Big Efforts At Night Of Champions

Published: September 26, 2021 08:17 pm EDT

The marquee evening of the summer harness meet at Hawthorne Race Course showcased 11 stakes races, all for Illinois-bred horses, as over $1 million in purses was on the line for Saturday's (Sept. 25) Night of Champions card.

$64,000 Robert S. Molaro Memorial Championship – Gemini Does It Again

The evening kicked off with older pacers on the track, and a horse very familiar with finding the winner’s circle did so once again. Jim Ballinger’s Fox Valley Gemini posted his 45th career victory, fifth Night of Champions win, and third win in this event as he was very sharp for the meet’s leading driver, Casey Leonard. A meet-long rivalry with Hezzz A Wise Sky concluded in this event after each had traded victories throughout the summer. Hezzz A Wise Sky was favoured for driver Kyle Wilfong and cleared the lead through a quarter in :27.2, half in :55 and three quarters in 1:22.1. Instead of sitting back, 'Gemini' tucked in right behind Hezzz a Wise Sky and waited. At the top of the lane, Leonard tipped out Fox Valley Gemini and the six-year-old gelding responded, as his quick turn of foot quickly gained the advantage and drew clear in the stretch. Fox Valley Gemini won by 2-1/2 lengths in 1:50.1. 11-1 longshot Fox Valley Ren rallied late for second while Hezzz A Wise Sky held third. Bred by Fox Valley Standardbreds and trained by Terry Leonard, Fox Valley Gemini returned $5.00 to win.

After the race, Casey Leonard spoke about the trip and season for Fox Valley Gemini:

“The biggest thing tonight was the draw. We had to draw inside of Hezzz a Wise Sky to get the trip we got. He’s been ultra-consistent, but this year we’ve had the toughest Opens ever since we came back. Week in and week out, sometimes against new horses, someone would step up. Hezzz a Wise Sky has been extremely tough. I think the track was really good this year and the horses are getting better. Sire Yankee Skyscraper (Fox Valley Gemini and Hezzz a Wise Sky are both by Yankee Skyscraper) has been great.”

$120,500 Fox Valley Flan Championship – A Funky Track Record

Two-year-old trotting fillies took to the track for the second stakes event of the night. With the speed expected to come from the inside with Ambro Lark, this time it was the favourite, Funky Wiggle, for trainer Curt Grummel and driver Kyle Wilfong, who took the lead. After a quarter in :29.4 and half in :59, Funky Wiggle led Lous Xanadu and Ambro Lark into the final turn. After three-quarters in 1:28, Wilfong said it was go time, and Funky Wiggle responded, extending her lead quickly. Cruising through the wire, Funky Wiggle won by three lengths in a divisional track record of 1:57.2. Ambro Lark trotted on to finish second while Lous Xanadu held third. Owned and bred by Dr. Patrick Graham, Funky Wiggle paid $3.00.

Funky Wiggle’s trainer, Curt Grummel, spoke after the race about his new track record holder:

“She’s been perfect all year. She’s sound, easy on herself, eats good. You can’t mess her up. She can do it any way, on the lead or coming from out of it. She drives so good. She can handle any surface. I shoe her the same for all of them. She goes no shoes behind.”

$79,000 Robert F. Carey, Jr. Memorial – First NOC Win for Molitor

Three-year-old male pacers lined up for the Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial, and the speedy Ideal Big Guy was sent away as the off-time favourite. Drawing the inside was Ryans Loan Shark for driver Travis Seekman and trainer Jim Molitor. At the start, Ideal Big Guy was able to clear, cruising through fractions of :28.3 and :57.1. Into the turn, Seekman moved Ryans Loan Shark into striking position as the field passed three-quarters in 1:26.1. With Ideal Big Guy all-out to hold on, Ryans Loan Shark rallied, just getting up to win by a neck in 1:56.2. Owned in partnership by trainer Jim Molitor, Dave Falzone and breeder Flacco Family Farms LLC, Ryans Loan Shark returned $6.80 as the second choice.

An emotional Molitor spoke following the Carey victory:

“We start them slow and easy; eventually they’ll come around. A lot of the guys push the horses early, and you don’t see them this time of the year. I try to drag it out, whether I’m struggling or not, to get to this end. Going into the race at DuQuoin, he had a spider bite and we almost didn’t race. After that start, his leg blew up and we almost didn’t come to these races. But, he’s a tough horse, he’s tougher than I am, and he’s the reason we smile every time we walk into the barn. He’s always nickering and he’s smiling more than I am. He’s a good horse.”

