Trenton, NJ --- As a senior at Chrisman (Ill.) High School in 2014, Wyatt Avenatti finished second in the state in the 800 meters and also earned The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette’s Athlete of the Week for winning the Danville Open Indoor Invitational. In his interview with the N-G, Avenatti said that in five years he will “hopefully be an assistant basketball coach in college.” A year later, those dreams have been slightly altered. “I’d like to be,” he said, “one of the top drivers in the nation.” The 19-year-old isn’t being boastful when he says that. He is, in fact, quite humble. He didn’t even reveal his impressive success in the 800 during an interview, prompting his dad, David, to take the phone and say ‘He’s way too modest to ever tell you this, but he was second in the state of Illinois in the 800 meters.” What Wyatt did note about his track background, which included running cross country, is that it has helped him working with horses. “It’s so crazy how similar they are -- running cross country and track, and training and driving horses,” Avenatti said. “With a lot of the training, what you want to do with the horse is the same thing as when you’re running yourself.” Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Avenatti got his provisional license in the early spring and gained his first career driving win on June 14, piloting 8-year-old trotting mare Fox Valley Sienna to victory at Kentucky’s Players Bluegrass Downs. Wyatt had 11 drives before hitting the winner’s circle, which included a trio of third-place finishes. “It was a little frustrating,” he said. “I’ve always been an athlete and been pretty decent, so, taking (12) races to get my first win was frustrating but it taught me a lot on how to drive and how to race a horse.” Wyatt upheld a family tradition when he won with Fox Valley Sienna. The horse was trained by David, who also won a number of races behind her. Two years ago, older brother Matthew (now 22) got his first win driving the mare. “That was a pretty special experience, getting it with the mare that my dad and older brother both won with,” Avenatti said. “The fact my brother and I both got our first win on her really made it special. She’s been doing a great job for us. My dad won an Illinois stakes elimination a few times, he’s had some good success with her.” In his win at Bluegrass Downs, Wyatt went to the front at the half-mile marker and never looked back. “I knew my mare had a little more gate speed,” he said. “So I just leaped off the gate, got out front, and timed it out to just outspin everybody.” The Avenattis own a stable in Chrisman with more than 10 horses. It was a family business that started with Wyatt’s grandfather, Tony. “When he was a little kid he went to a county fair and decided he would race horses,” Wyatt said. “He waited until he was out of college, got a job, bought some horses and had some good success with them. He quit his job and started training.” David followed suit, as he graduated from the University of Illinois and then decided to work with horses full time in order to spend time with his four children. Needless to say, they got caught up in it. “It would definitely be odd not to have horses in my life,” Avenatti said. “No matter what, I always had a horse in the barn. My dad and brother and older sister would spend time out in the barn together, it’s always been a special place for us.” Wyatt began helping train horses at age 13 and even then he loved the excitement of being in the sulky. “I think I always wanted to be a driver,” he said. “I love breaking babies and training horses. But I really love driving.” He got his fair license two years ago and started driving fairs frequently the following year. Since getting his provisional license, he has won two more times since that first victory, all with Fox Valley Sienna. He has driven several other family horses, including one that his little brother, Lane, helps train. While he has mostly driven Avenatti horses, Wyatt is looking to expand. “I’m always hoping to drive horses,” he said. “I’m waiting for an opportunity to catch a break, get a couple good drives. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.” David Avenatti noted that both Wyatt and Matthew shoe their own horses and “do a real good job. They shoe them, train them, drive them. He’s a pretty complete horseman.” Which is a big reason why Wyatt, who also played high school basketball, has given up dreams of being the next Rick Pitino. “It would have been cool,” he said. “But I would rather drive horses!” by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
Trenton, NJ --- Sometimes it’s pretty amazing what an extra $1,000 can buy. William “Don” Cantrell has discovered that over the past five months after purchasing Classic Belisima at the harness racing Blooded Horse Sale in November. With trainer John Cabot surveying the horses, Cantrell called a friend who was there and asked him to bid up to $15,000. Cabot saw several pacers he really liked, but the more he looked at Classic Belisima, the more he liked her. “I called back and said ‘Go $16,000 because a lot of people stop at 15,” Cantrell said. “I was sitting in my living room watching the sale and the board rolled up at $17,000 and I said ‘Well we didn’t get her.’ And about that time the phone rang and he said ‘We got her, the board rolled back to $16,000.’ “So that extra thousand I told him to bid ended up getting us the horse.” And what a horse she has been. Classic Belisima enters Wednesday night’s (April 22) $30,000 Bobby Weiss Series final for 3- and 4-year-old female trotters at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono as the 2-1 morning line favorite. She has won eight of her 10 races this year and has won four straight, including all three Weiss Series preliminary rounds in which she competed. “There was just something about her we liked,” Cantrell said. “We’ve had a lot of luck racing fillies over the years; I’ve raced a lot of fillies. Before (Cabot) even looked at her, he knew the guy that had her and he was a real good horseman, so you knew you didn’t have to worry about anything and we decided to take a shot on her.” In her first race for her new connections at Dover Downs, Classic Belisima was driven by Corey Callahan, who sat in the back of the pack until the three-quarters mark and got beat by a nose. “That first night I knew we had a good horse,” Cantrell said. “She can race any way,” he added. “She’s been on the front end up there, and Corey Callahan says she’s awesome off a helmet. If you want to race her from behind, you can race her anyway you want to and you can drive her with two fingers.” David Miller will drive her in the Weiss final, where she will face off against Dress For Success, who has also won four straight. “That’s amazing,” Cantrell said. “We’ve been there three times, they’ve been there four, we never drew in the same heat. But we’re in it together (Wednesday). We feel good about it and I’m sure they feel good about it. We’ll just see what happens.” The owner feels Dress For Success will not be Classic Belisima’s biggest test of the year, if only because she has been predominantly racing against males at Dover. “It’s tough when girls race against boys,” Cantrell said. “That’s the bad thing about racing trotting fillies on the East Coast; you never get a race against the girls. All the races we won in Dover were against big, strong boys. “You never know about a horse race. It looks like a two-horse race (Wednesday) and somebody else may come out of the woodwork. That’s why a horse race is the way it is.” And Cantrell loves every minute of it. A retired basketball/football coach and athletic director from Johnson Central High School in Eastern Kentucky, Don got started “about 15, 20 years ago buying cheap claimers.” “It’s just a hobby for me,” he said. “I love a nice horse. I’m a retired teacher, I’m not looking to get rich. I just love to play with a nice horse.” He has a nice filly trotter named Golden Big Stick, who he owns with Mike Hollenback. Last season as a 2-year-old, Golden Big Stick won $172,120 on the Indiana Sire Stakes circuit. But of the eight horses he owns, Cantrell considers Classic Belisima the best so far. “I’ve had some nice horses, but I’ve never had one trot 1:53.3 before,” he said. “I really think this is the best horse I’ve ever owned.” He and Cabot have no solid schedule for Classic Belisima for the upcoming months. “Nah, we’re just going to sit down and take a look at it,” Cantrell said. “If there are some nice races out there we’ll give it a shot. We don’t have anything planned now, maybe take a couple weeks off after this. We’re just going to race through the summer.” And he hopes to watch that extra $1,000 investment continue to grow. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
Trenton, NJ --- In 2008, veterinarians Randy Hutchison and his dad, Robert, visited the Standardbred Horse Sale. It was the first time the father and son went to inspect and actually purchase a harness racing yearling on their own. Call it instinct, good horse sense or just plain beginner’s luck, but the Hutchisons were about to go on a nice little seven-year ride that ended last Friday night (March 13). They purchased a female pacer named Keystone Linda for $4,000, renamed her Holiday Shopper at the urging of Randy’s daughter Anna, and the mare proceeded to win 30 times and earned $403,649. That’s a pretty good bang for the buck, and it concluded at Miami Valley Raceway in Ohio with a second-place finish on Friday. “She raced well and she gave it her best, she didn’t embarrass herself,” Randy Hutchison said. “We decided that would be her last race because over the last two to three months we just started to see the number of races and miles she raced over the last six years starting to catch up a little bit. “We always said she’s been too good of a horse to just watch her go around the track. We were going to let her go out with some dignity.” The laid-back daughter of Camluck carried herself with dignity throughout her racing career, first under the training of Ivan and Duke Sugg, and for the last four years under Jeff Brewer. Ivan Sugg was with the Hutchisons at Harrisburg when the filly entered the auction ring. She was sitting at $3,000 and Sugg felt she was definitely worth that much. Randy and Robert bid $4,000 and had themselves a horse. “She had a good video and was put together well,” Randy said. “Some thought she was too small, but we have never really found that to be a huge problem. “We kind of have a certain standard we look for. Are they anatomically correct so they have the chance of holding up to the rigors of racing? We watched hundreds and hundreds of yearling videos. She just had something about her, she had the anatomy and athleticism we liked, and her breeding.” After the name change -- because Anna liked the name Holiday -- the horse began racing as a 2-year-old, started out decently and remained consistent up until her finale. “She’s gone strong,” Randy said. “Even last year she won 11 times. That first year, she had some races in the stakes program in Ontario. There were a few races where