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A word of advice to Julie Miller's friends. As the harness racing trainer gets Milligan's School ready for his final Hambletonian prep event, don't post anything on her Facebook wall because you won't hear back until at least next week. Milligan's School is competing in Sunday's (July 24) $300,000 Dr. Harry M. Zweig Memorial main event for 3-year-old trotters at Vernon Downs, and he has the complete attention of his trainer. "Not that I'm older or I'm wiser, I don't know about those kind of things, but I really try to just stay off social media at this point," Miller said. "I don't read a bunch of stuff. I need to focus on my horses, not what everybody else is doing. I really just try to zone in and let the external noise figure itself out." She also tries to keep things simple as the stakes grow higher. "I try not to over-think things," Miller said. "I just really try to stay on track. We have our goal and mission. When things are going right in my stable we do the same things, and it's the same when things are in a rough patch. I try not to let other things distract me from my goal and my purpose with my horses." The purpose on Sunday is not just for Milligan's School to compete, but to win his final race before the $1 million Hambletonian, which is Aug. 6 at the Meadowlands. A son of Yankee Glide out of the mare Tori Ann, the horse has won three of six starts this year and earned $85,166. He has taken two divisions of the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes and the Earl Beal Jr. Memorial Consolation division, after a shoeing incident caused him to go off stride in his elimination. He was sixth last weekend in his division of the Stanley Dancer Memorial, which was won by Marion Marauder. Milligan's School had a tremendous freshman campaign, with five wins, three seconds and two thirds, good for $302,560 in earnings in 16 starts. He won divisions of the Bluegrass and International Stallion stakes at Red Mile in Lexington; was second to Dog Gone Lucky (by a head) in the Matron Stakes; third in the Valley Victory final; and fifth in the Breeders Crown. "I would say things are pretty much status quo this year (compared to last)," Miller said. "He raced excellent last year. With how his schedule was this year he hasn't had many starts yet. We had a hiccup in the Earl Beal eliminations and that was kind of a missed opportunity, but we're looking forward." One thing that has changed is the horse's physical stature, which makes the trainer happy considering the competition. "Obviously I do think he's a little bigger and stronger than he was last year and he's going to have to be," Miller said. "That's a great division. Southwind Frank and Marion Marauder, they're just excellent horses. You're going to have to be not just 100 percent, but 110 percent because Frank and Marion are so dominant right now. I hope I can still compete with them. I don't want to race just for the money I want to race for the win." Milligan's School drew post four Sunday, which puts him in a good starting point. He is 5-1 on the morning line. The four-horse entry of Love Matters, Bar Hopping, Hollywood Highway, and Lagerfeld is the 9-5 favorite. Love Matters, Bar Hopping, and Lagerfeld are trained by Jimmy Takter while Hollywood Highway is from the Staffan Lind Stable. The horses are an entry because of common ownership. "It's that time of year, it's getting to be crunch time, this is why we work hard all winter long," Miller said. "He feels good, he's healthy. I feel like I've got him at the best that he can be. Hopefully we can count on that and make good. "Like everybody else, I don't know what's going to happen. The goal here is the Hambo, this is going to be a really good determination if he fits in there. I'm hoping for a good effort. There's a lot of money on the line. We've got a good position so I'm hoping he can make good on it. I hope he's at his best and he can work on a good trip." If it results in a trip to the Hambletonian, then things will be right on schedule for the Millers and Russia-based owner Natalia Stroy of Stroy Inc. When Julie and her husband Andy, the horse's driver, picked Milligan's School out at the Standardbred Horse Sale they did so with high hopes. He sold for $120,000. "I explained to Natalia that I think he's a stakes horse," Miller said. "That was the whole goal when we bought him, was to make him a stakes horse and so far he's fulfilling that promise. I told the owner I thought he'd be a top contender and at least a sire stakes horse and hopefully a Grand Circuit horse. He's blossoming into what we wanted him to be." Miller considers herself "pretty fortunate," noting that Milligan's School is a mild mannered horse that can lead or come off cover. "That's really one good thing about him," she said. "He's two fingers to drive and he's honest and he'll give you his best chance." And how does Andy like driving him? "I think he likes to drive anything that's winning," Julie said with a laugh. "I do think it's more special, because it's one we train in the barn. So that's a little bit more special. Andy gets on really well with the horse. We're just hoping for some good things." Following is the field for the Zweig: PP-Horse-Driver-Trainer-Morning Line 1. Love Matters-Brett Miller-Jimmy Takter-9/5 2. Hititoutofthepark-Corey Callahan-John Butenschoen-6/1 3. Bar Hopping-Tim Tetrick-Jimmy Takter-9/5 4. Milligan's School-Andy Miller-Julie Miller-5/1 5. Trolley-Marcus Miller-Erv Miller-2/1 6. Hollywood Highway-John Campbell-Staffan Lind-9/5 7. Lagerfeld-Yannick Gingras-Jimmy Takter-9/5 8. Blenheim-Chris Christoforou-Per Henriksen-8/1 9. Smalltownthrowdown-Dan Daley-Dan Daley-10/1 ROAD TO THE HAMBLETONIAN A look at open stakes for 3-year-old male trotters and state-restricted stakes featuring Hambletonian eligibles Date - Track - Event - First - Second - Third May 7 - Freehold - Dexter Cup - Dante - Cufflink Hanover - Credevie May 7 - Pocono - PA All Stars - Tyson - Edinburgh - Will Self May 7 - Pocono - PA All Stars - Mikkeli Hanover - Granite State - Marion Gondolier May 7 - Pocono - PA All Stars - Hititoutofthepark - Lagerfeld - Cloud Nine Hanover May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Cufflink Hanover - Love Matters - Southern Cross May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Truemass Volo - Marion Gondolier - Hanks Tank May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Milligan's School - Hititoutofthepark - Desert Runner May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Lagerfeld - Tyson - Hollywood Highway May 20 - Meadowlands - NJSS - Southwind Frank - Brooklyn Hill - Bar Hopping May 21 - Meadows - Currier & Ives - Iron Mine Bucky - Steed - Hititoutofthepark May 21 - Meadows - Currier & Ives - Cufflink Hanover - Hollywood Highway - Truemass Volo May 27 - Meadowlands - NJSS - Mavens Way - Jack Vernon - Double L Lindy June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Hollywood Highway - Taco Tuesday - Sliding Home June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Lagerfeld - Truemass Volo - Dupree June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Milligan's School - Reigning Moni - Iron Mine Bucky June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Love Matters - Tight Lines - Alexander Hanover June 4 - Meadowlands - NJSS Final - Southwind Frank - Brooklyn Hill - Mavens Way June 12 - Pocono - PASS - Love Matters - Taco Tuesday - Desert Runner June 12 - Pocono - PASS - Trolley - Lagerfeld - Cufflink Hanover June 12 - Pocono - PASS - Hititoutofthepark - Hollywood Highway - Dupree June 18 - Mohawk - Goodtimes - Marion Marauder - Will Take Charge - Blenheim June 19 - Vernon - Empire Breeders Classic - Dante - Just For Today - Thats A Bad Boy June 26 - Buffalo - NYSS - The Royal Harry - Crazycat - A Jersey Contract July 1 - Tioga - Tompkins-Geers - Dominion Beach - Cufflink Hanover - Waitlifter K July 1 - Tioga - Tompkins-Geers - Hititoutofthepark - Blownoutofthewater - Steed July 2 - Pocono - Beal Memorial - Southwind Frank - Trolley - Bar Hopping July 14 - Yonkers - NYSS - Dante - The Royal Harry - Credevie July 16 - Meadowlands - Dancer Mem. - Southwind Frank - Sutton - Love Matters July 16 - Meadowlands - Dancer Mem. - Marion Marauder - Bar Hopping - Iron Mine Bucky Hambletonian eligible winners in bold by Rich Fisher, USTA Senior Correspondent

