Sam Widger entered Monday (Jan. 17) needing eight driving wins to reach 4,000 for his career. Widger, 47, has been a fixture on the Chicago circuit for two decades and last year added Indiana to his resume. He finished second in the standings at Indiana Downs and third at Hoosier Park. He also was fifth at Balmoral Park near Chicago. So far this year, he is atop the standings at both Balmoral and Maywood.
Widger lives in Beecher, Illinois. He grew up in Canton and played football, baseball and wrestled during his early days. As he wrestler, he competed in the 98-pound weight class. “I didn’t weigh a hundred pounds until I was a junior in high school,” he said. “I went to my 10-year reunion and someone said, ‘Sam, you finally grew up.’”
In addition to nearing 4,000 wins, Widger is approaching $30 million in lifetime purses. “That’s pretty good for a small-town boy who never thought he’d be in harness racing growing up,” Widger said.
Widger recently took time to talk with Harness Racing Communications' Ken Weingartner.
HRC: You started out in the mid-1980s when your dad (James) was building barns near Quad City Downs?
SW: He was helping to build that horse spa there about a mile down the road from Quad City Downs.
HRC: Is that how you were introduced to racing?
SW: Yes. I’d dropped out of college; I wasn’t a book person at all. I’m a hands-on guy. I just went to work there and started cleaning stalls. I met a trainer and started to work for them and it just kind of took off from there.
HRC: What did you know about racing prior to that?
SW: I knew absolutely nothing.
HRC: What drew you in?
SW: Just basically to make a living. It was an opportunity. I wasn’t doing anything. I needed money; you’ve got to have money. (Laughs.) It was there, and I took it. I believe God has led my footsteps all my life. I went down some of the wrong paths, but that was a huge turning point because that’s where I met my wife (Nancy). We’ve been married for 18 years now and have five kids. So it was a huge blessing.
|Maywood Park photos|
|Fellow horsemen congratulate Sam Widger after his 3,000th career driving win in May of 2008.|
HRC: Once you got started in the sport, is this all you wanted to do?
SW: Yes it is. They say when it gets in your blood, it’s there. I believe that. It’s a business where you either like it or you don’t; there’s no in between. I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie and when you’re racing there’s a certain amount of adrenaline that flows through you. I get a thrill out of that.
HRC: Now you’re coming up on 4,000 wins. What does that number mean to you?
SW: I knew I was getting close. It feels good. It feels great. Twenty years ago, when I got into the business, I was just trying to make a living. I guess I never thought it would go this far.
HRC: What do you credit your success to?
SW: I would say determination, hard work and perseverance.
HRC: Last year you topped $3 million for the second time in your career; how did you view 2010?
SW: It was a really good year. I went to Indiana full time simply because I couldn’t make the bills here in Illinois. It was a tough decision because I don’t like being away from my wife and kids, but it was something I had to do. It went better than I expected and as good as I hoped.
HRC: Are you going to do that again this year?
SW: Yes. I built some really good clientele down there, with all the Indiana trainers and owners and some other guys from out of state that race there. I’m very appreciative of all those folks who gave me a chance. It went well. Illinois, it’s not looking good here.
HRC: How difficult is it to make a move like that, especially when you’ve been somewhere for a long period of time and are comfortable there?
SW: Change equals stress, so it was a little stressful; more so for my personal life than business-wise. I’m pretty flexible when it comes to the horse world. I went down there with a couple of guys from here that had good stock, so that helped. When you win races, that’s when they start using you. But it’s hard.
HRC: What was your schedule like?
SW: I was home three nights a week and then I was gone probably three or four nights a week between the two meets.
HRC: What’s been your biggest thrill so far in racing?
SW: Certainly you have to look at winning races, but what comes along with that is the smile that I can see on the trainer’s and owners’ faces. Not only does it help me out, but I’m helping other people in the same respect. When I come down to the winner’s circle and you’ve got happy people like that, that’s a good feeling.
HRC: Do you set goals coming into a year?
SW: I don’t. I’m not a goal-setter. I just kind of take one day at a time.
HRC: If you weren’t racing, what do you think you’d be doing?
SW: I’d probably be shoeing horses. I do a little bit of that on the side. Not a lot, just a little.
HRC: What do you like to do in your spare time?
SW: I’m a family man. We have a 10.5-acre farm and the kids have Nubian goats, they have egg-laying chickens, so we get our own eggs, and we have a variety of horses. I help out around the farm. When we can fit a little bit of deer hunting in, we like to do that. We like to fish too.
HRC: What do you enjoy most about harness racing?
SW: I’d have to say the competition. You never know what’s going to happen on a night-to-night basis. You just strive to do your best. Everybody’s in the same boat, so it’s almost like you’re in a big family.