Day At The Track

A conversation with John DeLong

08:01 AM 31 Mar 2015 NZDT
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John DeLong
John DeLong

Freehold, NJ --- John DeLong was 19 years old when he won the driving title at Running Aces in its inaugural season in 2008. Now at the age of 26, the Wisconsin native has 1,282 victories to his credit and is No. 2 in the standings at Balmoral Park, one win behind leader Casey Leonard, and tied for fifth at Maywood Park.

Last year DeLong set a career high with $1.94 million in purses and won a number of Chicago-area stakes, including the American-National for 2-year-old male pacers with Roland N Rock. He established his career high of 283 victories in 2013. His most lucrative triumph came in the $130,000 Lorna Propes Championship with Let’s Go Higher -- and he teamed with the pacing mare for a repeat score in the event in 2014.

In January, DeLong received the James Laird Memorial Award for Excellence from the Wisconsin Harness Horse Association.

DeLong’s family, which operates a worldwide agricultural-distribution business based in Clinton, Wis., has been involved in harness racing for decades and is one of only two families enshrined in the Wisconsin Harness Racing Hall of Fame. DeLong’s father Jesse (better known as Jay) is a trainer and occasional driver and DeLong got his first-ever win in 2005 with a horse trained by his uncle William (aka Bo).

In addition to driving, DeLong works with the family’s stable of 25 horses in Clinton. He recently took time to talk with Ken Weingartner of the USTA’s Harness Racing Communications division.

KW: Your career got off to a great start with being the leading driver at Running Aces. What was that like?

JD: Running Aces has been good to me. We’ve won a lot of races up there with our horses that we own. That’s the biggest thing, winning races for dad.

KW: Is he a good person to drive for?

JD: (Laughing) He has his comments here and there, but he usually leaves the driving to me. If I mess up, he’ll let me know. But I try not to let that happen. He understands that I have a certain style and I take into consideration that we have a lot of young horses and I want to bring them along and teach them.

KW: To win the driving title at 19, did that give you a lot of confidence or add pressure? How did that affect you going forward?

JD: I’m sure it gave me some confidence. I still hadn’t made the decision whether I was going to do this fulltime. That was a summer job for me, going up to Running Aces and racing horses for my dad. He gave me a stable of 12 horses and I brought them up there. I was going to go to college or race horses. I ended up choosing race horses.

KW: Did you take any (college) classes?

JD: I went for a winter semester and I decided not to go back. I took an agricultural industry course. I wanted to do something with agriculture in case I wanted to work with the feed business.

KW: Was it a difficult decision?

JD: For me? No. To convince my parents? Yes. At first they were a little worried about it. I think now they’re happy with what I’ve done.

KW: You got your 1,000th win last year. What did that accomplishment mean to you?

JD: It meant a lot. I’m pretty sure I’m the first one in my family to win 1,000 races. That was a pretty big thing for me. I’m one of the only ones who does this fulltime as a career. That means a lot to me.

KW: Considering your family is in the (Wisconsin) Hall of Fame, I guess that’s even more of a big deal for you.

JD: We work hard at it and take a lot of pride in it, that’s for sure.

KW: What’s it been like racing in Chicago?

JD: Last year I had a really good year. I improved from the year before. The last two years I’ve been able to win 250 or 280 races each year. It’s been good. The money’s not great, but when you’re winning races, that’s the biggest thing. Everybody is hoping we get some relief here sometime.

KW: What was it like to settle into Chicago?

JD: Compared to the fairs and Running Aces and other places like that, it was tough. I live an hour and a half from Maywood and a little over two hours from Balmoral. It’s a lot of long nights and a lot of driving. I have to make it count. It’s tough. There are very good drivers down there. I would tell you if it was easy, but it’s tough. It’s a tough place to win races.

KW: You’ve been able to win your share. What’s been the highlights?

