they've spent five to eight months in the program. When Indy is ready, he's expected to fetch $1,800, Blades said. Horses at Canter usually sell for prices ranging from $800 to $2,000 to buyers from as far away as North Carolina and Texas. Blades has yet to learn what Indy’s new career path will be, but she believes he "can do almost anything." “He’s quiet, easygoing, so I think he could be a pleasure horse. He’s built to be a jumping horse the way he moves, but we have not jumped him yet because we didn’t want to push it too soon. I think he’s gonna make some Canter adult an awesome horse for whatever they choose. "I just want to see the horse go on and be happy and have a good career and a good home.” By Micah Walker Reprinted with permission of the Detroit Free Press

A Putnam Township harness racing family lost all their horses in a barn fire Sunday morning. Putnam Township Fire Chief Greg Amburgey tells WHMI that his department was called out at about 6:15am to the barn located on property at Hinchey and Burgess Roads. Upon arrival, Amburgey says they found the structure fully engulfed in flames. They immediately began pouring water onto the barn, but it was a complete loss, including the seven horses inside. Amburgey says firefighters had to wake up horse’s owners and that the call was made by a neighbor after they heard an explosion, which was likely a propane tank kept inside the barn. The structure was a complete loss. He says a cause is unknown at this point, but it doesn’t appear to involve foul play. There were no other injuries. The Hamburg, Unadilla and Howell fire departments assisted at the scene of the fire, while Dexter firefighters covered the Putnam Township station. (JK) Reprinted with permission of www.whmi.com According to www.harnessracing.com longtime Michigan horsewoman Ann Russell and her daughter, Erin Spychala, lost their entire stable in the early-morning barn fire on Sunday morning (Jan. 13) in Pinckney, Mich. The fire was reported around 5 a.m. and killed all seven horses in the barn, including five Standardbred racehorses, one broodmare and a riding pony. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help Russell and Spychala. To go to the GoFundMe page and donate please click here. www.harnessracing.com    

Farmington Hills-based homebuilder Hunter Pasteur Homes is under contract to buy the Northville Downs harness racing racetrack and redevelop the 48-acre property for housing. The harness racetrack's land has long been sought by developers in upscale Northville, but the project wouldn't necessarily end horse racing in the area. The site near Sheldon Road and Hines Drive is expected to be turned into 500-600 apartments and for-sale townhouses and single-family homes, according to a news release. Commercial uses are also expected. Northville Downs, Michigan's last horse track since Hazel Park Raceway closed earlier this month, will remain open until the development begins. The track's owners will seek to continue racing and wagering operations "at an area in close proximity to its current location," according to the statement from Hunter Pasteur Homes. "This project is in the preliminary stages, and we're eager to continue working with the city of Northville and our partners to iron out the numerous details that come with a project of this scale," Randy Wertheimer, president and CEO of Hunter Pasteur, said in a statement. "We expect to have all entitlements in place in 2019. As more details become available, we will share them with the community." Additional details such as purchase price and planned development cost were not disclosed. The Carlo family owns some of the track's acreage, and an investment group called Northville Driving Club Corp. owns the rest. The Carlos are minority shareholders in that entity. It's the second expected redevelopment of a horse racing track in Southeast Michigan this month following the April 5 closure of the Hazel Park Raceway. That track is expected to be sold for industrial or commercial use after 69 years as a thoroughbred and harness track. Northville management told Crain's last week that it's adding staff and buying $50,000 or more of Hazel Park's track, horse and hospitality equipment and fixtures to handle the influx of gamblers with nowhere else to wager on horses in Michigan. Northville Downs has 69 employees for the waging and racing business. It's been profitable for the past three years, track co-owner Mike Carlo said, and the closing of Hazel Park Raceway will help ensure Northville Downs remains in the black for a while longer. No details are yet available on what Northville Downs might do to race elsewhere after selling its current site. Carlo has promised a statement. Track land such as Northville Downs and Hazel Park are seen as more valuable for other purposes as interest in racing as declined. Eight Michigan horse tracks have closed since 1998 as the public has instead opted to spend money at the commercial and tribal casinos across the state, and because the lottery expanded and online forms of gambling have proliferated. The amount of money wagered at Michigan horse tracks on live racing has fallen from $22.1 million across seven tracks in 2006 to $4.2 million at two tracks in 2016, according to state data. That's an 81 percent decline. Combined live and simulcast betting in the state over that decade dropped from $281.1 million in 2006 to $103.2 million in 2016. Northville Downs can trace its roots to 1902. A driving club was formed in 1907 to manage land in Northville that had been turned into a rudimentary fairgrounds horse track in 1902. Michigan didn't create a formal pari-mutuel harness racing law until 1933, and Northville Downs became the entity it is today in 1944. The track business itself leases the land from the Northville Driving Club on an annual basis, and any sale would require both the club and family to jointly sell. Northville Downs gets a handful of offers every year from developers interested in buying some or all of the track's acreage, Carlo said. By Kirk Pinho and Bill Shea   Reprinted with permission of Grains Detroit