There's really no other way to put it. Scott Zeron is optimistic when it comes to driving Marion Marauder. The Canadian-based trotter drew post six in his $153,250 division of Saturday's (July 16) Stanley Dancer Memorial for 3-year-old male trotters at the Meadowlands Racetrack and will not have to contend with Hambletonian favorite Southwind Frank, who is in the opposite division. Marion Marauder finished second to Southwind Frank four times last season. Marion Marauder is the 5-2 morning line favorite in his Dancer division, with Jimmy Takter-trained Bar Hopping the 3-1 second choice from post nine in the 11-horse field that will go 1-1/8 miles. "I think the Stanley Dancer looks great," Zeron said of the prep race for the $1 million Hambletonian on Aug. 6 at the Meadowlands. "He couldn't be coming into the race any better. Last week when we were just in an overnight to make sure he got prepped for the Dancer, he finished guns a blazin', splitting horses. I didn't have to pull the earplugs and he was as strong as he's ever been going across the wire. I'm excited, and he's lightly raced so he's fresh." Marion Marauder has won three of four races this year, including the Goodtimes Stakes at Mohawk Racetrack on June 18. A week ago, he started from post nine in a 3-year-old open at the Meadowlands and stormed home from last place in :26.3 to finish second-placed-first when Jack Vernon made a break and was eventually placed ninth. Owned by Marion Jean Wellwood and Devin Keeling and trained by Paula Wellwood, Marion Marauder has won four of 17 career races and earned $404,862. As a 2-year-old, he won once in 13 starts but finished second five times and third three times. "Last year he had a few quirks," Zeron said. "He didn't like going up to the gate. If he did, you had to follow another horse and then slide him onto the gate at the last second. So that was the main reason we never positioned him in a winnable spot last year. He was always a little too far back. We did what we had to do with the quirks we were working with." Those issues have been resolved this year, not to mention the fact that Marion Marauder has gotten substantially bigger. "I don't usually see a big difference from (ages) 2 to 3," Zeron said. "Not a lot of them get a lot of size and mass to them like I've seen him do this year. That's going to be a great thing, we're going to need that for two heats in the Hambo." Since the Stanley Dancer attracted 11 starters in each division, it will be contested at 1-1/8 miles rather than the traditional one-mile distance. That added distance is another reason Zeron feels good about his horse. "I think it helps me," said Zeron, who leads all drivers at the Meadowlands in wins with 70 this year. "If he was a stone cold frontrunner I think it'd be terrible. But the fact that my horse likes coming off the pace, it's good. The further he goes in the mile, the better he picks up his speed. It's better suited to me. "Obviously having trailers is never a good thing but I'm perfectly fine with the extra eighth. I'm not worried about it being harder for him to win. I feel like it's a little easier for him to win." Of course, it's not like Zeron would complain if Marion Marauder got out front. "But so far I like him a little bit better following the helmet," he added. "I almost feel like he slowly starts to build up his speed the further in the mile he goes. His last quarter is always going to be his best quarter." Zeron has driven Marion Marauder in eight of his career starts, including second-place finishes to Southwind Frank in last year's William Wellwood Memorial and Breeders Crown. "So far the trips have been working out," Zeron said. "We're being patient with him, trying to have him in the right situation heading home, and he'll always give you everything he's got. It's always nice driving a trotter who's good gaited, well mannered and lets me do whatever I want with him. He's very easy for me to drive." As for not getting another shot at Southwind Frank in the Stanley Dancer, Zeron is not complaining. He hopes it will materialize a few weeks down the road. Southwind Frank, trained by Ron Burke and driven by Yannick Gingras, is the 6-5 morning line favorite in the first of the two Dancer divisions. "Any time you can miss one of the favorites, it's good for all of us," he said. "To beat Southwind Frank, if we have to do it on Hambo Day than that's the time we'll try to do it. But it's perfectly fine he's in a separate division. By the same token, my horse isn't a frontrunner. I'm not saying he can't do it, but horses like Southwind Frank, when they're in a race they push it and that's always a good thing." It seems everything about Marion Marauder is a good thing where Zeron is concerned. "He's given me no inkling as to why he would be not capable of winning (on Saturday) and I feel like he's only gotten that much better every start he's raced this year," he said. "The extra eighth should be suited for him. Everything is prepping into solid form for the Hambo and I'm excited about it." It's not hard to tell. ROAD TO THE HAMBLETONIAN A look at open stakes for 3-year-old male trotters and state-restricted stakes featuring Hambletonian eligibles Date - Track - Event - First - Second - Third May 7 - Freehold - Dexter Cup - Dante - Cufflink Hanover - Credevie May 7 - Pocono - PA All Stars - Tyson - Edinburgh - Will Self May 7 - Pocono - PA All Stars - Mikkeli Hanover - Granite State - Marion Gondolier May 7 - Pocono - PA All Stars - Hititoutofthepark - Lagerfeld - Cloud Nine Hanover May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Cufflink Hanover - Love Matters - Southern Cross May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Truemass Volo - Marion Gondolier - Hanks Tank May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Milligan's School - Hititoutofthepark - Desert Runner May 14 - Meadows - PASS - Lagerfeld - Tyson - Hollywood Highway May 20 - Meadowlands - NJSS - Southwind Frank - Brooklyn Hill - Bar Hopping May 21 - Meadows - Currier & Ives - Iron Mine Bucky - Steed - Hititoutofthepark May 21 - Meadows - Currier & Ives - Cufflink Hanover - Hollywood Highway - Truemass Volo May 27 - Meadowlands - NJSS - Mavens Way - Jack Vernon - Double L Lindy June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Hollywood Highway - Taco Tuesday - Sliding Home June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Lagerfeld - Truemass Volo - Dupree June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Milligan's School - Reigning Moni - Iron Mine Bucky June 2 - Philadelphia - PASS - Love Matters - Tight Lines - Alexander Hanover June 4 - Meadowlands - NJSS Final - Southwind Frank - Brooklyn Hill - Mavens Way June 12 - Pocono - PASS - Love Matters - Taco Tuesday - Desert Runner June 12 - Pocono - PASS - Trolley - Lagerfeld - Cufflink Hanover June 12 - Pocono - PASS - Hititoutofthepark - Hollywood Highway - Dupree June 18 - Mohawk - Goodtimes - Marion Marauder - Will Take Charge - Blenheim June 19 - Vernon - Empire Breeders Classic - Dante - Just For Today - Thats A Bad Boy June 26 - Buffalo - NYSS - The Royal Harry - Crazycat - A Jersey Contract July 1 - Tioga - Tompkins-Geers - Dominion Beach - Cufflink Hanover - Waitlifter K July 1 - Tioga - Tompkins-Geers - Hititoutofthepark - Blownoutofthewater - Steed July 2 - Pocono - Beal Memorial - Southwind Frank - Trolley - Bar Hopping July 14 - Yonkers - NYSS - Dante - The Royal Harry - Credevie Hambletonian eligible winners in bold by Rich Fisher, USTA Senior Correspondent

Round Two in what is hoped to be a season-long series of pacing showdowns is set to take place at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Saturday, and at least one owner involved with the principal characters will cherish every minute of it. He likely won't be alone. Highlighting the $471,800 William R. Haughton Memorial for older male pacers is another much-anticipated battle between 5-year-old Always B Miki and 4-year-olds Wiggle It Jiggleit and Freaky Feet Pete. The trio will have its second head-to-head-to-head meeting in what is the most talked-about rivalry in harness racing in years. Always B Miki won the first match-up at the July 2 Ben Franklin Pace at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, beating Freaky Feet Pete by three-quarters of a length in a world-record-equaling 1:47. Wiggle It Jiggleit, the 2015 Horse of the Year, took third. Last weekend, Wiggle It Jiggleit beat Freaky Feet Pete at the Graduate Series championship at the Big M, but the race was only for 4-year-olds so Always B Miki wasn't eligible to compete. "Before the Ben Franklin, I can't recall seeing as much dialogue on a race in a very, very long time," said Bob Boni, one of Always B Miki's owners. "There was a real buzz all week about that. It started out this week with similar sentiments. Everyone is wondering what's going to happen in the race? "I think it's drawn a tremendous amount of attention. It's on a great card, a lot of people are going to see it. We've got a number of other times when we're scheduled to hook up, potentially, and I think it will be something that will continue to grow because it's a very talented field of older horses." It is something that Boni and his fellow owners (Bluewood Stable, Roll The Dice Stable and Christina Takter) do not take for granted. "We're very fortunate and very appreciative," Boni said. "Those are the words I constantly use. I've been very blessed that I've had some pretty good horses over the years. Miki's the latest right now and he's about as good as anybody's horse. It's a great thrill, but you can't race horses on this level for a long time and not appreciate how fortunate you can be and how great it is to be around horses