$68,500 Plesac Championship – Talk About Valor In Top Form

A talented field of older trotters contested the Plesac as mares Annas Lucky Star and Louzotic both looked to upset favoured six-year-old gelding Talk About Valor. Annas Lucky Star left for the top, clearing the lead in :28.1 and :57.1. Talk About Valor tracked the leader in second while Louzotic settled mid-pack early. After three-quarters in 1:26.4, Talk About Valor was sent for the front by driver Travis Seekman and quickly took over. The strong move was enough to win by 1-3/4 lengths over Annas Lucky Star in 1:55.3. Louzotic closed late to finish third. Trained by Gerald Hansen, owned by Shelley Steele and bred by Kenneth Chupp, Talk About Valor returned $3.00.

Winning trainer Gerald Hansen talked about the strong season return for Talk About Valor:

“He’s had some health issues. Both of his back legs. We try to keep him going; that’s why we only race him every two to three weeks. He’s a full brother to Picky Picky Valor and is actually doing better than Picky now. He’s come a long way. He got the perfect trip tonight, just what we wanted. He’s probably done for the year.”

$68,500 Beulah Dygert Memorial Championship – Breezing Through the Lane

Three-year-old trotting fillies contested the Beulah Dygert Memorial as a field of seven was led by favourite Breeze At Sunset for trainer Erv Miller. At the start, Casey Leonard guided second choice Loulita to the front through easy early fractions of :29.3 and :59. Long shot BCs Rose tracked the pace in second while Breeze At Sunset was able to find a good early spot in third for driver Atlee Bender. Rolling through the turn and passing three-quarters in 1:28.1, Loulita came off the inside into the lane, allowing BCs Rose to sneak through and grab the lead in the lane. Bender tipped Breeze At Sunset three-wide and kept after his filly as she responded, rolling to a 2-1/2-length victory. Breeze At Sunset won in 1:58 over BCs Rose and Loulita. Owned by Bowie Racing LLC and bred by Darrell Schrock, Breeze At Sunset paid $3.60.

Bender talked about his summer driving Breeze At Sunset:

“She started doing better at Springfield. It took us a while to figure things out — shoeing, attitude, things like that. It’s all attitude with her. She has to be in the race. if she’s not in the race, she doesn’t try at all. Down at Springfield and DuQuoin, she really was in the race, loved the surfaces, and ever since then has been racing really good. We got the trip I wanted. I wanted to stay close to Casey, see what he did off the car. I saw he was leaving pretty hard, so I figured if I could stay close in second or third, we would be alright. My mare felt really good. I saw that Casey (Loulita) was coming back to us and I worried a little about Kyle (BCs Rose), but late in the stretch, I knew we had it.”

$97,500 Erwin F. Dygert Memorial Championship – Searle Rewarded After Close Calls

After a night that saw Steve Searle trainees finish with a second-place effort and three third-place performances in the first five stakes races, the one he trained pulled off the win in the three-year-old trot. Despite only winning three times from 15 starts on the season, Rndmnunpredictable was sent away as the second choice with Casey Leonard in the bike. Sent for the top was favoured Coco D Lascito, passing the quarter in :29.1 and the half in :58.3. Third choice Sumbodygetdisfool tracked the leader into the turn as Rndmnunpredictable roared into contention. At the top of the lane, the race turned into a runaway as Rndmnunpredictable opened up by daylight, cruising under the wire an eight-length winner in 1:59.2. The favourites dropped off in the stretch while 96-1 shot Loyz Say When closed for second, followed by 28-1 Emsroscopcoletrain in third. Rndmnunpredictable is owned and bred by Flacco Family Farms LLC and returned $5.60.

Trainer Steve Searle talked about the up-and-down season for Rndmnunpredictable following the Dygert win:

“He’s had some tough races the last couple of times. It’s tough for the bettors, but it actually braved him up a little bit so he had a little more trot at the end two starts ago. And then the other night, he just got beat by a horse that had a better trip. You always hope to get pulled up to the front. They named him right because he is random and unpredictable. There have been times when he should have won, but he ran or some other stuff. But he behaved tonight, and that was the main thing. We have been very busy. I’m excited not only for myself but for everybody in Illinois. Everybody deserves better. You couldn’t have drawn a worse plan for the way things have happened in Illinois with racing. The horsemen out east are great horsemen but they aren’t that much better than us. Give us a shot to go for more money and get better horses.”