Angling a baseball-sized magnifying glass over the fine print of a racing form early Friday night, silver-haired Granville Bowling was studying to beat the odds in the enclosed viewing area just a stone's throw from the Northville Downs harness racing track. A 40-year regular at suburban Detroit horse racing venues, the Kentucky-born resident of Livonia had no intentions of breaking the bank. "If I win $20 tonight, fine; if I lose $20, that's OK, too," he said, his voice dripping with a syrupy southern accent. "I've been coming here since I was 20, because I love the action, I love the horses, not necessarily to win a lot of money." On the day after Hazel Park Raceway abruptly shuttered its doors — making Northville Downs the last live horse racing venue in Michigan — Bowling didn't need a magnifying glass to see what the future may hold for his No. 1 source for entertainment.  "Fifteen, 20 years ago, this place was packed with people as far as you can see," Bowling said, gesturing toward a sparsely filled grandstand area. "Back then, if you wanted to gamble, this and the lottery were the only places to do it. Now, with the casinos, there's a lot of competition for the gamblers' dollars. "As much as it hurts me to say it, I'd be surprised if this isn't the next one to go."  The future is her A couple of furlongs east of where Bowling sat, 21-year-old groomer/trainer Jessica Otten walked briskly through the bustling Northville Downs stables just over an hour before post time, exchanging greetings and smiles with jockeys, attendants and trainers. A self-proclaimed third-generation horseman, Otten was introduced to the sport by her dad Peter, a harness racing driver/trainer/owner.       Northville Downs is the last horse racing track in the state of Michigan. The value of the land it sits on is so great that many wonder how long it will be before it, too, is a memory.  Bill Bresler | hometownlife.com It's been in her blood ever since. "My parents built a horse barn in Lennon (Mich.) the year I was born, 21 years ago," she said. "It held 30 horses. Now, we have four horses. That shows you how far the industry has declined, at least in Michigan. "We have to travel a lot now — to Canada, Ohio and Indiana — because racing is still doing well in those areas." 'Racino' royale Everyone interviewed Friday at Northville Downs agreed on one thing: Michigan's Legislature needs to legalize the use of slot machines in horse racing venues to keep the business afloat. Ohio's horse tracks were infused with new life when "racinos" — race tracks combined with slots-only casinos — were added a few years ago. According to cleveland.com, revenue at Northfield’s Hard Rock Racino was up $38.2 million over a 12-month stretch beginning in July 2016. "We need the racinos or everybody is going to be closing up shop here and going to Ohio," veteran trainer Ed Zubkoff said. "I hope we get a governor in office who backs us up. They have no idea how many people are active in this business. It's not just the people you see here, it's the feed mills, the farmers who grow the hay.  "Look at all the trucks that are pulling in and out of here today. Look at all the maintenance guys. They all depend on this."  More and more Ohio horse racing tracks are appealing to younger consumers by diversifying their entertainment, adding comedy clubs, concerts and gaming lounges that appeal to millennials. Novi resident Thomas Barrett, president of the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association, said the potential for a significant influx in funding for horse racing in Michigan is real — and it's not too late to turn things around. "Other states are bringing in millions of dollars in revenue from people betting on their phones," Barrett said. "Unfortunately, this is illegal in Michigan. We're hopeful that the Legislature will pass a new bill that would create more options for people who want to bet on horse racing. "If we could get something like this legalized in Michigan, we could even re-open some of the tracks that have closed, as long as they're not plowed over by then." Mood-changer The news April 5 that Michigan's lone surviving thoroughbred horse racing track in Hazel Park was closing for good affected a large percentage of the people in the Northville Downs prepping areas. "I was at a loss for words when I heard Hazel Park was closing," Otten said. "I grew up in this business and, along with Sports Creek and Jackson closing, it's like watching my childhood disappear."  Like most industries these days, drawing millennials like Otten is a key component to thriving. "It's tough getting people my age here, because not a lot of them gamble," she said. "But once I do get them here, they're amazed by the place, the horses, the competition and they want to come back. "I get an adrenaline rush to the max every time a race starts, even if one of my horses isn't running." Timing is everything As Otten tended to her horse, Master House, veteran driver Charles Taylor pulled a turtle-neck sweater as high as it would go around his neck in preparation for a qualifying run through the night's bitter cold air. As he pulled on his green-and-red-highlighted helmet, a smile creased his face, evidence of the passion he's developed for the night of racing he was about to dive into. When asked for suggestions that would help his sport thrive, Taylor said that timing is important. "I'd like to see us start earlier, say 5:30 or 6 (p.m.), like a lot of the tracks in Ohio and Indiana do," he said. "We start at 7:30, which isn't late, but we try to get 12 races in each night and it's hard for people to stay that long. "I think running faster might help, too. Instead of having 20, 25 minutes in between races, let's run them closer together. People don't like sitting around like they used to." A horse enthusiast since he was 12, Taylor's livelihood depends solely on harness racing. "This is my real job," he said with a smile. "This is my life. I still get charged up to race. I hope they can figure something out to keep this going." “I love the competition. It's a thrill for me and always has been. It's almost like a disease, like smoking or alcohol ... I can't quit.” Karen Tkaczyk, harness-racing trainer For semi-retired veteran trainer