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 Keeping Pace with Local Horse Racers

June 11, 2008 - Grant Wilfong works from daybreak to midnight April through November. The hours are long, but the work is fulfilling. Wilfong, one of three local men who owns and races horses at Hoosier Park in Anderson, owns standard breed trotters and pacers. A third generation horsemen, Wilfong’s great uncles, grandfather, dad and brother were all involved with horses, just as Wilfong has been since he was five years old.

Each morning, Wilfong and his men begin their daily routine. First, the horses must be fed and watered. Stall cleaning is next on the list, followed by exercise and training. After hooking up a horse, whether it is B.C. Scooter, Genuine Magic, Kentucky Lukas, or any other of Wilfong’s seven horses, to a sulky, it is off to Wilfong’s half-mile track just down the lane from the stable.

Each horse jogs around the track four to six miles before heading back to the barn. Like conditioned athletes, the horses must be exercised and maintained in order to be able to fully participate in their races, Wilfong explained.

Careful attention is paid to the condition of the horse’s health as it is not uncommon for them to get dehydrated simply because they don’t drink enough fluids. If a horse gets dehydrated, he runs out of juice halfway through the race and gets muscle cramps, just like a human, Wilfong said.

And if feeding, cleaning, exercising and training weren’t enough for one day, Wilfong races his horses at Hoosier Park between three and five nights a week. Getting ready for a race can be a time-consuming endeavor, as they have to arrive at the track about four hours and 15 minutes before the start of a race. Once they leave the stable on race night, they are gone for at least eight hours.

According to Wilfong, there are several different types of races at Hoosier Park, one being regular overnight races that can yield between $4,000 and $23,0000. Winnings for this race are funded through park events, the racetrack, and soon to be the casino. It is this type of race that Wilfong mainly participates in as there are between 11 and 14 races a night every Wednesday through Saturday.

“I like the competition and I like to think that I’m prepared well enough to win on that given day,” Wilfong said. “I like the camaraderie with the other horsemen.” While the winnings involved in the sport are nice, Wilfong said he is in it for the enjoyment. Unlike other racers who spend weeks or months on the road competing, Wilfong likes to be able to spend time at home with his family.

Another local active in the horse racing industry is James W. Johnson, M.D. Like Wilfong, Doctor Johnson became involved with horses as a child while he was growing up on his family’s farm in Canada. It was during his internship at St. Joseph Hospital in London, Ontario that Doctor Johnson bought his first colt at the age of 25.

In fact, one of Doctor Johnson’s most memorable moments was when he went to a racetrack in London during his internship and one of the horse owners/drivers, Gordon Kitchen, had a heart attack and a doctor was needed. Doctor Johnson responded and helped Kitchen settled, called for an ambulance and helped admit him to the hospital.

During Kitchen’s two-week stay at St. Joseph’s, the interns were responsible for his care. Each day, Kitchen would read the papers from his hospital bed and tell the interns which horses would win the races. The interns would then go to the track and place bets based on Kitchen’s advice. According to Doctor Johnson, he made more money during Kitchen’s hospital stay from betting on horses than what he got paid for his internship salary.

Today, Doctor Johnson owns about a dozen horses, a combination of trotters and pacers, with his son James A. Johnson (Jim) and the horses’ trainer, Joe Putnam.

Secret Camacho is Johnson’s three-year-old trotter who won the two-year-old Colt Trot Championship at Indiana State Fair last year. Johnson also owns California Joe, a five-year-old trotter who has won several sire stakes and five of his eight starts this year.

Each day, Putnam arrives at the Markleville training center at 7 a.m. and begins working with the horses. The horses usually jog three to four miles, and every third day they “work a mile,” meaning the horses run in the opposite direction from which they normally race. In a race, horses run counterclockwise, Doctor Johnson said. When they work a mile, they go clockwise, which helps to improve their speed.

Of his horses, five are currently racing and one of the five is usually on the track at Hoosier Park about four nights a week. Doctor Johnson’s horses compete in mainly stakes races, which is a race where the biggest winnings can be made.

“It’s a challenge and it’s really fun to raise a colt and see them develop into a stake horse,” Doctor Johnson said.

Doctor Johnson has raced not only Canada, but also states such as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania.

According to Doctor Johnson, the new casinos will help to increase purse winnings, although these increases may not be seen until next summer. Winnings for Indiana sire stake races and standard bred races at local fairgrounds will triple, Johnson predicted, and winnings in overnight races will double.

In addition to Wilfong and Doctor Johnson, Jason Smith is another local who owns, breeds, trains and races standard bred trotters and pacers. Smith got involved with racing through his family as his great grandfather, grandfather and uncles all participated in the sport.

Today, Smith has about 16 horses, but only five are currently racing as many of them are yearlings or babies. However, two of his horses will begin their first racing seasons at fairgrounds this summer.

Each day, Smith, with the help of his wife, trains the horses on the half-mile track at his home farm. Each horse runs between three and five miles, which takes about an hour per horse.

For Smith, racing is a yearlong event as he participates in races in Northfield Park in Cleveland, and has even traveled to Canada to take part in winter festivities. “It doesn’t make sense that they race in the winter up north, but that’s just the way it is,” Smith said.

According to Smith, most Paddocks at winter events are heating and the temperatures are around 40 or 50 degrees, so there is no danger of equipment freezing. In fact, the hardest part of competing in the winter is maintaining the track at home, Smith said.

To maintain his track at home during the winter months, Smith has to know exactly when to cut the track because of freezing and thawing. According to Smith, it’s important to keep the track soft so the horses aren’t running on a surface that feels like concrete. Cutting the track too deep, however, can expose slop and slush. This summer, Smith will be competing in stakes races at the Indiana State Fair and at other fairgrounds in the area. His main stake racers are his three year-old trotter Dakota’s Message, his two-year-old trotting filly Express the Look, and his three-year-old gelded horse, Mama’s Laughter.

Smith’s main goal for this racing season is to win as many races as possible, but making sure his horses are sound and come out of every race okay is always top priority.

People interested in obtaining more information about horse racing should visit hoosierhoofprints.com/, indianaharness.com/ or ustrotting.com.

 

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