$114,000 Kadabra Championship – Back to Back for Searle

On the heels of the score from Rndmnunpredicatble in the Erwin F. Dygert Memorial, trainer Steve Searle had three shots in the Kadabra, drawing the three farthest outside posts. The race for two-year-old male trotters had a 1-5 favourite in the talented Fox Valley Cairo for trainer Mike Brink and driver Ridge Warren. At the start, it was the Curt Grummel-trained Lous Di Nomite who made the top, setting fractions of :29.2 and :58.4. Fox Valley Cairo tracked in second while the outside trio of Searle horses settled well back behind the early leaders. After three-quarters in 1:29.2, Lous Di Nomite was challenged by Fox Valley Cairo into the stretch. In mid-stretch, these two were alongside from one another while Casey Leonard had Lousdobb quickly rallying down the centre of the lane. Lousdobb was able to sustain his bid, rolling to a 1-3/4-length victory in 1:58.4. Fox Valley Cairo held second while Lous Di Nomite finished third. Owned in partnership by breeder Flacco Family Farms LLC and All-Wright Racing LLC, Lousdobb paid $23.40.

Following the race, Steve Searle spoke about his talented two-year-old gelding:

“He’s really been a nice horse for us all year. Every week, he has been getting a little better. I wasn’t happy when we drew the eight, nine, and 10 holes tonight, but you never know. That’s why they make them race. I’m very fortunate to have such great owners. The Wrights, the Flaccos and so many others stuck with me through good times and bad. That’s what it’s all about. We’ve struggled for so many years, but things are looking up. We have been improving the farm, maybe putting a track in. Everyone is excited.”

$138,000 Incredible Finale Championship – Ozzy Remains Undefeated at Hawthorne

The night’s richest race, the Incredible Finale for two-year-old male pacers, turned into a three-horse race between favoured Fox Valley Ozzy, Get E Up and Kingofmyheart. The three didn’t disappoint. At the start, driver Kyle Husted sent Get E Up to the top as he passed the quarter in :28.4. Tracked by Kingofmyheart early, Get E Up led the field onto the backstretch as Fox Valley Ozzy was hung wide while looking for a spot to drop in. After a half in :56.2, Get E Up held his lead into the turn over Kingofmyheart and Fox Valley Ozzy as the trio opened up a large gap on the rest of the field. After three quarters in 1:25, Get E Up came off the rail into the stretch while Kingofmyheart dove to the inside and Fox Valley Ozzy tipped to the centre of the lane. Three across in mid-stretch, Fox Valley Ozzy grabbed the lead late, drawing clear to win by a length over Kingofmyheart. Get E Up was another length back in third. Driven by Casey Leonard for trainer Gary Rath, Fox Valley Ozzy won for the eighth time in 10 lifetime starts, crossing the wire in 1:54. Bred by Fox Valley Standardbreds and James and Tracey Walker, Fox Valley Ozzy returned $3.60.

$117,000 Incredible Tillie Championship – Make it Two for Molitor

Earlier on the Night of Champions card, trainer Jim Molitor won his first career Night of Champions race when Ryans Loan Shark took the Robert F. Carey Jr. Memorial. This time, the Molitor trainee won the race for two-year-old filly pacers. Sent away as the 3-5 favorite with Kyle Wilfong in the bike, Apple Valley settled off the early pace, which was set by third choice Dandys Mnm. Passing the quarter in :28.4, Dandys Mnm gave up the lead on the backstretch to Fox Valley Captiva. Fox Valley Captiva passed the half in :57.4 and led the field into the final turn. On the turn, Apple Valley began his move as Fox Valley Captiva rolled past three quarters in 1:26.4. Chased by Dandys Mnm into the lane, Fox Valley Captiva was still a length clear late while Apple Valley continued to close quickly. In the final 70 yards, Apple Valley rolled by, winning by 1-1/2 lengths in 1:55.1. Fox Valley Captiva held second while Dandys Mnm was third. The Jim Molitor trainee was owned and bred by Mike Perrin and paid $3.40.