Karen Tkaczyk, it's not all about the money. "I love the competition of horse racing; it's a thrill for me and always has been," she said. "It's almost like a disease, like smoking or alcohol ... I can't quit." Tkaczyk points to the rise in smart phone usage and high-tech alternatives to attending the track as a primary reason for her industry's hard times. "A lot of it is technology," she said. "People are on their phones, you can bet online. It keeps a lot of the young people from coming out and the old-timers are dying off. People would rather go to casinos and play cards." Veteran driver Jerry Mihelich admits he still "gets butterflies" during the moments before a race. "It's still a little scary, too, when everybody is going for the lead and we all come together like this (he brings his two hands together, forming a point)," he said. "If you're in the middle, the wheels are right there and you don't want to hook wheels.  Michigan's horse racing demise has reached all the way down to the first step of the process, Mihelich said. "There are no breeders left in Michigan, there are no horse auctions anymore," he said. "There used to be auctions with 120 horses. Now there are none." Telling it like it is The face of today's horse racing fans may belong to retired University of Michigan janitor Vernon Blackburn, who sports a neatly-trimmed white beard and boasts a robust level of enthusiasm for the sport that its supporters want to spread. "The people have always been nice to me here," said Blackburn, a 52-year regular who walks with the aid of a cane after suffering two strokes.  "My wife and I still like to come here. It's something to do. I used to come with my two sons all the time, but they moved to Saline and they bet on the races on their computers." Contact Ed Wright at eawright@hometownlife.com or 517-375-1113. Reprinted with permission of Hometownlife

Northville, MI --- Northville Downs is excited to introduce the first ever live action "virtual reality harness racing experience." Fans will be able to sit in the sulky in a live harness race and see, hear, and feel the heart pounding excitement of driving a horse in a real race around Northville Downs. This three-minute experience gives fans the full 360 degree high definition view of a complete harness race from start to finish. During the race they will hear the thundering hooves of the horses, the announcer calling the action and tips from an experienced trainer that will guide them around the racetrack to the finish line. From gate to wire fans are sure to enjoy all the thrilling excitement of harness racing in what will be the ride of their life. After Beta testing with customers the virtual reality harness racing experience received 100 percent positive feedback. Fans were captivated to be able to take part in an in-the-sulky view of the action that takes place during a live harness race. Northville Downs would like to reach out and thank all the trainers and drivers that took part in bringing this awesome experience to life. As the live racing season continues, we will be adding more races to our virtual reality menu to further enhance this one-of-a-kind experience. Make plans to be here this weekend for your chance to sit in the sulky and enjoy the virtual reality harness racing experience. This experience is free for a limited time. Live harness racing takes place at Northville Downs on Friday and Saturday night. Friday night is family night at Northville. Join us for $1 hot dogs, $1 soft drinks, $1 live programs, $1 wagers and $2 drafts. We will also have many exiting games and drawings played throughout the evening for your chance to win cash and prizes. Post time is 7 p.m. For complete details and rules of the virtual reality harness racing experience visit the promo center located on the first level of the grandstand located directly behind the virtual reality harness racing experience display.   Northville Downs publicity department 

The Michigan Gaming Control Board has released more than $1 million in horse racing purse pool money held in escrow for more than two years to the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association and Hazel Park Raceway. The association will receive about $850,000 to cover prize purses for future races at Northville Downs, while Hazel Park Raceway will receive about $150,000 for track operations and enhancements, the MGCB said in a news release. The gaming board ordered the funds to be split after the two parties failed to sign a race agreement by Sept. 1. "We could not disburse purse pool funds allocated to harness racing at Hazel Park Raceway unless the MHHA signed a new contract to race there," MGCB Executive Director Richard Kalm said in a statement. "Since the 2014 season ended, MHHA has not signed a contract to race at Hazel Park." The prize money, collected at Hazel Park Raceway in 2014 for the MHHA's 2015 season, was put into an escrow account in 2015 after the venue decided that it would stop hosting standardbred races. MHHA took its harness races to Northville Downs, but state law at the time required that prize money be paid out at the race track where it was accumulated. In 2016, Gov. Rick Snyder signed an amendment to Michigan's then-20-year-old horse racing law, which set the September contract deadline and reconfigured the way that purse money is paid out to the state's two remaining tracks. "It's a good thing for us. We're really happy we negotiated because, obviously, it's not doing anybody any good sitting in escrow, and we hope it will help racing in Michigan," MHHA President Tom Barrett told Crain's. "It allows us to maintain or expand our schedule for the next couple of years." MHHA races will resume this Friday through December at Northville Downs, which is south of Eight Mile Road and Center Street in Northville. The association decided to spread the purse out over the next three years. Purse money can cover about 20 to 25 race days at about $40,000 to $50,000 per day, Barrett said. Seven race tracks have closed in Michigan since 1998, with Hazel Park Raceway having the lone remaining thoroughbred track and Northville Downs having the lone standardbred race. "We may release the funds now thanks to the legislation sponsored last year by Sen. David Robertson and Rep. Dan Lauwers," Kalm said in the statement. "This change in the law will help the state's horse racing industry." Hazel Park will be required to report its track operation and enhancement expenses to the MGCB, the release said. By Tyler Clifford Reprinted with permission of The Crain's Detroit Business