like this." Especially when it comes to Always B Miki, who was sidelined for nearly a year because of injuries but has returned to win nine of 11 starts with two second-place finishes and earn $642,710 since last October. In seven starts this season he has five wins and two seconds, winning $341,500. Trained by Jimmy Takter and driven predominantly by David Miller, he has finished in the money in 36 of 42 career starts, with 23 wins and $1.56 million in earnings. Roger Welch trained him as a 2-year-old and Joe Holloway had him at age 3, and Boni credits everyone involved for making the pacer the horse that he is today. His chief rivals on Saturday have equally impressive statistics, which has helped create the excitement. Wiggle It Jiggleit -- owned by George Teague Jr. and Teague Racing Partnership, driven by Montrell Teague, and trained by Clyde Francis -- has won 32 of 40 lifetime races. Freaky Feet Pete -- bred by Larry Rheinheimer, who trains the stallion for his wife Mary Jo and son Marty -- has won 29 of 35 career starts. Always B Miki drew post five in the Haughton Memorial while Freaky Feet Pete is in post seven and Wiggle It Jiggleit is in 10. The race attracted 12 starters, so it will be contested at 1-1/8 miles rather than the traditional one-mile distance. "We always have confidence in him," Boni said. "Jimmy and David have just done a great job with the horse. It's going to be fun all year racing. We'll go at it again and I'll always say the same thing, I like our chances, as I'm sure the other guys will say too. "The Ben Franklin was a hard-fought race and they all were competitive, they all took shots and they made it a very good event. How it's going to happen this week I have no idea because if you try to talk to anyone that tried to handicap the Ben Franklin, I don't know anybody who handicapped it the way the race fell." Boni feels what is interesting is that all three horses are Indiana-sired and none of the three are owned by major stables, which he feels should give hope to other owners out there. "We're essentially a small stable, we're one horse," he said. "George Teague races a moderate stable and the Rheinheimers, this is the first time they've been exposed on this level, so these are not some of the names that you've seen in recent years. That's a very healthy thing. The naysayers that say you have to buy expensive horses and have to have a big stable, that's not always the case. You can compete. It can happen at any time." In assessing the horses, Boni feels each one has their unique qualities and some similarities. "Very little seems to bother Wiggle It Jiggleit, he can race on any size racetrack, and Freaky Feet Pete, the same thing; he's been a terrific horse from his 2-year-old season," he said. "They all have brilliant high speed. I would say the other two probably leave the gate faster than Miki does. He's not quick off the gate. But once they get settled in they can all go very fast and they show they can go fast a long way." Boni says Always B Miki enters the Haughton Memorial a healthy, happy horse. "It would have been nice if we didn't have those injury issues, but he did," the owner said. "In a somewhat bizarre way, I think he's a better horse for it. He's much sounder now." It's because of those injuries that Always B Miki's group continues to cherish all the good things that happen now. "I don't think there's anybody here that takes any of this for granted and if anybody did, Miki's had a way of reminding us with a couple incidents that we better not take it for granted," Boni said with a laugh. "I think we're all very appreciative. I don't know anybody who doesn't appreciate what he does." The Haughton Memorial is part of a stakes-filled card Saturday at the Meadowlands. Among the night's other races are the Crawford Farms Meadowlands Pace, Mistletoe Shalee, Hambletonian Maturity, and divisions of the Stanley Dancer Memorial and Delvin Miller Memorial. Following is the field for the Haughton Memorial. PP-Horse-Driver-Trainer 1. Limelight Beach-Matt Kakaley-Ron Burke 2. Shamballa-Scott Zeron-Rick Zeron 3. Dealt A Winner-Brian Sears-Mark Silva 4. Americanprimetime-John Campbell-Rick Dane Jr. 5. Always B Miki-David Miller-Jimmy Takter 6. Mach It So-Tim Tetrick-Jeff Bamond Jr. 7. Freaky Feet Pete-Trace Tetrick-Larry Rheinheimer 8. Melmerby Beach-Corey Callahan-Ettore Annunziata 9. In The Arsenal -Brett Miller-Kelvin Harrison 10. Wiggle It Jiggleit-Montrell Teague-Clyde Francis 11. Always At My Place-Yannick Gingras-Ron Burke 12. All Bets Off-Matt Kakaley-Ron Burke *Always At My Place and All Bets Off start from the second tier. Story by Rich Fisher/USTA Senior Correspondent

Daryl Bontrager had more immediate success as a harness racing trainer than a driver, which is fine with him since he is more focused on training at the moment. But he was happy to finally break through while actually sitting in the bike on June 1, when he drove 2-year-old pacing filly Kim’s Desire to a fair win in Converse, Indiana. It was his first driving victory after going 0-for-27 last year. “It meant a lot, it always feels good to win, obviously, but I was more out just for the experience,” Bontrager said. “I haven’t been focusing too much on driving at this point. I’ve mostly just been focusing on training, and it was a fair win. So I’m still looking for a first pari-mutuel win. “I’ve got that same horse in (tonight at Hoosier Park). So hopefully, maybe I’ll get my first pari-mutuel win there. Mostly during pari-mutuel drives I’ll let my buddy Lewayne Miller do the driving for me.” The 27-year-old has his own stable -- which he plans on registering under the name of Elite Harness Racing -- at the Elkhart Family Fairgrounds in Goshen, Ind. He trains seven horses, six that race and one that he is trying to get into racing condition. It is something Daryl has been working toward since his youth. Born and raised Amish, he was always around ponies at home and spent most of his days driving them. “I’d buy and break horses, get them broke to drive and sell them once I got them broke,” he said. “As I got older the size of my horses got a little bigger, I ended up having a trotting bred race pony that I bought as a yearling, and I raised her on the race pony circuit. She ended up winning stake races as a 2- and 3-year-old, and then it just kind of went from there.” Bontrager raced ponies for seven years and set the goal of having a world champion. That came to pass in 2012 when race pony Skyway Majestic was the fastest 3-year-old pacer. “I like setting goals, and once I reach them I set new ones,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to do Standardbreds until I achieved the goal of having a world champion. Once I did, then I decided to take my shot at the Standardbreds.” Unlike the year-long wait he had to endure for his first driving win, Daryl won the first race he was ever listed in as a trainer two years ago. Overall he has amassed 37 training wins in 222 races. Bontrager’s foray into Standardbreds wasn’t met with cheers by his family, but they finally relented. “They’re not big on it,” he said. “They’re not big on the horse racing but they’ve accepted it and they know that I’ve been successful and they’re not trying to hold me back.” There are numerous Amish-raised youths in harness racing throughout Bontrager’s part of the country, so he’s not a rarity. “Only in my family,” said Daryl, who does have a brother-in-law that breeds horses. “The pony racing and trotting bred thing, that’s huge. Probably about 75 percent of the pony racing is young Amish kids. There’s a lot of Amish that do breed the Standardbreds, especially in Indiana and Ohio.” And Daryl is proud to be a part of it all, as he has steadily been building a successful career. He owns part of every horse in his stable, which is housed 10 minutes from his Middlebury home. Although his friend Miller -- who is also Amish -- has done most of Bontrager’s driving, he is getting some nice stakes races from other trainers. Thus, Daryl may be doing a lot of driving after getting his pari-mutuel license last year. He’s not complaining. “I like driving the young horses just to get them started the way I like them and I’ll probably keep driving the 2-year-old (Kim’s Desire) since Lewayne drives a lot for another big-time trainer and there will be some conflicts,” he said. “Very likely I’ll drive the 2-year-old throughout the year.” He enjoyed driving her to that first victory, which came without much drama. “I ducked her to dead last and then the pace was really slow going to the half,” he said. “I pulled her first up from last and by the time we hit the three-quarter pole I had her to the front and I just coasted home and she actually won by six. She won quite easily.” It was more of the same the following week, when he ducked away to third, pulled her first up at the half and got her to the front in the last turn to win by 11 lengths. And while training is the main focus now, Bontrager doesn’t discount being in the sulky more frequently in the future. “I do enjoy driving, and at some point I may get to the point where I drive all my own, I’m not sure,” he said. “Right now I’m just kind of taking it one step at a time and seeing where things go.” At the moment, everything is going just fine. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent   