Jim Molitor talked about his training success and those who helped him this summer:

“I need to thank a lot of people. The Flacco family is the main group. They have done so much for me; I wouldn’t be where I am without them, along with Dave Falzone. He’s one of my best friends. I wouldn’t have learned all that I learned without them. They really pushed me. Travis Seekman is an awesome driver and Kyle Wilfong is unbelievable. I’m just happy to be where I am right now. Jay Garrels was doing a lot of the work. I was helping him do a lot of the work. Apple Valley was staying here because of the surface. We were doing well with her, but she came back a little funny from that last Tillie race before Springfield and we were a little concerned. She had some issues. We had to change some things. She didn’t get to the races the way we thought she would. But we had a little bit of time and we got her back in time for that last leg of the Tillie.”

Molitor continued, “I know she has trouble through the turns. She’s starting to develop a little bit, having some growing pains. We were worried about her through the turns. Kyle’s an awesome driver. He babied her through the turns and waited on her. Even down the lanes, he was just sitting on her. She’s got a move. I train a little bit different, little bit longer training. I know that back end is huge. They were all going to run to the lead, but we have to pick up the pieces late.”

$76,000 Plum Peachy Handicap – A NOC Winner Returns Once Again

Three-year-old filly pacers lined up in the Plum Peachy, led by heavily favoured Hart’s Heart from the barn of trainer Mike Brink. Also in the race was Scorecard Dandy, the filly who upset Harts Heart in the final at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield in August. The forgotten horse in the race was last year’s Night of Champions two-year-old winner Bootsy Bombay, from the barn of trainer Nick Prather. At the start, it was long shot Princess Mooss who made the lead, setting fractions of :28.3 and :57.3. Scorecard Dandy chased in second while Bootsy Bombay settled third. Into the turn, Harts Heart rolled up to contend as Princess Mooss began to tire. After three-quarters in 1:26.4. Harts Heart moved to the lead while Bootsy Bombay rallied just behind. The lead was brief for Harts Heart as Booty Bombay rolled on past and opened up quickly. Extending her margin through the stretch, Bootsy Bombay and driver Kyle Husted rolled to a 4-3/4-length triumph. Harts Heart held second while 73-1 long shot Clearly the Bomb finished third. Owned by James Greer and bred by Fair Meadow Farm, Bootsy Bombay paid $25.40.

Kyle Husted spoke following the race about the filly he drove:

“They did a little equipment change on her. They changed her bridle; they put ear plugs on her to help her to relax. Before, in Springfield and Du Quoin, I was on the move with her, but in the last two weeks, I’ve been able to set with her. She had a breather, and that made the difference. When she exploded, she exploded. It sounded like I went by a lot, but I wasn’t sure. I was just trying to keep her to task so she wouldn’t get caught at the wire. Lasix absolutely helped. When a horse is unmanageable, as she tends to be, they tend to bleed and Lasix definitely helps that. With first Lasix, she was better, and with second Lasix, she was really good.”

$66,500 Tony Maurello Memorial Championship – Husted Drives, Trains, and Owns a Winner

The final race on the Night of Champions card was for older female pacers as the full field was led by favoured Fox Valley Exploit for driver and trainer Kyle Husted. Leaving from the far outside for the lead was Allbeastnobeauty as she made the top through the quarter in :28.3. Husted wasn’t about to wait with Fox Valley Exploit, though, as he took her to the front, passing the half in :57.2. On the turn, Fox Valley Exploit opened a six-length lead, cruising past three quarters in 1:25. It was all over in the stretch as Fox Valley Exploit maintained her clear advantage, winning by five lengths in 1:53.1. Long shot Skeeter Machine closed to finished second, followed by My Uptowne Girl in third. Owned in partnership by Husted and David Brigham and bred by Fox Valley Standardbreds, Fox Valley Exploit paid $2.60.

Husted talked about Fox Valley Exploit and owner David Brigham following the race:

“You know. David and I have had horses together for a long time. I wish I could take a lot of credit, but you know it’s my wife, Amy, and the girls that work for me. It’s great that everything came together three years in a row. We really didn’t go much to the half, but I just didn’t want to be in a bad spot going slow.”

Hawthorne Race Course, Chicago’s Hometown Track, will open its fall Thoroughbred meet Oct. 8 and race through Dec. 27. For any information about Hawthorne Race Course, visit

(Hawthorne Race Course)