The Midwest region of the CKG Billings Amateur Driving Series moved back to harness racing roots on July 24th when five members ventured to the double oval at the Fowlerville (Michigan) Family Fair for a trotting contest and when the judges hung the official Steve "You're Never Too" Oldford was victorious with The Budster in a time of 2:03.3. The 12 year old altered son of Broadway Hall notched his fourth seasonal victory and the 46th of the veteran trotter's illustrious career. The Budster pretty much had things his own way after leaving from the two hole. Oldford used the front-end en route to victory over Gespacho and driver"Jerry the Jet" Mihelic while third place went to Truth In Action with Gregg "Fast Greggy" Keidel at the controls. It was a reunion of sorts for Oldford and The Budster.who are together again after a long hiatus. "During his 3-year old season we (Oldford Racing) had owned The Budster and we won the Old Oaken Bucket with him at Delaware, Ohio that year.," Oldford related. "He had raced real well for us and we sold him after his 3 year old season. "Jessica Schroeder, now with the USTA, used to rub The Budster when Pete Foley was training him for us back then. Late last year Jessica called and told me that The Budster was headed to the Amish and since the old guy was so good to us way back when I decided to buy him and race him in the amateur series in Florida this past winter," Oldford explained "And we even won a few races together at Pompano (Park) earlier this year." Oldford was excited to tell The Budster story and even more excited about the way the old fellow trotted to victory Monday night at the Fowlerville Fair. "Although his recent form hasn't been real good he was super tonight at Fowlerville. So much so that I may even drive him in some future Billings races," Oldford said jubilantly. By John Manzi for the Billing Series

ADRIAN - For someone who didn't grow up around horses, Larry Horn sure made a name for himself in the harness racing community. For his success in a 50-some-year career as a trainer, Horn was inducted into the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association Hall of Fame during a ceremony Jan. 21 in Howell. Horn, 74, trained some of the best-known horses in harness racing in the 1970s, '80s and '90s: Tall Oaks Jade, Charamar NiteLite and Sunrise Raider. Yet, because he's been retired from training for a couple of years, he wasn't expecting the phone call he received on Christmas Eve telling him he would be inducted. "I was stunned. I didn't think I heard her right," he said. "It never crossed my mind that I'd ever done anything to deserve this." Horn said he didn't do it alone. The Boring family introduced him to harness racing. His partners in acquiring horses, Doug Hartung Sr. and Jerry Haynes, helped him though the ups and downs of a career in racing. "I'm glad because of the people who supported me all these years," he said. "They have a piece of the honor. It's not something you can do alone." Even other trainers and drivers were motivators. Horn said he's a competitive person, so when he would lose, he would go home and think of what he needed to do to have his horse come out ahead next time. "They pushed me to do my best," he said. Horn's career came during the peak in harness racing's popularity in Michigan. There used to be tracks across the state, but now there is only one, Northville Downs in Northville. The Lenawee County Fair hosted the annual Michigan Breeders Futurity. Horn said state politicians lost interest in racing, and when the casinos moved in, the state supported the casinos' interests over those of the racing community. Horn's start in racing came from his friendship with Chris Boring, whose family was legendary in the harness-racing community. In his early 20s, Horn started visiting the Borings' stable at the Lenawee County Fairgrounds to help with jogging their horses. "The next thing I knew, I quit my job and did it full time," he said. He was working in the shop at the Adrian Glass Co. then. He earlier worked as a teller at Commercial Savings Bank. Chris was "one of the top drivers in the country," Horn said. His father, Leon, was a trainer, and his brother, Otis, ran the barn. "His dad and brother taught me everything I know," Horn said. Working as a trainer gave him a way to get into a competitive field. He said he would have liked to have been a teacher or coach, and being a trainer gave him a way to coach horses to race. "I love athletics," he said. Horn said he also liked that training was not the same thing every day. "Horse training is not repetitious," he said. Horn connected with Hartung and Haynes to acquire horses. He and Haynes started out by leasing a horse that did pretty well, but then they struck upon Tall Oaks Jade, who became a world champion. Tall Oaks Jade's proceeds helped them buy Charamar NiteLite, who was inducted into the MHHA's Hall of Fame in 2001. Horn raced him on tracks from New York to Chicago. Training is a 365-day-a-year job. Not that he couldn't plan days off, but "the horses require your attention every day," Horn said. He acknowledged some of his success was from luck in finding a quality horse, but he said he came to identify certain characteristics he liked in a horse. Pedigree was important, of course. "Certain families produce speed," he said. He liked to acquire younger horses so he could teach them to race. He would look at how they stand and how they moved to see if they were athletic or clumsy. He liked horses that were eager to get out of their stall and ones with more space between their eyes - those horses seemed smarter. He also tended to buy horses that were a little smaller. He said people were surprised to find out his most successful horse, Charamar NiteLite, was not very big. "He's big