Between harness racing trainer and driver, their ages add up to a scant 34 years old, but they have already forged a memory that will last a lifetime. Actually, two lifetimes. On May 19 at Charlottetown Driving Park on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, 18-year-old Ryan Desroche drove Onehotvett to victory in his first official career start. The pacing mare is trained by Austin Sorrie, which gave the 16-year-old his first career win as a trainer. Pretty surreal? “Yeah, it was perfect,” Desroche said. “It was really cool. It was fun. It was an adrenaline rush, for sure.” “It was amazing,” Sorrie said. “It was hard to believe it at the time, that it happened.” Both teens admitted it was made even more special because they accomplished their first wins together. Both are lifelong horsemen who met each other five years ago and became fast friends. “He drives the matinee circuit,” Desroche said. “I think we were both walking around one day at the track, we came up to each other and started talking, and we’ve been best friends ever since.” They have kept a tight bond despite living 2-1/2 hours from each other on Prince Edward Island. Desroche lives in O’Leary, which is northwest of Sorrie’s home in Montague. Neither has ever wanted to do anything else but work in harness racing. “My grandfather and my father both had race horses, I got my first horse when I was four,” Desroche said. “I was driving and training and stuff and driving the matinees. Everything kind of went from there.” Desroche graduated high school last year and got a job working for trainer/driver Marc Campbell. “It’s really good,” he said. “You learn a lot of things working with other people and picking up little techniques and stuff. Everybody does it a little different, so you just figure out what works best for you.” Sorrie has also been in the barns seemingly since birth. “My dad (Wade) had horses with (owner/trainer) Bert Honkoop,” Austin said. “I would go down and help my dad jog them. When I was six I got to jog my first horse. I drove my first race when I was 13.” As a 14-year-old, Sorrie actually drove Onehotvett to a winning time of 1:57.2 at Pinette Raceway -- part of the Prince Edward Island Matinee Racetrack Development Program circuit. That was believed to be the fastest mile ever recorded for a driver of Sorrie’s age, although those races are not officially charted miles. Last December, Sorrie was named Driver of the Year at Charlottetown by the Matinee Racetrack Development Project. He was modest about his achievement. “I got a lot of nice horses to drive that summer,” he said. After his record-driving run with Onehotvett, Sorrie eventually took over training duties for the pacer from his dad. Despite the fact he drove such a blistering mile, he could not be in the bike for the Charlottetown race because he is only eligible to drive matinee races due to his age. So, who better to give a chance than his best buddy? “This winter I was down helping them out a little bit on weekends,” Desroche said. “They asked if I wanted to drive. They put me down for the first start and pretty much said ‘Good luck.’” “Ryan had always come out and helped us train,” Sorrie said. “He helped train her a few times, I figured why not give him a shot on her and see what happens.” He figured right, as Desroche started in the two hole and just waited for his opportunity. “I was sitting in the two hole for almost the whole mile,” he said. “Around the last turn I pulled her out and she just went by and I just drove.” Sorrie watched anxiously. “Going around the far end turn Ryan popped her,” he said. “She kind of took off and from there on we knew she was going to be all right. But I was really nervous there off the backstretch.” Desroche has driven 11 times since, and added another win to go with a second-place finish and a third. He’s still coming to grips with the fact he was undefeated after one race. “I thought it over a few times about what it would be like to win that first race,” he said. “But I didn’t really expect to win the first time.” And unlike so many, he reached a major goal in life at a young age. “This is pretty much what I’ve wanted to do since I was old enough to walk,” Desroche said. “I’m more than satisfied with things so far. My only goal I really had was to get one win and I got that already. And it worked out perfect, being with Austin’s horse.” Sorrie said if he had to pick between training and driving, he would opt for driving. But Desroche feels he’s a solid trainer. “He’s an awesome person, he’s great at what he does,” Desroche said. “He’s really good when it comes to the little things. And he shows a tremendous amount of maturity.” Sorrie, who got his trainer’s license six months ago, feels likewise about Desroche. “He’s pretty good,” Austin said. “He’s starting to get some patience in there, watching the race unfold, then figuring out when to move.” The two plan to stick together as a team and are planning for life after Austin graduates next year. “We’ve kind of contemplated going to different places,” Desroche said. “We’ve talked about going down to Ontario, down to the States. We’re talking about going anywhere that will benefit ourselves.” “We’ll see what happens when I get out of school,” Sorrie said. “Hopefully we can go away and try it, and see what happens from there.” Whatever happens and however it works out, they will always remember May 19 with a smile. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

Wil DuBois is the kind of kid you want to see succeed in harness racing, if only because he loves it so much. A third generation horseman along with his brother, Thomas, and sister, Samantha, Wil proudly states that the sport is in his blood. For any doubters, consider two stories to prove the point. The first came during Wil’s junior year of playing football for Biddeford High School in Maine. At the time, he was also helping out his dad, Todd, at their stable and was unable to make football weightlifting sessions. He still lifted on his own, but the coach wasn’t buying it. “He said football comes before family and stuff,” DuBois said. “I said ‘You know what, I’d rather be with the horses anyway.’” He continued to play lacrosse that year and, after early graduation in February 2015, Wil and Thomas went to New Jersey so Wil could work with trainer Linda Toscano. That’s where the second story comes in. Thomas took a job and Wil worked with Linda while both lived in a hotel room. Because Wil didn’t have a car, Thomas eventually quit his job so Wil could get to the stables every day. It was a sacrifice in the name of Standardbreds, but it eventually cost the brothers. “It was pretty cool,” said DuBois, who turns 20 in August. “But I really wasn’t making enough money to support both of us. He couldn’t find another job, so we came back up this way. I lived with my uncle (Billy DuBois) and started working for him.” That wasn’t really a problem, since Wil considers working with horses about the greatest thing on earth. He earned his first driving win last October and since getting his trainer’s license, has garnered four training victories since April. Wil’s fraternal grandparents, Gordon and Jane DuBois, and maternal grandfather, the late Raymond Sawyer, are all Standardbred veterans. Todd and his wife, Donna, fell right in line, and their kids are keeping the tradition alive. Samantha works with Todd in his barn and will attend Morrisville for horsemanship, and 23-year-old Thomas is in his fourth year at Scarborough as the youngest paddock judge in the U.S. For good measure, their cousin Jordan Derue is one of the leading drivers at Saratoga in New York. “They all seemed to gravitate toward the horses,” Todd said. “It’s almost like they’re born into it; like there was never going to be a question for any of the kids.” There’s a reason for that. “The biggest thing is they actually love the animals,” Todd said. “Even if there’s not a lot of money, if you wake up and can be around horses and enjoy your day that’s all the money you need in the world. I think they see that. “Not that you don’t need to make money and pay your bills and eat; because you do. But Wil’s out hustling. He jogs horses; he does what he needs to do. He’s not sitting around doing nothing. He helps his grandfather, he helps his uncle.” He is literally living the dream, except for the part where he has to work part-time at a bakery to pay his bills. “When I was younger I got interested in different stuff but I’ve always wanted to train horses,” he said. “Train and drive, that’s always been my dream. I’m up every day at the barn. I’d rather be there than at the bakery.” You know it’s serious. Who doesn’t want to be at a bakery? Actually, Wil would rather still be in New Jersey, which was