Graham, who won 1,421 races as a driver, is now strictly a hands-off owner who leaves the training to his trainers and the driving to his drivers. He has provided them with a quality trotter in 2-year-old colt Punxsutawney.
Named after the Pennsylvania town from which the groundhog emerges each February, Punxsutawney has two firsts and two seconds in eight starts this year, and is coming off a win in his $101,000 Bluegrass Stakes division last week. Trained by John Butenschoen, he has earned $138,465 to date and will face seven foes in one of Friday’s four International Stallion Stakes divisions for 2-year-old male trotters at Lexington’s Red Mile.
Punxsutawney will start from post six in the second of the four splits with Tim Tetrick in the sulky. The field also includes New York Sire Stakes champion Fashion Blizzard.
|Nigel Soult photo|
|Punxsutawney has earned $138,465 in eight freshman starts.|
A son of Glidemaster out of the mare Sunseeker Kosmos, Punxsutawney was Graham’s first choice at last November’s Standardbred Horse Sale. He sold for $16,000 and his family includes stakes-winner Scully FBI and 1990 Kentucky Futurity winner Star Mystic.
“I was looking through the sales book and pulling up videos, and I ran across him,” Graham said. “I liked the breeding and everything about him. I first pick out the breeding, then I picked up the video, and his video was very impressive.
“I liked his gait and his bigness. I thought he was a big colt. I just kind of take my own things -- they may sound silly to other people -- but I watch them when I go down to the fence and I got an idea how high the fence is, and that gives me an idea how big the colt is.”
Size was just a part of the package, of course.
“He had that gait and when he’s going down, his hind legs are in the right places, his front end is in the right places,” Graham said. “He just was a very impressive colt. When I told John to look at him, he said he was a really nice colt.”
Once the purchase was made, Butenschoen began working with the colt, and steady progress was made right from the start.
“He has trained super all winter and this summer,” Graham said. “John has been coming easy with him; he just keeps doing more and more. Every time we turn around he does a little better.
“We just couldn’t wait until he got down on the big track. He’s such a big colt, we’ve been real careful with him and just getting him set and everything. Now he’s getting himself set and he’s more mature all the time. We just kind of had big hopes for him.”
Punxsutawney, who is also staked to the Breeders Crown later this month, has done nothing to diminish those hopes. In fact, Graham and Butenschoen feel the best is yet to come.
“I definitely see him getting better,” Graham said. “He’s a big growthy colt. Barring no bad luck or anything, and he gets through winter with no problem, he’ll be a better horse next year than this year.
“He’ll be stronger, more mature, he’ll find his speed. I don’t think he has his speed yet together to where he wants to put it all out yet. He went :27.3 his last race. That’s the fastest (last) quarter he’s trotted all year, so he’s now starting to find himself. Me and the wife were talking, we can’t wait to see what he does. Three-year-olds are a lot more exciting.”
Graham will continue to leave all the training to Butenschoen, who he says “is doing a super job.”
“I’ve been around John for several years,” Graham said. “I think he is one of your better trainers.”
Graham, now 71, admits that staying on the sidelines as strictly an owner has been a little tough. He began racing horses with his father and brothers at age 12 and started driving at age 17.
But several years ago at Fairmount Park he went on to the track and was run over by a water truck.
“It tore me up pretty good,” he said. “I came out of it fairly good, but my hip hurt me a lot.”
He continued to drive, but a few years later at a fair he got in a wreck that threw him 10 feet in the air. He landed on his chest and was knocked out.
“I thought then, that’s enough,” Graham said. “I’m too old. My reactions weren’t quick enough. I should have missed it that day, but I got caught up, ran over him and got thrown out of the bike.”
Although Graham has not retired officially -- he still takes out his owner/driver/trainer license each year -- he refrains from even training.
“I haven’t set up behind a horse in three years,” he said. “I’m afraid if I do that, I’ll want to drive. It’s better to be on the sidelines.”
Graham runs his farm in Salem, Ill., with 35 broodmares along with some yearlings. He also has a stud, Powerful Emotion, who has been successful in Illinois.
“I really do miss it, but there is a time you have to quit,” Graham said. “I let the other guys train but I’ll make suggestions. I know when I see one tracking and how they’re tracking, whether they need poles or need something done to them.
“I don’t tell anyone what to do, but I might suggest things. I still have a good eye for a horse.”
Just look at Punxsutawney as proof of that.