she really started to show her heart and competitiveness and we realized we did have something more than a regular horse. We thought she was just something that might be a little better than what we expected.” Actually, she was a lot better than expected. Some of her highlights were finishing second as a 2-year-old in the $92,000 Ontario Sire Stakes Grassroots final and racing in the Jugette in the Hutchisons’ home state of Ohio. “We like to race pacing fillies. That’s our goal to get to that race, and she got us in that race,” Randy said. “She didn’t do anything in it (finishing sixth in her opening heat). But just to be in there and being in that barn and being part of that was fabulous. All her sire stakes races in Ontario were great. Just really the whole thing over all seven years. And because she’s the first one we picked out ourselves it made it even more special.” Robert, who lives in North Ridgeville, Ohio, had been an owner for nearly 30 years before he and Randy (of Avon Lake, Ohio) teamed up for the purchase. They have bought several others on their own and have parts of six horses now. Holiday Shopper is the most successful of them all, and is also a friend of the family. “My whole family knew her, knew who she was,” Randy said. “For my dad for Christmas we had a painting of her done. She was the best horse (results-wise) we’ve had and she provided not only excitement, but a lot of great family moments with my dad and myself, my wife and my family.” Holiday Shopper raced primarily in Canada before finishing up in Ohio the past two years. She will now be a broodmare and the Hutchisons are hoping they might be able to race one of her offspring. One thing is certain, if she does as well giving birth as she did on the track, some good horses are on the way. Asked if they ever expected to earn 10 times as much as they paid for Holiday Shopper, Randy said, “No, never. It’s kind of one of those things, it just happened. You look at her winnings, she’s won almost the same every year, we never would have thought that. “I mean, she hasn’t won $2 million. But to us, she’s special.” by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
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
Trenton, NJ --- For Caleb Uhrig, Turtle Gone Wild was a project worth working on. Just 22, Uhrig watched his 2-year-old pace to victory at the Darke County Fair in Greenville, Ohio, on Aug. 21. It was the first win for Caleb and the first for Turtle Gone Wild. Uhrig has watched two other horses he trains visit the winner’s circle four times since then, but that first one will always have a distinctive joy to it. “That was a pretty special day,” Uhrig said. “I had broke that horse as a baby, he was kind of my little project. We bought him and we got him real cheap ($1,000) out of the (Blooded Horse) sale and he was super easy and automatic all through, from breaking him and training him down. “He had raced a couple times at the big tracks, and was racing really well, but never had much racing luck. We decided they were having a maiden pace (at Greenville) for 2-year-olds, we might as well try him there and it worked out great. That was my first training win and his first lifetime win. It’s kind of special taking my first real horse from square one to his first win and my first win.” Caleb got his second win two races later with Hoosier Shooter, and has added three more victories with Mantaculater. The most recent came Dec. 11 at Hollywood Gaming Dayton Raceway, but the pacer's Nov. 6 triumph at Northfield Park also had special meaning because it was Uhrig’s first pari-mutuel win. “It was exciting,” he said. “I guess you could call him another project. We got him pretty cheap, we worked hard with him.” The original plan was to race Mantaculater at Dayton, since it was only an hour away from Uhrig’s stable in Frankfort. But he was not quite ready for the speed at Dayton, so Caleb decided to make the three-hour trip to Northfield. “He fit with a lot of conditions at Northfield, so we took him up there and it worked out pretty well for him,” Uhrig said. “We raced him there three or four times. We got a check there every other time, it helped pay for the trip I guess. “It was an exciting win because we had worked pretty hard on him and that made the work worthwhile.” Uhrig is hoping there will be more wins in his future as he plans on making harness racing his career. In just 21 starts as a trainer, he has five wins, two seconds and four thirds, good for $7,030 in purses. He has no intentions of driving. “Nah,” he said. “I have all these good drivers to choose from. I might as well stick with what I’m good at.” Growing up in Chillicothe, Ohio, his family had Quarter horses and was big into barrel racing. There would be constant weekends of competition and, while in high school, Caleb met trainer Steve Carter and worked with him part-time. Once he graduated, the job went to full-time and things began to escalate. “I learned a lot from Steve; I’ve always tried to watch different trainers and what they do,” Uhrig said. “I was fortunate, I started out grooming horses for Steve and in a sense got promoted and the last year I was training. “I got to break a lot of babies and train down a lot of good racehorses and learned the things that didn’t work and did work.” Uhrig was a quick study, and now runs a stable with his dad, Todd. He also works during the day with trainer Dan Ater, who has a stable 10 miles away in Clarksburg. “I’ve known him for years,” Uhrig said. “I was always begging him to let me stop in and watch the horses.” The Uhrig father-son