the original hope when Todd hooked him up with Toscano. “I’d like to see him get out of Maine, and I got him the job with Linda and thought maybe he could launch from there, but it was tough with the two guys down there and just one job between them,” Todd said. “But he definitely learned some stuff with Linda. “They’ve got a higher class animal. They’re in a different league. It’s more condensed. I have 15 horses, and two or three of us take care of them. Down there, you’re only going to take care of three or four. It’s more polished.” Wil found it to be a great experience. “It was really cool,” he said. “I got to see (2012 Hambletonian winner) Market Share, ($1 million-earner) Doctor Butch. I got to see how differently New Jersey is from Maine. It’s a lot more business, where up here it’s more of a family thing. I loved every minute of it. Hard work every day. Seven days a week -- no time to get in trouble.” Asked if he tends to get in trouble, Wil laughed and said “Oh yeah, once in a while.” Fortunately, he has put trouble on the backburner, getting his provisional driving license and trainer’s license within the last seven months. At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, DuBois’ frame is not conducive to driving. But on Oct. 3 at the Cumberland Fair he drove Real Yankee to get his first win. “It was surreal, it was the best feeling I ever had in my life,” Wil said. “It was pretty cool, too, because I was working for my uncle Billy. That day we had three in and we won all three races.” His first training win came in April, and he has amassed three more since. “That was a little different than the driving win,” DuBois said. “The horse I won with last year was my own. My uncle was the trainer, my grandfather was the owner, I didn’t have any of those licenses yet. These horses I don’t own so it’s kind of different.” Wil enjoys climbing in the sulky, but realizes his size limits what he can do. “I like messing around in the amateurs and stuff,” he said. “If I ever get down (in weight) to drive later, I’d love to drive.” “I think he’s good at both driving and training,” Todd said. “It’s his dream to be a driver, but there’s not many 6-2 guys out there. Jason Bartlett is 6-2 but he’s a beanpole. Wil’s quite capable for being a driver, not just because he’s my son, but he’s got a good set of hands and gets along with the horses. He makes good moves.” DuBois’ immediate plans are to stay in Maine for the summer, work with his family and check out the racing in Maine and Massachusetts. He feels “the fair season up here is always the best. It’s peaceful, everybody knows each other. It’s a fun atmosphere.” He and Todd also know that for Wil to advance, he will need to move elsewhere. In the winter, he will see where things stand and is hoping to go to Florida “and learn some things.” Where he ends up depends on what kind of position he gets. “It depends if I get a job offer or if we can find somebody who wants to race down there,” Wil said. “If we can find someone who wants to race I would love to go to Pompano. If not, I wouldn’t mind breaking babies somewhere.” He has at least one guy in his corner who feels he can make it. “I think that he’s going to have a good career,” Todd said. “He’s a good horseman, he’s got a good set of hands. He gets along with them. He knows what he needs to do.” More importantly, he knows what he wants to do. “It’s all about keeping the horses happy,” he said. “This has been in my blood. I don’t focus on anything else.” A high school football coach and an older brother willing to give up his job and car can both vouch for that. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent 

Considering the Major League Baseball season is two days away, harness racing trainer Scott Mogan chose the appropriate analogy for Feelin Lika Winner. “He’s not the best hitter in the lineup but he always seems to come through in the clutch times,” said Mogan, who trains and co-owns the horse with Diamond Chip Stable, AWS Stables and Charles Guiler. “If it’s a 7-1 game, he’ll strike out. But if it’s a 2-2 ballgame in the bottom of the ninth, he’s the guy you want coming up to the plate.” He also sounds like he could steal a base or two. “He’s a very fast horse,” Mogan added. “Off the right trip for an eighth-mile or quarter-mile, he’s probably got as quick a burst of speed as any horse I ever trained.” As Mogan noted, he doesn’t hit for average, having won 11 of 62 career races. But he was a power hitter early in his career, blasting tape measure home runs each of his first two seasons. The 6-year-old gelding pacer was the Ohio Sire Stakes champion as both a 2- and 3-year-old, beating favorite That Friske Feelin both times. After being purchased at the 2011 Blooded Horse Sale for $16,000, Feelin Lika Winner has earned $278,796. “The sale was kind of short on the yearlings, both number wise and quality wise that year, but he was one of my top three picks,” said Mogan, who has a stable of 26 horses at Scioto Downs in Columbus. “I got outbid on the first two, luckily I snagged him for $16,000. I knew the family, and also conformation wise he was probably one of my top three picks that I looked at that year for pacing colts.” Feelin Lika Winner makes his season’s debut Saturday in the $20,000 Open at Miami Valley Raceway in Ohio. Kayne Kauffman will be in the sulky, as he has been for all but three of Feelin Lika Winner’s career starts. “He’s training down real well,” Mogan said. “He had an issue with a bone bruise and ankle as a 4-year-old. It was kind of a disappointing season. Last year he started off a little slow. He actually was as good at the end of the year as he was at any time.” The horse was shut down in December, however, as the trainer is not a big fan of winter racing. In fact, he limits most of his horses’ races, as 25 races in a season would be considered a lot. “I usually shut down from December to the first of March,” Mogan said. “I probably should have kept him racing, but he’s trained down very well.” The Lockbourne, Ohio, resident isn’t looking for big things on opening night, mainly because of Feelin Lika Winner’s mindset on the track. He’s pleasant in the barn, but cantankerous upon seeing a starting gate. “He’s a nice horse, a very fast horse, but he’s kind of a tough horse to drive,” Mogan said. “If he was a good horse to drive and you could leave with him and get position I still believe he’d be an open type pacer. You could turn somebody loose and know he would settle in and relax. He’d be a lot better horse. But to leave with him a few times, he’s a handful. “He can grab into you so bad. When he decides to grab into you, he can feel like he’s just going to run over the top. When you leave with him he gets really fired up. We duck him four out of every five starts off the gate.” For that reason, Mogan would rather have started him a little lower in class this season. “Unfortunately we have to go right into the Open our first start,” he said. “I’m not expecting a whole lot this week. But you never know. We’re always racing to win. We’re going to race him off the pace. And if they go fast fractions you never know, he might pick them up at the end of it.” Feelin Lika Winner always has the potential to surprise, just as he did by beating That Friske Feelin in two straight Sire Stakes finals. He got a second-over trip near the stretch as a 2-year-old and a pocket trip the following year. Kauffman was the driver both times, as he has shown a knack for handling a horse that’s hard to handle. “He’s a great handler,” Mogan said. “He can get a horse to relax pretty good. He’s done a really amazing job, not just with him but the rest of my horses. He’s been driving everything for three years.” Kauffman took over for the late Chip Noble, who was Mogan’s main driver for 15 years. The 56-year-old Mogan has been in the business since age 15 and has had a public stable since 1983. Until recently, he mostly dealt with younger horses and made it a point to try and have the same driver for every race. He and Noble teamed up on K F Pro Sam, Ohio's 2- and 3-year-old Horse of the Year in 1999-2000. The pacing male was typical of Mogan’s aversion to over-working his horses, as he raced just 60 times in five years and earned $635,578. “K F Pro Sam kind of set the bar for me,” Mogan said. “He built my house and everything else. But J J Hall is still my favorite. He’s still in my barn and will probably be in my backyard when he’s done racing.” J J Hall was Ohio’s 2011 Horse of the Year, also driven by Noble. Not long afterward Chip, who died of cancer in 2014, had some young horses with a lot of potential that he wanted to drive. He gave his friend some advance notice and suggested he might start looking for another driver. Mogan began to check out the talent in Ohio and found what he was looking for in Kauffman. “I tried to look for somebody a little conservative, like Chip was,” Mogan said. “Kayne kind of impressed me as much as anybody, as far as being as close to Chip as I could go and get. He started driving him (Feelin Lika Winner) as a 2-year-old and of course it worked out. “Kayne has been driving for me as much as he can. He trains a stable of his own so we have a few conflicts, but he’s always going to be the first choice for my horses. I guess the biggest thing is his loyalty. He stays pretty loyal to me. It’s kind of a working relationship.” As for how the relationship will work between the racetrack and Feelin Lika Winner this year, Mogan is staying fairly confident. “We’re just taking things as they come,” he said. “I have great partners, they’re very loyal. They love their horses, they like to come to races. We’re just hoping he has a good year. “Like I said, I don’t really think he’s an open type pacer. If he was more controllable, maybe. But we’re just hoping for a nice Saturday night, conditioned racehorse that they can come watch. Hopefully we’ll have a little luck, make a little money.” So there you have it. Play ball! by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent 

