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Willis hopes for belated birthday gift in American-National
Wednesday, August 24, 2011 - by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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Trenton, NJ --- Nelson “Spider” Willis celebrated his 68th birthday Monday, but the veteran trainer hopes his best gift arrives Saturday (August 27) when he sends GJ Photo Victory to the American-National Stakes at Balmoral Park in Chicago.

USTA/Ed Keys photo
Nelson "Spider" Willis

Balmoral is where the veteran trainer runs his stable of 36 horses, and it is also the track he dominated in 2010, winning the first trainer title of his 44-year career.

For good measure, he was also in the Top 10 in the Indiana Downs trainer standings.

Everyone should age as gracefully.

“At 67 you think you’ve done all you can do,” the affable Willis said with a laugh. “I don’t go by age anymore, I go by mileage and the odometer has been going around a few times.”

The engine is running smoother than ever, as Willis counts last season as one of his finest.

“I’ve been close a lot of times (in the standings); I’ve ended up second, ended up third,” he said. “I was just fortunate to have a bunch of nice horses that year and win a lot of races, and that’s what it takes.

“I’m second right now but we got time yet. I don’t have quite the power as far as last year, but we’ll see.”

Timothy M. Jones photo
GJ Photo Victory established a new Illinois State Fair Colt Stakes record of 1:53 last week in Springfield.

He could improve his status this weekend with GJ Photo Victory, a 3-year-old gelding that has won his last two races and hit the board in nine of 11 starts this season. The trotter is coming off an 11-3/4 length win in a stakes-record 1:53 in the Illinois State Fair Colt Stakes at Springfield and his progress has been steady.

“He just acts like he’s coming into himself,” said Willis, who trains GJ Photo Victory for his wife Kay, daughter Brandy Pinske and John Esposito. “He was late getting started as a 2-year-old, kind of immature.

“I just took my time with him and played it by ear until I felt he was ready to go. He ended up running pretty good as a 2-year-old. This year he looks like he’s developed into a lot bigger, stronger horse and he’s learned to handle his speed, so that’s a plus.”

Mike Oosting drove GJ Photo Victory as a 2-year-old, when he ended the campaign by winning the $107,000 Lincoln Land at Balmoral. He finished the year with four wins in nine races and $62,318.

This season, GJ Photo Victory has won four of 11 starts and earned $63,299. Marcus Miller has driven the horse in his last seven starts.

“That’s always a plus when you have someone that knows him doing the driving,” Willis said. “My horse is nice to drive. He’s sensible, he likes Marcus and he seems to get smarter every time he races.

“I staked to the American-National, and according to the charts it doesn’t look overly tough. I think he has a chance if he trots where he was at Springfield. But then you have the luck of the draw. There are so many things you need luck for when you go for the big money.”

Willis knows all about luck, both good and bad. It comes with the territory when one trains horses for more than four decades.

Born in Kentucky, Willis moved to Illinois at age 8 and has been there ever since. He worked in racing with his brother, Connel, for several years before going out on his own in 1967.

He got his nickname, Spider, because Connel, a 1987 Illinois Hall of Fame inductee, was known as Snake.

Last year, he got a thrill in addition to winning his first training title -- he raced a horse in the Little Brown Jug for the first time. Fools Gold finished seventh in his opening heat and failed to advance to the final.

“I’ve never had a chance to race in the Jug,” he said. “So I figured, hell with it, I’m gonna go. We didn’t do no good, but it was fun.”

Obviously, this is not a man who worries about stepping away from the stables as he nears 70.

“I really haven’t done a lot of other things in my life besides the horse business,” Willis said. “I’m not getting out of it any time soon. I’m healthy, I feel good; I don’t know how to relax.

“As long as I’m healthy and feel good and love what I do I never think about retiring. I never think about dying, so I guess I’ll be around for a while.”

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