on the track, but he's not a big horse," Horn said. Learning a horse's personality is part of training a horse. That includes what it likes to eat, how much work it likes to do and what bits and shoes it prefers. "You want the horse to feel as comfortable as you can," he said. That extends to the care the horse receives from the groom in the stable. "A good groom takes care of the horse like it's his first born," Horn said. On the track, Horn would teach the horse how to race, such as when to turn on the speed. "I would teach them to be passing, not to be passed" at the end of each one-mile race, he said. Horn has some experience as a driver - he made 46 starts - that he could apply in training. He said he would get too nervous as a driver, which he said hampered his ability to make decisions in clutch situations during a race. So instead he applied his skills to the time between races, during which he would take feedback from the drivers to try to improve the horse's racing. While he doesn't own horses anymore, he still does help area trainers. He never considered training horses to be "work." "It was my life," he said. "I loved it." By David Panian Reprinted with permission of The Daily Telegram

The Western Michigan Fair Association lineup is in place for this year’s fair — and harness racing is back. The 79th annual fair, which will take place Aug. 8-12 at the Mason County Fairgrounds, made plans last week during the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (MAFE) in Grand Rapids. All 15 members of the fair board attended and contracts were signed for the events and activities at this year’s fair. Plans are to offer harness racing two days prior to the opening of the fair, Aug. 6 and 7. “It has been a number of years since we have held harness racing at the fairgrounds,” said Mike Stakenas, president of the Western Michigan Fair Association. “I think it is a great opportunity to exhibit some of our agricultural heritage to the community.” About 80 2- to 3-year-old colts will be racing, said Marcia Hansen, fair association communications director. Again, the fair will have T.J. Schmidt and Company as carnival entertainment, bringing about 20 rides, including the three new rides from last year — the Mega Shock, Gee Whizz and the Wipe Out. The Wipe Out came from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in California. The fair is about more than entertainment, including animal showings, sales and agriculture displays. Grandstand Events •Tuesday — Mid-Michigan Truck and Tractor Pull and the Great Lakes Fireworks •Wednesday — ATR Monster and Mega Trucks, where there will be a photo opportunity preceding the event •Thursday — Western Michigan Old Engine Club Garden Tractor Pull (tentatively); West Michigan Livestock Council Auction •Friday — SJO Super Cross •Saturday — Destruction Demolition Derby by Mitch Galloway Reprinted with permission of The Ludington Daily News

As the ponies hit the tracks for this season’s weekend contests, Michigan’s shrinking horse-racing industry is facing growing pressures to figure out ways to survive. Even before Detroit’s three casinos opened in 1999 and 2000, the tracks were facing competitive pressures from Native American tribal casinos that began popping up in Michigan in 1993. From a high of nine tracks in the state, only two remain — Northville Downs and Hazel Park Raceway. And staying in business has been a challenge. In 1999, horse racing generated $13.2 million in revenues for the state on wagers of $416 million. By 2015, according to the state’s annual horse-racing report, those revenues had shrunk to $3.5 million on wagers of $106 million. The number of people involved in horse racing also has shrunk dramatically. In 2002, 8,594 licenses for everything from jockeys to trainers and horse owners were issued by the state. In 2015, the number declined to 1,424. • Related: Failed Wayne Co. horse track tied to new casino plan “It’s a more competitive market out there, and we have to open up the door to some new revenue sources,” said Dan Adkins, vice president of Hazel Park Raceway, where Thoroughbred racing began for the season on Friday. Mike Carlo, operations manager at Northville Downs, just shook his head in dismay at how much business the casinos have sucked away from his harness-racing track, which has been operating since 1944 and started the live racing season in March. The Legislature has tried to lend a hand over the years, but it’s been more than 20 years since significant legislation passed that helped the industry stay alive. In 1995, the Legislature allowed the tracks to begin simulcasting races so locals could bet on both the live races happening at the track and the televised races being shown on screens inside the raceways. So while live racing happens on Fridays and Saturdays from May through September or October, simulcast wagering happens nearly every day of the year. That still wasn’t enough for the industry and from 1998 to 2014, seven tracks closed. Advocates tried again and again to push a plan to put slot machines at the racetracks, creating “racinos,” but that would require a statewide vote because it’s considered an expansion of gambling in the state. The plans went nowhere. As long as we can keep the industry up and running, we have to do it. It’s an important industry in this state supporting a lot of family farms,” said state Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo. “And let’s keep as much of those dollars in Michigan as well.” A harness racer works his horse at Northville Downs. The track is one of only two racing venues in Michigan. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier/ Detroit Free Press) Demolition begins at failed Wayne Co. horse track But the Legislature is on the cusp of passing a plan that both the horse track owners and the equine industry hope will put them on a path toward survival, perhaps even help reopen some of the tracks that have had to shutter over the years. The legislative plan switches from a complicated formula of doling out winnings from a big pool to horse owners and tracks to a system in which the money generated at each of the two tracks generally stays at that track to pay prizes to winning horses and cover expenses of the track. It also cracks down on out-of-state betting operations, making it a crime for anyone without a license for live horse racing in Michigan to accept wagers over the Internet from Michigan residents. This is the biggest plus for horse track owners, who want to capture the betting that’s now going on over the Internet. “Almost $2 billion is wagered online every year. The Michigan dollars are well into the tens of millions,” said Adkins. “My projections, I think it could generate $3 to $5 million a year for us.” Coupled with shutting down the out-of-state betting operations, the state is considering allowing Michigan’s tracks to accept online wagers on live and simulcast races run at the tracks. So horse enthusiasts could place bets over their smartphones from the comfort of their homes. That’s not an option for Harry Jones, 69, of Detroit, who spends most of his days at Northville Downs. Harness racing fan Harry Jones from Detroit says he bets six days a week at Northville Downs, averaging about $450 per week in wagers. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press) “I average about $450 a week. I bet six days a week and I may win one or two days a week,” he said on a recent Saturday evening at Northville Downs. “This is my second home. I love the character of the track.” For others, watching harness racing is a family affair. Mickey and Amanda McDonald of Waterford often bring their four kids to Northville Downs. “Even if we’re not gambling, we let the kids do some pools among themselves. The little one loves it because she calls every horse Bella,” said Mickey McDonald of his youngest daughter. “What else do you do in the Detroit area for a family? The movies or roller skating or bowling? But this gives you something else, not to mention you get to see live animals, actual horses and the drivers.” The family gathered around “Speaking Greek” after the Standardbred horse won his race that night. They didn’t know the driver really, but McDonald’s mother is Greek, and the kids wanted to pet the horse. For Tony and Kristin Nichols of Niles, a family reunion brought them to Northville Downs for their first experience with horse racing. They weren’t wagering much — $2 a race — and were choosing their bets based on the horse’s name. One winner was Prince Ponder, chosen to honor the recently deceased rock star, while another winner was Quiet Charmer. “We just decided to come and have some fun and spend a little time with each other,” Tony Nichols said. It’s like that at the Hazel Park track too, Adkins said, where race nights have become a happening that can attract up to 10,000 people. “The excitement of the live action on the track is what draws the people,” he said. “Hazel Park is becoming its own little hot spot.” The state also benefits from the horse tracks, not only on the taxes brought in by the tracks, but by bolstering the state’s $101 billion agriculture industry. State Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, the sponsor of the bills, said his district has many horse stables, and he was pained by the closing of Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek. “I want to do everything I can to reverse the downward decline of the horse-racing industry. The goal is to improve the financial viability of the industry in Michigan. And as it becomes more successful, anything is possible.” Sports Creek closes, leaving 2 horse tracks in state The Senate passed the horse-racing bills — SB 504-505 — earlier this month, and the House is expected to vote on the package before it goes on summer break in two weeks. By Kathleen Gray: 313-223-4430, kgray99@freepress.com or on Twitter @michpoligal Reprinted with permission of the Detroit Free Press

After years of sparring about the best way to split the pot, Michigan's two remaining horse tracks (thoroughbred and harness racing) have found some common ground when it comes to divvying up the money from bets placed on horse races. That consensus, though, hasn't yet reached other parts of the business that owners of both tracks say will be necessary if the industry is going to be relevant in the 21st century — namely, the introduction of electronic wagering. Past efforts didn't bear fruit. And now the tracks — Hazel Park Raceway, which holds thoroughbred races, and Northville Downs, which runs standardbred harness races — find themselves on opposite sides of proposed legislation that initially attempted to resolve the issue. Executives at Northville Downs say the bill as written is a nonstarter, even after a controversial provision that would have allowed some Internet-based wagering at the tracks was stripped from the bill on the Senate floor. In response, Hazel Park Raceway and its affiliated horsemen's group, the Howell-based Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, say they intend to ask the Michigan Gaming Control Board to pursue online wagering as an administrative rule change, rather than in statute. The practice, known as advance deposit wagering, would allow people to place bets on simulcast races from their cellphones or tablets without having to visit a track. Current law requires anyone betting on horse racing to do so from within a track. Hazel Park and Northville Downs consider online betting on horse races an extension of what they already do, replacing paper with the mobile devices that people carry everywhere. TheMichigan Lottery has introduced online games, which track owners believe is essentially the same thing. And because more than 95 percent of the tracks' wagering revenue comes from people who place bets on simulcast races, rather than live ones, the interest in electronic wagering is also financial. The tracks say they're competing for business against out-of-state mobile wagering sites that don't pay state taxes and don't offer a cut of the proceeds to support either track and their affiliated horse owners' group. Earlier versions of Senate Bill 504, sponsored by state Sen. David Robertson, included a provision that would have allowed the horse track with the larger handle during the past five years to operate advance deposit wagering. By numbers