Harness racing driver Brady Brown had just discovered, very much to his surprise, that he was receiving the inaugural Walter “Boots” Dunn Rising Star Award. As he walked up to accept the honor, from Boots himself no less, during the annual Pennsylvania Fair Harness Horsemen’s Association banquet on Jan. 23, one thought ran through his head. Was it of fame and fortune? Was it of how many Hambletonian wins he might eventually pocket? “I thought about falling over, actually,” Brown said. “I’m like ‘Did they say the right name?’ It meant a lot, it was a good surprise. I didn’t know anything about the award going up there; that was their first one. “It was pretty cool. It’s a great thing, especially having Boots there presenting it to me; it was pretty great. But I was pretty shocked.” Unfortunately, Dunn passed away at the age of 85 a little more than a week after the banquet. Dunn was a horseman since the late 1940s and a U.S. Trotting Association director since 1987. He trained and drove his own horses, maintaining his amateur status and competing across eight different decades. He is believed to be the leading amateur driver of all time, with 1,152 wins to his credit. The 22-year-old Brown was named the first winner of the inaugural Walter “Boots” Dunn Rising Star Award after finishing fourth in the Pennsylvania fair driving standings last year. The Slippery Rock, Pa., resident won 72 of 584 races -- including 25 scores at The Meadows -- and $468,631 in purses. So far this season he has three firsts at The Meadows and his goal is to win more than 100 races between The Meadows and his fair drives. “I think that would be pretty cool,” said Brown, who has collected numerous seconds and thirds this year. Brady’s grandfather Robert “Brownie” Brown and father, Terry Brown, owned and trained horses so he grew up in the sport. He would do chores around the barn and jogged his first horse at age 10. “I went as much as I could to the barn; if I could get out of school to go, I went,” Brown said. “It’s just what I wanted to do.” He eventually hooked up with trainer Steve Schoeffel, who had a stable at the opposite end of the barn. Schoeffel had nearly 20 horses at the Butler Fairgrounds at the time. “I started going over to Steve’s side and helping him jog horses,” Brown said. “He had a lot of horses that were easy to jog, I started jogging for him and it went on from there.” Brady got his qualifying-and-fair license at age 16 but did not have a sterling debut. “Oh boy,” he said with a laugh. “My first drive, I think it was at the Butler Fair. I forget the horse’s name but no, I did not do any good with it.” Later that year, Brown got his first win --- in a dead heat --- with 2-year-old filly pacer Camerosa at Hughesville. After his junior year of high school, Brady caused a temporary rift in the family when he decided to drop out and focus all his energies on harness racing. He made the decision that summer, as he did not want to give up driving at fairs to return to school. “Neither of my parents were too thrilled about it,” Brown said. “But they’ve kind of gotten over it, through the years.” That’s because, as Brown said, his career has been “so far, so good...knock on wood.” Brown’s first win at The Meadows came in 2013 when he drove Luminosity to victory. “That one I definitely remember,” Brown said. “He was probably the best horse in the whole field. I left out of there, got the front in like :28.4, went a little fast to the quarter. Once I got him settled in and everything, he was fine. He was the best horse that day. I think it was a maiden trot actually; I went in 2:00 with him.” When he came across the finish line first, the feeling was more of relief than elation. “Just trying to get there, I was so close, I just couldn’t get it,” he said. “I finally got it on this one and I was like ‘Whew! It’s about time.’” Things have just kept getting better, resulting in a career season in 2015. Brady has gotten a big boost from Schoeffel. “Steve is a big part of the reason I’m where I’m at right now,” Brown said. “I’m driving and everything because of him. He cut me loose on some decent horses he knew, made me look good and helped me get drives down there at The Meadows. (Trainer) Rich Gillock has also been helping.” Brady called last year a “great year, a fun year” but he knows there is still much to learn. He feels that being at The Meadows is a tremendous classroom, considering 2015 national dash champion Aaron Merriman is a regular there. “He’s a helluva driver,” Brown said. “He’s a very nice guy, the greatest guy in the world to talk to, but he’s very aggressive on the race track, he can get a horse to go. He is very good. He can keep one alive. I just pay attention to him to see what he does with one.” Merriman is not the only guy that Brown watches. At the ripe old age of 22, he’s smart enough to realize he doesn’t know it all. And when there are guys like Dave Palone, the sport's all-time winningest driver, in the same race, Brady pays attention. “It helps out a lot, especially when you’re sitting there and you’re in the race with them, you get to see what those guys do with the horse,” Brown said. “You go down to The Meadows, it’s just totally different from the fairs. It’s amazing and it’s pretty cool you’re in there competing with them. “They’re tough on us. To be catch drivers down there, they’re really good drivers.” And Brown understands that despite his success last year, he still needs to soak up everything he can from everyone he can. “I’m not a person who says ‘This is my way, this is the only way it’s going to work,’” Brown said. “I watch everybody. I try picking it up and learning and see how things go. I’m not going to be a know it all.” One thing he knows is that he would like to get as many drives at The Meadows as possible. The only other track he currently has an eye on is Pocono. “I think that place is absolutely awesome,” he said. “They go some wicked miles out there.” Brown is not making any long-range plans. At the moment, he works for Schoeffel in the morning and then heads for the track. “Right now, I just like to drive and if things went the right direction for me being a driver, I’d stick with it,” Brown said. “I’m driving Steve’s whole stable. One day I’ll slow down and just go back to training horses.” The good news is, if he continues to garner more driving success, he already knows he won’t fall down if he has to accept another award. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent 

Trenton, NJ --- For those who don’t enjoy tears in their eyes or a lump in their throat, find another story. In providing full disclosure, the saga of harness racing owner Bob Tourangeau and his horse, Terrys Star Dragon, will pull at the heartstrings of anyone who understands a human-animal relationship. In a nutshell, Tourangeau successfully urged one of his mares to remain in labor for an extra 15 minutes in order to have a colt born on his daughter’s birthday. This obviously special horse had tremendous success his first two years and, for his own good, the owner sadly sold Terrys Star Dragon at age 3. Further triumphs and an emotional one-day reunion between Tourangeau and Terrys Star Dragon followed, until the horse fell off the radar. His former owner tracked him down, recently re-purchased him, brought him back to Maine and will spend a year getting the 11-year-old in shape before he returns to try and reach $500,000 in career earnings. It’s the kind of stuff old-time after-school kids specials were made of. It all began at 11:45 p.m. on April 7, 2005. Tourangeau’s mare My Radiant Star was in labor and there were 15 minutes remaining until the calendar turned to April 8. That happened to be the birthday of Tourangeau’s late daughter, Terri, who passed away in 1984. “I sat there with my mare and I said ‘Don’t you dare,’” said Tourangeau, now 77. “I was standing outside the stall and I’m saying ‘Hold on, hold on, you can’t do this thing until after 12 o’clock,’ because it had to foaled on the 8th. “I suppose I didn’t have to be melodramatic about it, but I didn’t want to be caught in the situation of him not being born on the 8th. That would have been the first time we would have had a horse born at the same time as one of the family members.” My Radiant Star and her colt obliged as he came out at 12:08 a.m. on April 8. Bob then had the pleasant duty of telling his three teenage granddaughters that they had a simple chore to perform. “We had them try to name horses for us,” Tourangeau said. “I said ‘This one will be easy for you, the horse was born on Terri’s birthday.’ They came back the next day and said ‘That was easy.’” They changed the I to Y in order to avoid gender confusion. Star came from his mare’s name, while Sweet Dragon was his father. Terry not only shared Terri’s birthday, he showed all the characteristics of a future star. “He was described by a trainer when he came out for his first qualifier as A-Rod,” said Tourangeau. “That’s because he’s such an athletic specimen. It was a great way to compare him to Alex Rodriguez because he was the perfect specimen of muscle, size, great conformation. He just looked the part.” Terrys Star Dragon wasted little time setting the tracks of New England ablaze. Trained and driven by Mike Graffam, he won six of nine races and $37,530 at age 2, and won 13 of 14 races and $96,514 at age 3, when he was the Maine Standardbred Breeders Stakes champion. Tourangeau attended every race and displayed his love and devotion by enrolling the horse in the Full Circle program, which provides contact information to the USTA to be shared in the event the horse can no longer be cared for by its owner or is in imminent need of assistance. But after Terrys Star Dragon’s second season, Tourangeau had to make the toughest decision of his Standardbred career. He and Graffam sold the horse in order to get him better races. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to race at a level we thought he could handle,” Tourangeau said. “He was only going to get better. He was a big, strong athletic horse who never missed a start. The most difficult aspect for me is that I’m on the board of the Maine (Standardbred) Breeders and Owners Association, and we want to keep the best horses in the state of Maine.” Part of true love, however, is giving the one you love what is best for them, regardless of how badly it hurts. “That was a very tough decision,” Tourangeau said. “It was probably the toughest decision of all.” It was the right decision for the horse’s sake, as Terrys Star Dragon raced 196 times after being sold. He has currently won 56 of 219 races and earned $496,599. After selling the horse, Tourangeau watched every one of Terrys Star Dragon’s races on the Internet. Last April, Bob went down to see his grandson, Benjamin, in Florida and decided to drop in and see Terrys Star Dragon at Pompano Park. He had not seen the horse in seven years and, since he left Maine, Tourangeau believes no one called him Terry. “They had a nickname for him,” Tourangeau said. “I didn’t realize it. It never occurred to me.” When Bob and his wife entered the stable, the horse had his back to the entrance. Suddenly, a voice he had not heard was calling him a name he had not been called in seven years. How strong was the bond? “He came right over,” Tourangeau said. “That was the first time I’d seen him since we sold him in 2008. I was crying when he came over. I have a lump in my throat right now just talking about it. The fact that he responded to that name is, well, they say they never forget. He was an imprinted foal. I did the imprinting.” Saying goodbye was excruciating, as Bob wondered if he would ever see him again. He almost wanted to buy him back that day but thought better of it. Shortly thereafter, he did not see Terrys Star Dragon racing anywhere. It turned out the gelding had dropped a suspensory, which was the first injury of his career and led to a layoff. Tourangeau tracked down the owners, brokered a deal and bought his old friend. A network of folks then jumped in to help shuttle the horse back to Maine, where he arrived on Dec. 12. “I have to thank everyone who made this possible,” Tourangeau said. “Our horse community is genuinely a large family.” Graffam will return to train the horse as they take aim on the half-million dollar mark. “I put him back in his old stall,” Tourangeau said. “For the next half hour, the horse never looked at me, all he did was eat. I just talked to him, rubbed his neck and just watched him relax in his old home.” A very special couple reunited once more. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent 

Trenton, NJ --- One year after having to pull out of the Breeders Crown as the harness racing favorite because of injury, 4-year-old male pacer Always B Miki heads into Saturday’s eliminations at Woodbine for the Breeders Crown Open Pace looking healthy once more. It was a long road back, but not once has anyone tried to rush the horse back. It all started at last year’s post parade for the 3-year-old pacers, when Always B Miki was scratched after coming up lame. Considering he was the favorite, one would think there would be major disappointment in the horse’s camp. Think again. “You’re dealing with experienced horsemen, so our first thoughts were the health of the horse,” said owner Mitchel Skolnick, whose Bluewood Stable owns Always B Miki along with breeder Joe Hurley’s Roll The Dice Stable and Christina Takter. “There was no disappointment that we weren’t going to race that day, we were just concerned about the horse’s health. That’s not a cliché, that’s just how it was.” They proved their concern during the past year. Always B Miki had suffered a P-1 (long pastern) fracture and underwent successful surgery by Dr. Patty Hogan. But then, around four months later, after Jimmy Takter had taken over as trainer from Joe Holloway in February, Always B Miki fractured the opposite pastern while going out to train at the Meadowlands. “Dr. Hogan simply put four screws in each pastern bone,” Skolnick said. “Horsemen will tell you if you have any injury on a horse that’s the one you want to have. It’s repairable and when you mend, it’s as strong as before. You just need time.” Time and patience, which the owners had. Through it all, no one was worried about further return on investment from a horse that had earned $926,866 through 2014. “Not at all,” Skolnick said. “I’m fortunate to have partners who understand patience and that time helps a horse. We all would like to see the horse return, but nobody got anxious, nobody pushed him. “We waited for Jimmy to tell us when he thought he’d be ready. We have very experienced horse people involved with him. Dr. Hogan to Bob Boni to Joe Hurley; people steeped in Standardbred races. If you listen to horses they’ll tell you when they’re ready.” After making sure everything was working right, Takter gave the go-ahead two weeks ago and Always B Miki did not disappoint. On Oct. 3, with Takter driving, he dominated the field in a $20,000 Indiana Sires Stakes elimination for older pacers at Hoosier Park. He won by 5-1/4 lengths in 1:49 under wraps. After the race, Takter called him “scary good,” but at least one owner wasn’t going to let that affect his thinking going into Saturday. “I think sometimes we let ourselves get ahead of ourselves,” Skolnick said. “For me, I subscribe to what I’ve been told, let’s celebrate after we’ve done something, not before. Right now he’s headed to the Breeders Crown, and let’s see what happens after that.” The Open Pace features 14 horses divided into two eliminations. Always B Miki is in the second group, along with State Treasurer, who leads all older pacers this season with $857,607, Haughton Memorial winner Mach It So, and Doo Wop Hanover. The top five finishers from each elimination return for the final. Saturday's post time is 7:25 p.m. and the elimination winners draw for inside post positions 1-5 for the final. “We’re going into it very reserved,” Skolnick said. “When a horse breaks down like Miki did, or has an injury like that, every start you’re worried. It’s only natural you’re worried how he’ll go and how he’ll come out.” Always B Miki has shown enough talent over the years that his owners paid the $62,500 to supplement him to last season’s Breeders Crown. Skolnick said the price was worth it considering the horse’s ability. “I think that true horsemen all have a very high respect for Always B Miki and his ability,” Skolnick said. “I’ve heard from all the horsemen I respect and admire, who talk highly about his speed, how he presents himself, and that he’s a very exciting horse. When you hear that from people you admire in the business, it gives you confidence that you probably have something special.” Thus, Skolnick is looking for a good effort, not just from his horse, but all involved. “My expectations are that he races well, the field is competitive and he shows himself to be the best he can be,” the owner said. “I hope it’s a successful Breeders Crown for everybody. I hope it’s exciting, we get a big crowd and everybody talks about it all winter.” by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent   