team owns Mantaculater, Turtle Gone Wild and one other horse, but only Mantaculater is racing in the winter. Turtle Gone Wild is resting for his upcoming 3-year-old season and Hoosier Shooter was sold a few months ago. “I think Turtle Gone Wild is going to be a pretty solid racehorse,” Uhrig said. “He’s got a lot of class to him, he takes good care of himself, he’s pretty good gaited. We’ll take him through the ranks and see where he gets us. “He’s got a pretty cool personality to him, he wants to please you. He works hard, always wants to be around you and he enjoys his job. I hope that good attitude pays off.” Caleb makes no bones about what he wants. He is looking to expand and have a large stable and said, “I guess you can say I’m kind of impatient, I want it all right now, of course.” He feels fortunate to have a strong support system that includes his friends, his family and girlfriend Kristin McQuiniff. Despite his impatience, he’s happy with where he is so far. “I’m sure there are people out there who have been training for years and still want what I want,” he said. “I’m just going to continue to work hard. I’m blessed to be able to make a living with something I’m so passionate about. I guess I’ll just keep working hard and keep my eye on the prize and keep reaching for my goals, and hopefully that gets me going.” Sounds like a man with plenty of projects in the works. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent Courtesy of the USTA web newsroom
Trenton, NJ --- For most of her life, the extent of Shelley Johnson’s photography featured holiday and vacation photos, much like the rest of the world. About 10 years ago, her husband Jeff surprised Shelley with a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas, in hopes that nine months later she would be able to take sharp action photographs at the Little Brown Jug at the Delaware County Fair in Ohio. “I’m not sure what Jeff was thinking,” said Johnson, who lives 35 miles east of Columbus, Ohio. “I had never taken action shots. I took it as a challenge.” Jeff must have known something no one else did, because the challenge has been well met. A decade later, most of the cover photos on Scioto Downs programs are taken by Shelley, who has developed an eye for action and just this week enjoyed shooting another Little Brown Jug. But her efforts in photography go beyond the racetrack. She also shoots photographs for the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, which has Standardbred facilities in Ohio and Michigan. “I find great joy shooting photos of Standardbred horses retiring from the track and moving on to other careers,” she said. “New Vocations retrains Standardbred racehorses for various occupations under saddle and places them in new, caring homes. Each month I photograph these great horses going up for adoption. This is my way of promoting harness racing and helping the Standardbred horse adoption program.” While Jeff is the big horseman in the family, he did provide Shelley with a birthday present when he bought her a horse for her birthday named Master Chip in 2005. But it wasn’t like she just had to unwrap the horse at the stable. “I had to do all of my own bidding at the (Ohio Selected Jug) sale,” she said. “I had never been to an auction, let alone bid on anything. It was quite stressful. He didn't do much on the track, but I sure loved him. He has a good home now and enjoys life.” The Johnsons have also partnered with other owners on trotting fillies She’s Not Red and ML Cupcake, who are both broodmares now. They still have ML Cupcake, who was Ohio’s 2-year-old filly Trotter of the Year in 2010. “I can't wait until next spring to see her baby,” Shelley said. They also have a 2-year-old filly trotter, Carolina Charm, who has won four of six starts this season. “The racing was always Jeff's thing,” Shelley noted. “He knows horses, stallions, etc. I only enjoyed watching the races if it was a horse I knew. That's when I started taking pictures. It gave me something to do, and he was able to stay for the entire card without me wanting to go home!” It has led to a long, steady climb for the Ohio retiree who is technically a professional photographer by virtue of her sales, but still considers it a hobby. After receiving that first camera, she experimented on her feathered friends before horses, taking photos of birds at the feeder outside the dining room window. When she and Jeff bought their first horse, Shelley would try to capture him in action at the track. When she shot the Jug, it became a bit tougher as horses trying to win races traveled a lot faster than those being jogged and trained. “I took pictures, but they didn’t really turn out,” she said. Johnson kept plugging away. She took online classes for nature photography and equine photography. Neither dealt with shooting actual race action, but did help in the process. “I learned a lot about headshots and conformation shots in the equine class,” she said. “Also the proper distance to avoid distortion in the photos.” She also put in countless hours practicing at the farm of her friend Doris, who jogged and trained her own horses and taught Shelley a lot about the animals. But all the practice and all the talent in the world can only get a photographer so far without the right equipment. As her interest increased, so too did the quality of Shelley’s cameras. The big turnaround in her photos came several years ago when Jeff bought his wife a professional grade lens. “That’s made a huge difference,” Johnson said. “He even said if he had known the lens would make that much