alone, Hazel Park had the larger simulcast handle — $56.6 million in 2015, compared to $45 million for Northville Downs, according to Michigan Gaming Control Board figures. "I would have had to take everybody to court," said Mike Carlo, Northville Downs' operations manager. "That was the biggest slap in the face I've ever seen in this industry. "In our world, we live under the purview of our license," he added. "Basically, what it would have done is it would have said that Hazel Park has a different license to operate pari-mutuel wagering in a manner that Northville Downs can't." The bill that passed the Senate does not include that language. Instead, it would allow Michigan's racing commissioner to draft administrative rules to govern the practice. The Michigan Gaming Control Board, which regulates the horse industry along with Detroit's three commercial casinos, opposed the earlier version of the bill. Robertson, R-Grand Blanc Township, said the board and harness racing groups wanted the language removed. A 2004 amendment to the Michigan Constitution requires a statewide vote for any expansion of gaming. The board has not yet publicly said whether it would consider authorizing advance deposit wagering. Robertson, track owners and horsemen's groups all say they don't believe the practice would violate the constitutional provision. "The (board) will have to see what the options and its authority are if the bill becomes law," gaming board spokeswoman Mary Kay Bean said via email. The bill could get a hearing in the House agriculture committee this week after clearing the Senate last week in a 30-7 vote. A new formula? Robertson's bill would be the first update to Michigan's 1995 horse racing statute. Among other things, it would rewrite the formula that distributes revenue from wagers. Currently, all wagers placed on simulcast races at Hazel Park and Northville Downs are pooled into a common purse, where it's split between the tracks and horsemen's groups. Track owners say that setup made more sense years ago, when Michigan had more horse tracks in operation. But waning interest in horse racing led to the closure of seven tracks since 1998, leaving just two tracks. Hazel Park and Northville Downs essentially compete for the same audience, despite the fact that they don't race the same breeds of horses, and have lost money as the wagering pool decreased. Thus, competition for market share has become increasingly important. Today, the common purse is divided in a way that offers roughly 65 percent of the proceeds to the harness racing standardbreds, after winners and a 3.5 percent state tax are paid, with the rest going to the thoroughbreds. Robertson's bill would eliminate the common purse in favor of a "site-specific" model, meaning all of the wagers placed at Northville Downs and Hazel Park would stay at the respective tracks. "Horse racing has had very tough times. It's been diminishing as a sport, and this is an attempt to try to amend the law in a way that will help all of racing," Robertson said. "This language is archaic." Northville Downs agreed to the funding formula change, which ultimately is a concession that would award them a smaller share of the simulcast purse pool than they receive now. But Carlo and the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association say the change triggers a problem with a different section of the bill, which they believe would require Hazel Park's owners to sign off each time Northville Downs wanted to simulcast a thoroughbred horse race. Their fear is that Hazel Park and thoroughbred groups could block Northville Downs from simulcasting the Kentucky Derby, for instance, since the money collected under the new model would not be shared with Hazel Park and thoroughbred owners. "Since the dawn of simulcasting, all tracks have taken all breeds," said Tom Barrett, president of the harness horsemen's group. "We are only going to support a bill that treats both tracks the same." George Kutlenios, president of the thoroughbred horsemen's association, said his group doesn't intend to prevent Northville Downs from showing thoroughbred races. "I don't know why we would not want to send a signal," Kutlenios said. "The more signals, the more product you have to offer. I can't even envision a scenario where that makes sense." Simulcast dollars The fight over simulcast revenue in some ways explains the desire for advance deposit wagering. Simulcast wagers contributed $3.6 million in state tax revenue last year, a drop of 9 percent from 2014, according to the gaming control board. And the roughly $106 million wagered on live and simulcast races last year is well below the $261 million bet in 2007. Kutlenios said he has heard some industry estimates peg the amount wagered illegally in Michigan through services in other states at between $90 million and $120 million. Robertson also sponsored Senate Bill 505, which would make it a felony to accept wagers on live or simulcast horse races in Michigan without a license. That bill also moved to the House. Proponents say they want to stop vendors like TwinSpires, which is owned by Churchill Downs, from taking unlicensed wagers from potential track visitors that otherwise could be used to support Michigan's race tracks. "There are people right now on site using their phones but not wagering even through us," said Dan Adkins, vice president of Southfield-based real estate developer Hartman and Tyner Inc., which owns Hazel Park Raceway. Carlo, of Northville Downs, said Michigan's horse tracks could make inroads into the market for advance deposit wagering if a third-party vendor managed it on behalf of both tracks, rather than allowing one track to operate at the expense of the other. "We're in favor of it being in place somehow and some way," he said, "but I don't think we have figured out the best way for our industry in Michigan." By Lindsay Vanhulle Reprinted with permission of the Crain's Detroit site