Harness racing trainer/driver Verlin Yoder and Natural Herbie return this weekend to the site of their biggest win, hoping to come away with an even bigger score. Last year, Natural Herbie - owned, trained and driven by Yoder - prevailed over a talented field in the $250,000 International Trot Preview at Yonkers Raceway. On Saturday, the Indiana-based duo returns for the $1 million International Trot at the Hilltop. The International Trot features horses from six different countries, with Natural Herbie joining Creatine as the U.S. representatives. Canada's Bee A Magician is the 3-1 morning line favorite in the invitational event, which will be raced at 1-1/4 miles rather than the traditional one-mile distance. Post time is 2 p.m. for Saturday's first race at Yonkers, with the International Trot set for 3:10 p.m. approximately. "It is a big honor," Yoder said. "Two U.S. horses were picked and you are one of them, it is very humbling." Natural Herbie drew post No. 7 and is 8-1 on the International Trot morning line, but can't be overlooked in the race after having won last year's International Trot Preview in a world-record 2:24.4 for 1-1/4 miles. He is, according to Yoder, "a horse that loves distance racing." The 5-year-old gelding has won 27 of 63 lifetime races and earned $899,161. In September, he won his elimination for the Maple Leaf Trot at Mohawk and finished third in the final. Following an eighth-place finish in the Centaur Trotting Classic, he prepped for the International Trot with a 1:55.1 qualifier win on Sept. 30 at Hoosier Park, trotting his last quarter-mile in :26.3 to pull away from the field by 20-1/2 lengths. "We had a little problem after Mohawk, but we found it," Yoder said. "He had a little sickness. I was shipping from Indiana to Mohawk - that's 7-1/2 hours. But he had a good week, so I hope we're on the right track. We take him out and grass him. He likes to go out on the grass. He's feeling good and everything." While Yoder looks upon Saturday's race as challenging, he feels he is going in with a horse that has a good attitude, especially when it comes to going extra distance. "If he's good, he doesn't mind it," Yoder said. "He always trains two miles without stopping, and he's the only horse I ever had that liked it. It's a matter of having him healthy and sound and as far as soundness, he's been very good. We had some little health issues but he seems to be on the right page right now." How that confidence translates into results is anybody's guess, so Yoder is keeping his predictions low key. Actually, they are non-existent, as he will just let things play out. "You always have big expectations but you also don't want to embarrass yourself," Yoder said. "All the horses have the right to be here, so you don't know what is going to happen until the gate opens." Following is the field in post order for the International Trot with listed drivers, trainers and morning line odds: 1. Creatine, Johnny Takter, Jimmy Takter, 4-1 2. Papagayo E, Ulf Ohlsson, Jan Waaler, 5-1 3. Rod Stewart, Enrico Bellei, Jerry Riordan, 12-1 4. Timoko, Bjorn Goop, Richard Westerink, 6-1 5. Bee A Magician, Brian Sears, R. Nifty Norman, 3-1 6. On Track Piraten, Erik Adielsson, Hans Stromberg, 10-1 7. Natural Herbie, Verlin Yoder, Verlin Yoder, 8-1 8. Mosaique Face, Adrian Kolgjini, Adrian Kolgjini, 6-1 9. BBS Sugarlight, Johan Untersteiner, Fredrik Solberg, 6-1 10. Oasis Bi, Orjan Kihlstrom, Stefan Pettersson, 8-1 Note: BBS Sugarlight and Oasis Bi start from the second tier. by Rich Fisher

Trenton, NJ --- As youngsters growing up in Clinton, Miss., cousins Jordan Patton and Barak Patton would talk about harness racing in excited terms. Actually, they are still youngsters, as Jordan is 17 and Barak is 15. They’re even more enthused about harness racing these days as each got their first career driving win this past summer. And suddenly, the “sibling rivalry” competition is officially on! “Barak and I consider each other as brothers,” Jordan said. “Growing up, all Barak would talk about is him becoming the best driver in the world, so that made me want to see how it felt to go that fast. Barak and I work so hard together, so everything is basically a competition.” The competition started on make-believe horses that ended up taking a beating. “I can remember the days where we messed up race bikes acting as if we were driving horses,” Barak said. “I look at him as a big brother, he is my only brother. We both grew up wanting to be drivers.” As the son of trainer Freddie Patton Jr., Jordan was born into a family of horse trainers and drivers. As a kid he would clean stalls and harness horses, “but very rarely did I ever want to sit in the bike.” With his dad serving as his mentor and through his talks with Barak, however, Jordan got the driving bug. He plays football and runs track at Clinton High School, but horses are his main focus as he serves as second trainer to his dad. He has his fair and qualifying license and plans on getting his provisional license next year. Aside from talks with Barak, Jordan’s other big push into the sulky came from getting some success. “My first driving win wasn’t actually an official race, but it gave me a whole new look on driving at a whole different level,” he said. “That win made me want to become a catch driver and hopefully one day drive against the best. The first horse I drove was Shady Maple Fiesty, and at the time she belonged to Barak.” Jordan’s first official win came on July 13 at the Fairfield Fair behind the Calvin Harris-trained Cam Majic Shooter. Up to that point, Jordan had driven 28 times and finished in the money in 10 of those races. On the monumental day, Jordan had the second post and his initial thought was to leave and try to get the two-hole trip. “But as we were leaving, the horse inside of me never made it to the gate so that forced me to leave,” Patton explained. “As I was leaving my horse put in a few extra steps because I held her snuggly, so this forced me to loosen up on her. Once I did that she paced away from the field to put a good gap in between me and the horse that was second.” After the quarter, Jordan backed his horse down to let the field settle in his back, but driver Frank Affrunti quickly pulled his horse. “This made my filly pick the bits back up,” he said. “As Frank and I raced to the half I could see that his horse was getting weak so I asked my filly to go on a little bit more. After Frank faded away I called on my horse and she pulled away and we never saw the field again.” As he came across the wire, Jordan was surprised at the exhilaration he felt. “It wasn’t what I expected,” he said. “At first I thought I would (feel) normal, but once I had done it, it felt amazing.” Since then, one of his big highlights was driving in a four-horse race in which every driver was related to him. He is quick to thank Roshun Trigg and Harris “for putting me on their horses and I would like to thank all of my family for being so supportive and Marcus Miller for the tips he has given me on driving.” Patton hopes the win at Fairfield is only the start. He plans on making harness racing a career but will attend college classes in the afternoon so he will be able to drive at night. “I want to be one of Chicago’s top drivers in the next couple of years,” he said. And he hopes that Barak -- who yes, is often referred to as “Obama” or “Mr. President” -- is right there with him. Barak was introduced to the sport by his and Jordan’s grandfather, Freddie Patton Sr. “When I was only three years old my grandfather had race horses and I would sit in his lap and he would let me jog,” Barak recalled. “When I reached the age of ten he put me on the cart by myself. When I was 13 I started breaking horses and training them.” Barak’s aunt has him being home schooled online, so he has been able to help his grandfather train horses. It only took him two drives to notch his first amateur win. He drove in his first race last year, and in his first race this year (on July 29) he took first with Bad Girlfriend -- also trained by Harris -- at the Charleston Fair. In getting the win, he used some advice he got from Jordan’s dad. “I had the three hole and I went to the front so I didn't check up,” he said. “As my uncle, Freddie Patton, Jr. taught me, if I get to the front make them chase me and I did. After the half I saw a horse coming so I pulled my horse’s ear plugs so she could hear. In the last turn, a horse rushed beside her and she took back off as if she didn't like horses beside her.” That’s probably not a bad mindset for a racehorse. As he came across the line, Barak said “I was happy for myself, but more for the horse.” Like Jordan, Barak’s goal is to become a successful driver in Illinois. If both cousins get their wish, it could be a fun family rivalry to watch for in the future. by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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

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