difference, he would have gotten it for me sooner.” She knew she arrived as a photographer when Scioto Downs made her a cover girl two years ago. “At that point,” she said, “I guess I thought, hey, I got this!” The monumental first cover came on June 21, 2012, with a photo of the entire field of a race on the starting gate, and an Ohio Lottery billboard behind them proclaiming “Winners Are Everywhere.” “It felt amazing to see it,” Johnson said. Aside from the program covers, she has had several photos in magazines by virtue of New Vocations using them. A week ago, Johnson was thrilled to see that one of her photos was used on the Scioto Downs billboard out front. She has discovered that she gets her finest results when not focusing on anything in particular. “I do my best when I just shoot random, with no pressure,” she said. “If I get it, OK. If I don't, OK. I will try to focus on a certain horse in a race if someone wants me to get a picture of their horse. That's hard though. The horse isn't always in view.” And as good as she has become, Johnson still feels the biggest key to her success “is probably just good luck.” “Most of the time I single-shoot the pictures,” she explained. “My camera doesn't shoot enough frames per second to use continuous mode. If I try to shoot in continuous mode and the horse has its foot planted on the track, it usually ends up planted in all of the shots. I like to try for shots with all four off the ground.” As for attempting to choose her favorite photo, Shelley said it’s like trying to pick a favorite child. She notes that when so many photos do not come out, “whenever I get one that I think looks good, I’m happy.” Judging by her success in recent years, Shelley Johnson has had quite a bit of happiness lately. To view Shelly Johnson’s work, check out her website at www.sfjohnsonphotos.com by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent Courtesy of the US Trotting Association Web Newsroom
Trenton, NJ --- When the Career Day recruiters show up at Westfall High School in Ohio during the next two years, Hunter Myers probably won’t need to pay them a visit. He has had his future mapped out for quite a while now. Myers, a 16-year-old rising junior at Westfall, drove his first Standardbred horse at age 5 and immediately fell in love. The Williamsport, Ohio, native is busy on the Ohio fair circuit and got his first win July 11 at the Jackson County Fair in Wellston. He added two more victories later the same day. After going winless in his first seven starts, Hunter entered Monday with nine wins, 11 seconds and 10 thirds in 55 races. His horses have earned $21,313 in purses, and he hopes this is only the start of a nice, long driving career. “I started off driving my first horse at around 5 or 6,” he said. “As soon as I started to grow up I said ‘I’m going to start driving horses. That’s what I want to do.’ “I’ve grown up in it, my dad is in it, my grandpa is in it. My dad owns some horses and trains some horses for his brother, Mark. I’d like to have a couple horses of my own but as I’m growing up driving I want to stick with the driving for a while. But I’d like to have one or two horses to tinker around with.” Myers still remembers his first time behind a horse, which came while he was jogging a horse with his dad, Michael. “We had this one horse, she was a nice trotter and easy,” Hunter recalled. “He took me around until the last two laps and stopped her. He said ‘She’s yours.’ I drove the last two laps and ever since then I’ve been going up. I jogged that horse, he bumped me up to another horse, then another. “My first training trip was in a cart, a 2:40 mile. It was nothing extreme. My first bike training trip was a pacer when I was around 8. I was little nervous to get on the bike for the first time and get behind the horse. You’re sitting in a jog cart and jumping to a bike. There’s a big difference, but I kept my cool and as soon as I turned I said ‘This ain’t bad. It’s like a jog in the park.’” Myers played baseball until the fifth grade and then decided to focus completely on driving. He is smart enough to use each stepping stone as a learning experience, starting with the matinees. He is also humble enough to let a horse show the way when necessary. “The matinees gave me a lot of gate experience,” he said. “I had an old horse, (11-year-old) Singapore Gambler. He was my first matinee horse, he knew what he was doing. “So it gave me the experience of being with a horse down inside of me, grouped up. And my horse more or less trained me. The horse told me, ‘We’re staying right here, and then we’re going back here.’ I could let the horse go.” Once he got his qualifying/fair license, Myers could not wait to start racing at the fairs. And while he did not win in his first seven races, he finished second four times. That led to a mixture of frustration and optimism. “I had to say I’m right up there, and I need a half a second and I’ll be all right,” he said. “At the same time, it bugged me sometimes when I thought about it. I’m right there, a little bit more oomph and he or she should win it. But I was happy with where I was.” It finally came together while driving Uptown Dreamer, a horse his dad is leasing. In looking at the program, Myers thought he might finish second. The horse quickly got to the front and remained there, although a challenge emerged from the outside on the last turn. “I was chasing (Uptown Dreamer) and tapping her, I was yelling at her, trying to get her faster,” Myers said. “I was doing everything in my willpower to get her faster.” Once he got across the line, Hunter said “I was hootin’ and hollerin.’ I had a big old smile on my face. It took a while to get the smile off my face, I was so excited.” He managed to refocus in time to win two more races on the day. “I just knew I couldn’t have a big head when I went back out there,” he said. “I just said ‘Calm down, it’s a new horse, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ That’s what I did, and sure enough I won again.” As his career starts to build steam, Hunter credits his dad and veteran driver Jack Dailey as two of his biggest influences. “Jack always told me ‘I can’t wait to get you on the track to race against you,’” Myers said. “He’s a big ball of fun out there when you’re racing against him. I always tell Jack if he sees something wrong to tell me. “My dad is the one pulling me up and down these fairs. He’s taking me all over and helping me out. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here where I’m at.” And he’s exactly where he wants to be -- taking dead aim on a career in harness racing. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent Courtesy of the United States Trotting Association Web Newsroom
Trenton, NJ --- If Sweet Rock were a businessman instead of a harness racing horse, he would probably be Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. He sure doesn’t take long to turn a profit. “You have a horse less than a week and it pays for itself,” said the horse’s new trainer, Wayne Givens. “That’s unbelievable.” This past Saturday, it was time to believe. Purchased by Vicki Givens' Legacy Racing of DE Inc., Reginald Hazzard II and Gary Calloway for $63,000 at the Tattersalls Summer Mixed Sale on July 27, the 3-year-old male pacer was thrown right into the fray on Hambletonian Day. With just one win in 20 lifetime starts, Sweet Rock went off at 92-1 odds and promptly won the $225,000 Anthony Abbatiello SBOA New Jersey Classic at the Meadowlands. Not a bad return on the $63,000 purchase just six days earlier. He had been trained by Larry Remmen, one of the top trainers at the Big M. “At the sale was the first time I saw him,” Wayne Givens said. “I went and looked at him, he seemed like a good solid horse. I went over and talked to Larry, and he said there was nothing wrong. “He was a good bred horse. He looked good in his last start at the Meadowlands and paced at (1:)50 and a piece. He’s only 3 years old and pacing in (1:)50 and he’s a (gelded) son of Rocknroll Hanover.” The fact Remmen had worked with Sweet Rock also made Givens feel pretty secure with the purchase. “They’re good trainers,” he said. “I knew the horse would be in shape and health wise he was probably good. When you buy good horses off good trainers, sometimes all you have to do is get lucky, and that’s kind of what happened. “There were no issues at all when I started to work with him. He was racing fine at the Meadowlands. Hooking up with his harness I already knew what the horse wore. He’s perfect; a nice horse on the track and a nice horse to go out and train. With him it’s all in the trip.” Despite going off as the second biggest longshot in the NJ Classic (Card Shock was 102-1), Givens had faith in the horse. “I can tell you the truth, I was hoping he’d get a check,” the trainer said. “I told my partners it’s not every day you’re in a race for $200,000. “I think the odds were so long because he had just changed hands. The Remmens had him until a few days ago. Plus there were a couple horses in there that people didn’t think anybody could beat. But it worked out perfect.” Givens handed the reins to Brett Miller, who admitted after the race he knew nothing about Sweet Rock. But he managed to take him from behind and worked his way through a crowded stretch as Sweet Rock won by a nose over Beat The Drum in 1:49.4. “Miller did an outstanding job driving him,” Givens said. “I think that’s what the horse needed, was a trip. He needed a real good trip and luck went our way. Things opened up right before the wall and he came on.” Although Givens has no solid plans for the horse, he said his next race will probably be the Tompkins-Geers at Tioga Downs on Aug. 17. He is also eligible for several other races but the trainer said, “I’m not sure about any of them right now. But we’ll show up at Tioga.” By then, Givens will have had more time to work with the horse, although he obviously didn’t need much time to turn a profit. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
The fact that trainer Nancy Johansson will make her Hambletonian debut against her dad, Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter, is one of the big storylines entering Saturday's race. And while Johansson understands and appreciates the interest, it's not something that's really on her mind. Especially since, hey, there will be other trainers there too! "It's no different to race against him than anybody else," said Johansson, who trains Hambletonian starter Resolve, adding with a laugh. "It's a horserace, there has to be other horses in there. He's one of the top trainers with one of the biggest barns, so I expect him to be there." The two have teamed up for previous Hambletonian success, as Nancy was the caretaker for Takter's 2010 winner, Muscle Massive. She grew up learning the trade under Jimmy, who also won the 1997 Hambletonian with Malabar Man, having said in the past "I tell people that from going to my dad's 'school' I got a PhD in training." But neither wants to mix business with pleasure, especially when it comes to head-to-head competition. "We don't talk about it," Nancy said. "When we have family time, we talk about