JACKSON, MI — Harness racing trainer/driver Bart Stimer almost literally threw $1 million out the window.  The 45-year-old Concord man won $1 million in Wednesday night's Powerball drawing and almost lost his winning ticket while pulling away from an Ohio Turnpike toll booth.  Stimer and his wife, Kiersten, were on their way to watch their family's horses race in Cleveland, according to a news release from the Michigan Lottery.  "I rolled down my window to get a ticket for the Ohio Turnpike, and as I pulled away and started to get up to speed, the Powerball ticket that was laying on my dash almost flew out the window," Michigan's newest millionaire said in the release. "I grabbed it just before it got to the window, and stuck it in a cubby in my truck." Stimer is a longtime horse harness racer and third-generation Big 9 Sportsman's Club member.  He wasn't aware the ticket was a winning one until making it back home to Concord later Wednesday night. His wife heard about someone buying a golden ticket at the Horton Depot, 389 S. Moscow Road, which prompted Stimer to rush out to his truck.  "When she told me that someone had bought a winning ticket there, I got to my truck as fast as I could to check my ticket," he said in the release. "I had memorized two of the winning numbers, the 04 and 08, so when I saw I had those, I thought I might have a winner.  "I won't believe this is actually happening until I make a big deposit at my bank." This wasn't the Stimer's only win of the day, as one of his horses "GunninForAFight" won its race in Cleveland. The winner visited the Michigan Lottery headquarters in Lansing on Friday, Jan. 15, and said he has plans to cut some debt and set up college funds for his three children.  "I'm happy to have won $1 million. It won't change our lifestyle," he said. "We'll be the same people we've always been; we'll just be a little more comfortable."  By Benjamin Raven | braven@mlive.com  Reprinted with permission of mlive.com site

JACKSON, MI – While a track license highlights one step toward harness racing returning to Jackson County, lawmakers and proponents are quick to point out there are still several steps to go. One million steps to be exact. Jackson County received a horse racing track license for its fairgrounds from the Michigan Gaming Control Board on Tuesday, July 28. The license is good for two years. Now, track proponents must find the funds to reopen the track to harness racing in Jackson. "We still need about $1 million in purse pool funds to reopen the track," said Brett Boyd, Jackson Raceway LLC owner, who has spearheaded the effort to revitalize horse racing at the fairgrounds since the practice was discontinued in 2009. State law reserves purse pool money — millions of dollars — for existing tracks, making it difficult for new tracks to get the funds necessary to begin. The MGCB has proposed bringing together track management to come up with a proposal to change state laws, but board representative Mary Kay Bean said the meetings "haven't proved fruitful." Boyd said he hopes that pressure from state lawmakers and the harness racers themselves will push track managers and the MGCB to shift the law in Jackson County's favor. "The racers would love another track to go and make money," Boyd said. "It's no secret, though, that other track owners aren't thrilled about more competition." Boyd requested about $1.2 million in purse pool funds to conduct 28 races at the county fairgrounds in 2015 but was denied by the MGCB, which cited state law. State Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Spring Arbor, said there has not been movement yet on changing state laws to accommodate allocating yearly purse pool funds to tracks not open the year before. However, with the news of a track license at Jackson County fairgrounds, the possibility of change is gaining momentum. "It's now a matter of getting support from the (horse racing) industry," Poleski said. "They're by no means a united force." Poleski said he'll continue to work toward a law change, and Boyd said residents shouldn't be surprised if a proposal is presented before next summer. "We're moving in the right direction," Boyd said. Will Forgrave covers city and county government for the Jackson Citizen Patriot. Contact him at wforgrav@mlive.com or 517-262-7554. Follow him on Twitter at @WillForgrave. Reprinted with permission of the www.mlive.com site

Right on the heels of two regional mid-season finales the CKG Billings amateur driving series returned to its roots for a competition over the double oval at the harness racing meeting at Livingston County Family Fair in Fowlerville, Michigan. The fair, which has been thrilling locals since 1887, once again offered a full card of 17 harness races on Monday afternoon, July 27 despite the reproachful racing climate in the Wolverine State. And to the delight of local amateur drivers one was for Billings members in the Midwest region. Of course where ever there's a chance to drive a spirited Standardbred it's a good bet that Steve "You're Never Too" Oldford will avail himself an opportunity to compete. Joining Oldford in a quest for a victory were Jerome "Call me Jerry" Mihelich, " Lightning Larry" Steenbergen, Patrticia "the Write Stuff" Miller and Kelly "Sky" Walker. In that contest Oldford was up behind Gespacho , a trotter trained locally by June Du Russel. When the starter said go, Oldford sent his charge to the front and made every pole a winning one en route to an easy 2:05.4 victory over Beauty Chip and driver Jerry Mihelich. Hay Look Out finished third for Pat Miller. "I can't say enough good things about June Du Rusell," Oldford said after the race. "She's always helped the amateurs by supplying horses for us to drive" "She's just a great gal." " And there's no secret about the state of racing in Michigan but we're hopeful that things will get better in the future." It was the third seasonal triumph for Gerspach, a 7 year old altered son of Holy Guacamolie and his 21st in 87 career outings. For Oldford it marked his 11th seasonal driving victory and the 108th of his amateur career. The next Midwest region Billings action will be at the Summit Fair at Northfield Park on Saturday, August 1. That same night there will also be a Billings trot at Vernon Downs in the series east region. John Manzi

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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