JD: I’d say No. 1 is dad’s mare Let’s Go Higher. She’s won back-to-back Super Night championships. She’s probably the biggest one. She spent most of her time out East racing at Saratoga and Yonkers and other tracks, but has come back here and won on Super Night. For dad to own her, that’s the biggest thing for me anyway. We had a horse called Party Hangover. She won my first Super Night (in 2012). Last year I won my first American-National with a horse that came off the Iowa fair circuit, Roland N Rock.

KW: You picked up an award in January. What did that mean to you?

JD: It’s nice to be recognized for all your hard work. I really appreciate it. It means you’re doing things right as far as I’m concerned. When you’re winning awards, you’re doing things right.

KW: What do you do with all that time in the car?

JD: Most of it is spent in traffic. (Laughs.) I talk on the phone and listen to music. A lot of music. If I have someone that drives for me, I do a lot of entering and looking horses up. I worry about stuff for the barn.

KW: It’s a shame you can’t take college courses…

JD: Yeah, while driving the car. There you go. That would be good.

KW: What type of music do you like to listen to?

JD: Country, mostly. A little bit of everything.

KW: What is the most challenging part of being a young driver?

JD: When you first start driving all you want to do is win, win, win. Sometimes that’s a lot harder than it seems. When I first started driving dad always told me that first you’ve got to drive for checks and the wins will eventually come. When I first started driving I always tried to keep that in the back of my head. I think things have turned my way, hopefully. It’s also getting respect from the other drivers. A lot of times when you’re 19, 20, 22 years old, you’re driving with people that are twice your age. It’s important to gain their trust and know you’re not out there driving like an idiot.

KW: How do you think you’ve improved over the years?

JD: I would think patience and doing better with trotters. I really like driving trotters and over the last year or so it seems like I’ve done really well with trotters. Probably even more than with pacers. A lot of times if you can get one good trotter you can make a lot of money.

KW: Is there a reason you’ve become better with trotters?

JD: I think training my own horses has helped me a lot with that. I think that’s made me a better driver, training my own horses and learning patience that way. In the races I’ve learned a lot too. When you get to the stage where you’re driving 10 or 12 a night, you’re learning on the fly and that teaches you a lot. The more opportunities you get, the better you’re going to be.

KW: Tony Morgan said something like that too, and he just got his 15,000th win. So you’re on your way.

JD: (Laughs.) That’s a lot of races. I thought 1,000 was a lot. It seemed pretty far away when I first started. Now I’m eager to get on to the next 1,000. I’m on my way pretty good to the next 1,000.

KW: Do you have any goals for this year?

JD: I have a lot of horses that I own myself. I have seven New York-breds; I’m pretty excited about those horses and would like to see them do well. One of my other goals would be to try to get into Hoosier Park more. This summer, my plan is to try to. I’ve got horses with a few guys I drive for and they want to race there. I went last year and I drove a few horses. I drove one stakes trotter (Homicide Hunter) that made almost $100,000 there for Curt Grummel. I’d like to get into Hoosier more and pick up more drives there, but it’s tough. I don’t know a whole lot of people there.

KW: What do you most enjoy about driving and working with the horses?

JD: The biggest thing I enjoy is driving babies and stakes horses. Seeing a horse come along. Even if they’re not the best horse at the beginning of the summer, bringing them along and hoping to see them the best later in the year. In Illinois, that’s the time when you want to be the best, on Super Night.

KW: Have you ever wanted to do anything else?

JD: Not really. When I was a little kid, we would send our horses to Chicago (to race) and two towns over there was a dog track that had an off-track betting parlor. We would go over there and watch the races at night. Ever since then, I was hooked and this is what I wanted to do.

KW: How old were you then?

JD: I was in fourth or fifth grade, probably 8 or 9 years old. I watched Dave Magee and those guys drive horses when I was little and I thought it was awesome. I just hoped one day I would get the opportunity to have people watch me on TV driving horses. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.

KW: Now maybe some kid is watching you and thinking the same thing.

JD: Yeah, that would be cool.

KW: Well, thanks for all your time and good luck with everything.

JD: Thank you. Any time.

by Ken Weingartner, Harness Racing Communications 

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