Day At The Track

Remembering Thisbigdogwilfight

05:42 AM 25 Aug 2020 NZST
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Thisbigdogwilfight, harness racing
Thisbigdogwilfight won 56 races during his nine-year career and earned nearly a million dollars.

Hightstown, NJ — Thisbigdogwilfight did not enjoy practice, but when it was game time, he lived up to his name. The Illinois-bred harness racing pacer won 56 races during his nine-year career, earned nearly a million dollars, and was inducted into the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association Hall of Fame in 2013.

A 17-year-old gelding, Thisbigdogwilfight died last week at the farm of longtime caretaker Sondra Brown and her husband, Mike.

“For us, small-time people, he was the horse of a lifetime,” said Jim Eaton, who trained Thisbigdogwilfight throughout his career. “He was a character. That’s what made it so much fun. And he did enjoy racing. I don’t think you can win almost 60 races and not enjoy it.”

Thisbigdogwilfight, a son of The Big Dog out of Vicky Varius who was known simply as Dog around Eaton’s stable, was a $6,000 yearling purchase by Phil Langley, who later partnered on the horse with Mike McNeely. Langley, a former president of the U.S. Trotting Association and racetrack executive, died in April. Thisbigdogwilfight was sold to Robert Silberberg in 2011 and raced for him the remainder of his career.

“It was all Phil’s doing,” Eaton said about Dog’s purchase as a yearling. “When I looked at him as a baby, he was a nice-looking horse, but he was by The Big Dog, who had not been a very good sire. Phil bought him anyway. I can’t take much credit.

“Phil always liked to have partners and he couldn’t find anyone to be partners with him. He kept asking me, but I already was partners with five other horses. That’s one of the many mistakes I’ve made in this business. If I remember right, Dog made more in a few weeks than those other five put together made in their lives.”

Thisbigdogwilfight showed little interest in training but became a different horse as soon as he got behind the starting gate in a qualifier.

One of Eaton’s favorite memories with the horse was winning an invitational at The Meadowlands in 2009.

“When he was training down before he started racing, he was awful,” Eaton said. “He didn’t want to go. He didn’t care about training. Phil would watch and say we’ll keep him eligible to the fairs, maybe we can make some money out there with him. The first time we qualified, it was like turning on a light switch.”

Eaton added with a laugh, “He’s probably cost me some money over the years because I’ve hung on to horses that are like him training down and you think they’re going to turn on a light switch and they never do. They don’t know where that switch is, I guess.”

Once Thisbigdogwilfight flipped his switch, he became a consistent performer, primarily on the Illinois circuit. He set a world record at Maywood Park at age 4 in 2007 and in 2010 became only the third pacer in history at that time to win races with sub-1:50 miles in five consecutive years.

“He still didn’t like to train, like he knew it was practice,” Eaton said. “But he had heart. I can’t tell you how many races he won first over. He’d win in (1):49 first over, when (1):49 wasn’t an everyday common thing like it is now.

“Phil used to comment about it, there were so many races where it looked like he was going to be second, third, fourth and just those last few steps he would end up catching them. He never won very many races by open lengths. It was always very close. Dave Magee was the perfect driver for him. He would kind of let him do his thing and urge him right at the wire and he always seemed to find a way to get there.”

Thisbigdogwilfight never won a race with a six-figure purse but was a force in the free-for-all and invitational ranks as well as state-bred stakes.

Jim Eaton trained the pacer Thisbigdogwilfight throughout his career

One of Eaton’s favorite memories with the horse was winning an invitational at The Meadowlands in 2009.

“There are not many Illinois-breds that have won free-for-alls at the Meadowlands,” said Eaton, who was inducted into the Illinois Hall of Fame in 2011. “Probably one of the main reasons I ended up in the Hall of Fame was because of him.”

Sondra Brown took care of Thisbigdogwilfight throughout his career, except for trips to the East Coast. After several weeks away, Dog would begin to pout. But upon his return home, he would know immediately when Brown arrived at the barn.

“She would wear flip flops and then change shoes when she got there,” Eaton said. “He would hear those flip flops and go running to the front of his stall and start nickering. He knew that she was there.

“He had a great personality and was pretty happy all the time. He really did nothing wrong. He had some races where maybe he wasn’t up to par, like any horse, but for the most part he was always ready to go.

“I won’t have another one like him.”

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