grandkids or other stuff. "But we're both very competitive. I think deep down inside, if somebody beats him he would want it to be me. But it's really deep down because he really wants to win first himself." And Takter has a good chance this year with favorite Father Patrick, along with two other highly regarded horses in the race - Trixton and Nuncio. This won't be the first time father and daughter pitted their Hambletonian horses against each other. On July 19, Resolve finished second to Nuncio in the Reynolds Stakes. Resolve has won two of seven races this year and hit the board six times. He has four wins in 19 career starts, earning $45,950. The horse is owned by Hans Enggren, who won the 1985 Hambletonian with Prakas. Enggren is looking for another shot at Hambletonian glory, which is why he bought Resolve just a few weeks ago. "He was pretty much purchased with the idea he was going to race in the Hambletonian," Johansson said. "Hans is getting up in age and he wants another go at the Hambletonian. He had seen the horse last year and liked him." Enggren saw him again early in the spring and liked him just as much, if not more, but Resolve was not for sale. When he was put on the market, Hans made his move. "We knew that if he raced good in the Reynolds he was going to the Hambletonian," Johansson said. "I didn't really expect him to race that good, so that was a good surprise. He's been solid all year. "He's a nice horse. I think he's going to mature into a nice older horse. He's not staked to a lot this year, so he's going to have a kind of low-key 3-year-old season." Winning the Hambletonian would certainly turn the key up a notch, and Johansson is happy with drawing the No. 1 post. But she was unhappy to see her dad's top horse get stuck in the difficult 10 hole. "The draw helped us, but I didn't like to see Father Patrick draw bad," Johansson said. "He deserves to win the Hambletonian because he's just such an extremely fine animal. With post 10, anything can happen. "I wouldn't be surprised if things shake out differently than expected, too." One of Takter's trademarks is trying new things with a horse entering a final. Nancy is unsure if that will be necessary with Resolve. "I don't know yet. We'll see," she said. "We changed a lot on the horse already. I think you have to be careful how much you change in a short amount of time. "I feel pretty confident we have him the way we want him. He trained absolutely fantastic (Wednesday) morning. I couldn't ask for a better training session than he had (that) morning. I don't really feel like there is anything we need to take care of. Everything feels very even keel right now. It's a good situation." And, as far as Johansson is concerned, a situation like any other when it comes to the trainers she will be facing in this race. Story by Rich Fisher for the Hambletonian Notes Team Ken Weingartner Harness Racing Communications
He hopes his luck is on full display in Saturday's $1 million Hambletonian at Meadowlands Racetrack. Mazza owns JJ Alex, who will start from post two at morning line odds of 50-1 in the Hambletonian. The colt, trained and driven by Francisco Del Cid, is winless this year and has one victory in 15 career starts. Like everyone else, JJ Alex will be chasing Father Patrick, one of three Jimmy Takter-trained horses in the race. Father Patrick has won 15 straight starts and is the 4-5 morning line favorite despite starting from the unenviable No. 10 post. Mazza bought JJ Alex privately on Aug. 2, 2013 and exactly one year later, the horse is competing on the sport's biggest stage. Could that be a sign? Probably not, but Mazza thought it was a chance worth taking. "I ain't going to be here forever; this might be my last shot for the Hambletonian," he said. "We got the right draw, we got the right driver on him, we got the right trainer. It's a win-win situation. He added with a laugh, "So I'll see you in the winner's circle." Bold talk since JJ Alex has yet to find the winner's circle in 2014. But he has finished in the money five times with two seconds and three thirds. His final tune-up before the Hambo was a third-place finish in a $32,455 division of the Arden Downs Stakes at the Meadows July 26. "We trained him good before going to The Meadows," Del Cid said. "We were going to train him and based on that training mile make a decision [on whether to enter the Hambletonian]. We were hoping for a better result in the race, but it unfolded a different way and I got pinned in. "But we were satisfied. We came to the conclusion that we were going to enter the horse and give it a try." Del Cid, a former exercise rider for high-profile Thoroughbred trainer D. Wayne Lukas, began working in harness racing in the late 1980s. "I switched to this and I liked it," said the native Guatemalan, now living in central New Jersey. "I'm not afraid of the odds," he added. "I never thought I was going to be in the Hambletonian when I came here. When I switched to this [harness racing] business, that was my goal - to be here one day." Del Cid trained his own small table for several years before joining the Trond Smedshammer Stable. In 2008 he went back out on his own and he and Mazza will now look to shock the world. To Mazza, it wouldn't be a mind-blowing shock. As far as he was concerned, when he first laid eyes on the horse it was Hambletonian at first sight. "As soon as we saw him we wanted to keep him for the Hambletonian," the owner said. "We raced him a couple times as a 2-year-old and we decided to put him in this big race this year." Mazza made his first purchase - Kehms