Columbus, OH --- Fred Elmore doesn’t know what the future holds for his favorite horse and his favorite sport.
The retired Illinois insurance agent says that his pacer Sporty Levi is suffering from a suspensory injury and harness racing in his home state is suffering from a drastic decline.
There’s no reason that you should know of Sporty Levi because he’s only earned $6,493, but there was also no reason that Sporty Levi would ever make it to the races. The Elmore homebred son of Sportsmaster broke a cannon bone in his hind leg when he was younger. Surgeons put three screws in his leg to save his life and many people simply wrote off his racing prospects.
Except Fred Elmore.
“He limped around my farm for a couple years,” says Elmore. “I fiddled around with him a little, but everyone thought I was crazy. I’d get him shod for a hundred dollars and the blacksmith would ask why I was wasting my time and money with him.”
|photo courtesy of Fred Elmore|
|Fred Elmore with Sporty Levi and the cast he wore on his broken left hind leg.|
Fred Elmore wasn’t wasting his time. He was enjoying himself and developing an inseparable relationship with the personable pacer.
Finally, as a 4-year-old in the summer of 2008, Sporty Levi made it to the races at the Illinois fairs. He broke stride in his first six starts, including qualifiers. For his season, he earned $26. He earned that money by finishing fifth in a five-horse race.
Elmore wasn’t discouraged; he knew it was a miracle that the horse had even raced. So he brought him back last year and got very lucky one night in late April at Balmoral. Sporty Levi didn’t win, but he was paired with Hall of Fame driver Dave Magee for the first time. He went off at 42-1 and finished sixth, but paced far faster (1:57.4) than he’d ever gone. More importantly, he found a friend in Magee.
“Bless his heart, Dave Magee took an interest in him,” says Elmore. Keep in mind that the 5-year-old’s earnings still stood at $26.
“He wanted to hit his knees, so we put spreaders on him,” said Elmore. “Slowly, he learned to pace faster.”
Elmore lives downstate in Rushville, so to race Sporty Levi in Chicago he hauls him in his trailer for the nine-hour round trip.
Tyler Buter took over the reins late last year. After 25 losing efforts, Sporty Levi won a $2,400 pace at Balmoral in 1:59.2 in December.
After all the miles Elmore sat behind the so-called hopeless horse, after all the miles he hauled to Chicago, Elmore finally got his picture taken with Sporty Levi in the winner’s circle.
“I cried,” admitted Elmore. “I got so attached to him that I’d just set myself up for heartbreak.”
When Sporty Levi started back this season, Magee ribbed Elmore by saying, “Seems he got good after I stopped driving him.”
Elmore knew that wasn’t true. He is in awe that a talent such as Magee would take an interest in such a horse whose value is entirely in the heart of his owner. Fred Elmore simply cannot say enough good things about the class and character of Dave Magee.
In mid-March, Magee won with Sporty Levi at Balmoral in 1:56.4 and once again Elmore shed tears of joy and pride after the race. His patience had been rewarded.
In his next start, Sporty Levi paced in 1:54.1 at Balmoral in finishing second, far faster than he’d ever been before. But he paid a price. He wasn’t right after the race. It was a suspensory. Elmore’s vet recommended R & R.
“I don’t think this is a career-ending injury,” says Elmore. How could he lose faith in his pal after Sporty Levi had already overcome so much? He knows the outlook is uncertain.
So is the future for harness racing in Illinois.
“Things are so terrible in Illinois harness racing,” he says. “I still don’t have the purse money from races at the fairs last summer. Why should I wear out my truck running horses to Chicago to race? I can stay at home and make as much money as I can going up to Chicago and finishing third. Purses are terrible.”
Elmore has owned Standardbreds for three decades and his father owned horses before him, so he’s not about to abandon the sport, but he lost a substantial amount of money last year.
He doesn’t blame the many Illinois horsemen who have fled the state for greener pastures elsewhere.
“I don’t see any future here in Illinois,” Elmore says.
And what about the future for Sporty Levi?
“I’ve learned that you should never give up on a horse,” says Elmore.
Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.