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Harness racing is in Eric Collier's blood
Sunday, August 31, 2014 - by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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Rich Fisher
Trenton, NJ --- It almost sounds like the start of a bad joke.

“So these eight anthropologists walk into the winner’s circle in Du Quoin the other night....”

It’s no joke folks. It was reality on Aug. 22 when Eric Collier drove Bessiebearcat to victory in the County Fair Championship for 3-year-old female trotters at the Du Quoin State Fair. Bessiebearcat, named after a family member, is owned by Eric and his grandfather Delbert Burkett.

Bessiebearcat also became the pride of Southern Illinois University.

The 29-year-old Collier is pursuing a master’s degree in biological anthropology at SIU, the alma mater of New York Knicks Hall of Famer Walt Frazier. School was back in session last week and Eric coerced seven of his fellow grad students to come watch him drive.

Since anthropology deals with the study of humans, both past and present, Eric figured he could use that as a selling point to rustle up a fan club.

Kellie Lachata photo
Eric Collier drove Bessiebearcat to victory in the County Fair Championship for 3-year-old female trotters at the Du Quoin State Fair.

“No one had ever seen harness racing before, and I always told them the good thing about the fair is they can do a lot of people watching; for the cultural anthropologists at least,” Collier said with a laugh. “We had a nice little group and they all were having a really good time.

“I put in a disclaimer I may fall down at the half, but that if I was lucky enough to win, they could all come down to the winner’s circle and get their picture taken. You could tell they were really excited, and so was I. I don’t win a lot (10 lifetime driving victories) and any time I do it’s great, but to have them and family members there was just great.”

And while Collier’s classmates were enjoying their first harness race, their host has grown up in the sport. Collier’s parents, Kenny and Debra Jo, met on the county fair circuit. Burkett is an Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association Hall of Famer. Eric had an aunt who worked for trainer Tex Moats and has a cousin with a stable full of horses.

“Traditionally we’ve tried to have stake horses in the state of Illinois,” said Collier, who lives in Fairfield. “Whether they always do good enough to make money, that’s a different thing. But we had some decent stock over the years.

“It seems we’ve recently focused on county fairs. We’re just staying closer to home in the summer. I’m never around in the fall and winter due to school, so it’s a good way to spend time with the family.”

Growing up, Collier was constantly doing chores on the farm, and would come home from school to jog horses. He recalls being able to train a horse without anyone on the cart by age 12.

After graduating from high school, he dabbled in junior college but mostly maintained focus on the racing business. It became gainful when horses named Elk Creek and Sweet Willie began turning profits.

“Once Elk Creek began doing well, we had enough horses to keep us busy,” Collier said. “Once Sweet Willie won, we went from a stable of seven or so, to 20 or more. It bumped us up pretty good. The workload there was enough to keep me busy.”

Elk Creek, trained by Burkett and Eric, was a top open horse at Balmoral Park and made $234,839 during his career. (He also is the sire of Bessiebearcat.) It was another success for Burkett, who earned nearly $670,000 in purses with the trotter Gumcorner Lad. Sweet Willie, trained by Kenny Collier, won the Lincoln Land Stakes at Balmoral in 2006.

The two of them raised enough money for Collier to attend college. It was a move he had to think hard about due to his love of harness racing.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “If Illinois harness racing was more prosperous maybe I wouldn’t have made the jump.”

He got an associate’s degree at Frontier Community College but it wasn’t until his final semester that he decided on his career path. After taking an anthropology course, he said, “It just seemed like it would fit me.”

He went on to Southern Illinois and got a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, then decided to pursue his master’s. Late next spring he is slated for a six-month trip to Thailand to research the White-Handed Gibbon ape.

He has combined his two loves by writing papers on announcers calling a harness race. One was on women doing what is predominantly a man’s job. The other, which was 25 pages, discussed the call of a harness race in four different loops, with each quarter of the race serving as the loop. It focused on the different aspects on the race call as it unfolded.

“Generally, the looping sequence helps the announcer with his calling, as I see it,” Collier said.

Eric foresees no driving in his immediate future, but hopes to get back in the sulky once he returns from Thailand and “as long as I have the ability.”

“Currently, the goal is getting my education and continuing it,” said Collier, who is projected to defend his master’s research in October 2016. “Ultimately the goal is to keep going on from my master’s. Right now it’s making sure to get the grades I need to get into that position.”

And while the focus is to become an anthropologist, Collier says that in no way can you count out a future for him in harness racing. Even though he is knee deep in studying at the library and writing massive papers, the sport is never far from his mind.

“You always have to take harness racing seriously when you do it because you need the money,” he said. “As much as anything it’s still an all serious business for me. And it’s still a good way to keep connected with my family while I’m getting ready to have this experience next year of being away.

“This is what I’ve always loved to do. I think I could always have a future in harness racing as long as it’s around. It’s a sport you have dreams about even when you’re not around it. The excitement that’s within it, it’s there in me. It’s hard to get it out of your blood even when you’re away.”

In other words, it’s nothing to joke about. Despite what occurred in that winner’s circle in Du Quoin.

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