Scooter - in 1991 at a sale at the Meadowlands. Rather than build a stable for a racehorse, he found a racehorse to fill a stable. "I was building a farm in Upper Freehold and a trainer came by and asked what was going on," Mazza said. "I told him I was building a horse barn for my kids. He asked if I wanted to get in the racehorse business. "I said I'd never thought of it, but maybe I would consider it. He told me there was a sale at the Meadowlands and asked if I wanted to come. I told him to pick me up on Saturday and I'd go with him." Mazza promptly spent $10,000 or $20,000 - he can't recall - on Kehms Scooter and was on his way. "He won his first race and it got me hooked," Mazza said. "If it wasn't for that, I might not be here. I try to enjoy it. "It was about time for me to try the Hambletonian. Maybe I'll get lucky. I've been a lucky guy, a fortunate guy, all my life. Maybe my luck will come through on Saturday." In other words, Mazza will stake his luck against all odds. by Rich Fisher, for the Hambletonian Society
Aperfectyankee's season so far has been less than flawless, but that has not dampened trainer Jim Oscarsson's opinion of his stakes-winning trotter as he heads into Saturday's $500,000 Colonial for 3-year-olds at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. The Colonial is part of Super Stakes Saturday at Pocono Downs, which also includes the $500,000 Battle of the Brandywine for 3-year-old pacers and the $350,000 Valley Forge for 3-year-old filly pacers. Aperfectyankee has won three of seven races this year and earned $179,451 for Oscarsson, who also owns and drives the colt. All of his victories this season have come on the Pennsylvania circuit, with two triumphs in divisions of the sire stakes and another in a division of the Pennsylvania All Stars. He is coming off a fourth-place finish in the $1 million Hambletonian on Aug. 3 at the Meadowlands. The nine-horse Colonial field features seven horses from the Hambletonian final, including winner Royalty For Life, runner-up Smilin Eli and third-place finisher Corky. "I'm not disappointed with him, but I know he's better than he's showed," Oscarsson said about Aperfectyankee, who won last year's $387,250 Peter Haughton Memorial by a neck over Corky. "I think with better race luck he can be right there with them at the finish. "I think he's going to win some races this year. It would be nice (to win the Colonial). I think he deserves that." Aperfectyankee entered the Hambletonian off back-to-back wins and finished third in his elimination before ending up fourth in the same-day final. He started the final from post seven and was as many as 11 lengths behind leader and eventual winner Royalty For Life in the early goings. He finished 3-3/4 lengths back on a track that favored trotters on the lead; all three Hambletonian elims and the final were won in wire-to-wire fashion. "(The Colonial) is going to be tough; it's pretty much the same as the Hambletonian," Oscarsson said. "Except this time we've got a better post. I think he can go with them. It's going to be a fun race." Last year, Aperfectyankee won three of seven starts and earned $310,035. In addition to winning the Haughton, he won a division of the Tompkins-Geers and was second to 2-year-old champion Wheeling N Dealin in a division of the Champlain Stakes. He saw his season come to an end after a sixth-place finish in his elimination for the William Wellwood Memorial in September. Oscarsson decided to turn out the colt because of allergies. "When we brought him back to train during the winter he was good and he's been healthy," Oscarsson said. "He's a nice horse. He's perfect to handle, perfect to drive. You can do whatever you want with him." Following is the field for the Colonial with listed drivers and trainers (and morning line odds): 1. Picture This, Charlie Norris, Norris (20-1); 2. Aperfectyankee, Jim Oscarsson, Oscarsson (12-1); 3. Fico, George Napolitano Jr., Staffan Lind (15-1); 4. Smilin Eli, Tim Tetrick, David Smith (3-1); 5. Spider Blue Chip, Ron Pierce, Chuck Sylvester (4-1); 6. Corky, David Miller, Jimmy Takter (5-1); 7. High Bridge, Yannick Gingras, Takter (6-1); 8. Royalty For Life, Brian Sears, George Ducharme (5-2); 9. Dontyouforgetit, Takter, Takter (10-1). by Ken Weingartner
Robin Schadt would make a good baseball manager, but for the time being she's content being a pretty astute harness racing trainer. In a 162-game Major League season, a skipper must be patient if his team is struggling early in the season. He has to hang in there, tinker, and trust that his troops get the job done.
Trenton, NJ --- If Murphy's Law means whatever can go wrong will go wrong, 2012 was the year of Gutnick's Law -- whatever can go right will go right. Harness racing owner Richard Gutnick looks back on last year and still thinks he is dreaming.
Leave it to a horse named Word Power to inspire a play on words. The 3-year-old harness racing colt pacer has gone quickly from a dark horse to a winning horse this season. Yes, yes, feel free to groan, but it's true.
Coming off a campaign in which he was the 3-year-old Colt Pacer of the Year, Heston Blue Chip was conspicuously absent in the early stages of this season. It turns out that the horse was having a reaction to his ulcer medicine, although it took owner Ken Jacobs and harness racing trainer Linda Toscano a while to discover that little problem.
The only thing as good as Maven's finish last year is her start this year. The harness racing 4-year-old ended 2012 with two straight wins, taking the American-National Stakes and Breeders Crown.