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IHHA executive director enjoys first driving win
Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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Rich Fisher
Trenton, NJ --- The “wheels” came off, the aggression turned on, and suddenly Tony Somone was a winner.

On Aug. 21, Somone drove his horse, Sleazy Mr E, to victory in an amateur race at the Cumberland County Fair in Greenup, Ill. It was the first win in 16 tries for the 51-year-old Somone, who has owned horses since his early twenties but did not start driving until 2012.

Six races into last season, trainer Clark Fairley had a little chat with Somone.

“He looked at me and said ‘Tony, it’s time to take the training wheels off and start driving,’” said Somone, who also happens to be executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association. “I was out there being conservative. I was trying to be safe. I was 50 years old. These other guys were out there driving hard and Clark was right. It clicked in me. You’ve got to be a little aggressive.

Photo courtesy of Tony Somone
Tony Somone drove Sleazy Mr E to victory in an amateur race at the Cumberland County Fair in Greenup, Ill.

“I feel good and I’ve had a really good year so far. I’ve been very competitive with the horse. Getting the first win was an incredible thrill. I’m 51 and the competitive juices still flow. I was a baseball player in college. I’ve always been athletic and always enjoyed it.”

After adopting his aggressive philosophy, Tony had two second-place finishes last year in what was a learning process. With Sleazy Mr E showing signs of fatigue at the end of the season Fairley and Somone gave him some rest. Both horse and driver came back better than ever.

“I was more confident and ready to take the next step and be more competitive,” Somone said.

“I knew I had a legitimate shot,” he added about his winning race. “It was a competitive group but I had the rail. I decided before we even raced I wasn’t going to lose this race; I was going to lose only by another horse beating me fair and square. I was leaving hard and going to put the horse on the front end.”

Somone pulled the earplugs off so Sleazy Mr E would be sharp and alert from the start, and things went exactly according to plan.

“I went hard out of there with the rail and got a fairly comfortable lead,” he said. “I gave him a breather at the half and then tried to pull away. They made a pretty good run at me, as I knew they would.”

Turning toward home, despite being zoned in and concentrating on everything he had to do to secure the win, Somone couldn’t help but hear announcer Kurt Becker giving the call.

“I could hear him screaming,” Somone said with a laugh. “I don’t know what he was screaming but he was very loud in the microphone. They came at me and the little horse was able to dig in late and hold on and it was a great moment.”

Filled with euphoria, Somone found Fairley and the two embraced -- unfortunately for Fairley.

“Clark is a skinny guy and I don’t like to think of myself as a fat guy, but a stocky type of guy,” Tony said. “I had been getting some good ribbing about when I was going to win the race so the pressure was building. So now I’m in the winner’s circle and I’m thrilled.

“Clark wanted to shake my hand and I just hugged him, and I guess I must have hugged him pretty hard because I could hear him gasping for breath. His mom was in the winner’s circle too, so after I heard him gasp I was much gentler when I gave her a hug.”

Becker got caught up in the excitement as well and announced that if someone wanted a hug Tony would provide it.

“And wouldn’t you know it, a woman came down and wanted a hug,” Somone said. “When’s the last time a driver hugged a strange woman in the stands?”

It was truly a magical night for the Willow Springs, Ill., resident, who caught the racing bug in high school. Tony’s brother dated a girl who worked for a stable at a track, and he started hanging around there and fell in love with the sport.

“I sort of hung around ever since,” he said. “I’ve never been a cheerleader, I’ve always been a player type. I like to be more involved.”

After graduating from George Williams College (now Aurora University), Somone began buying horses, but always with partners.

“I started jogging my own horses and really taking an interest,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a passive watcher but someone who could participate. That’s one of the great things in our sport. You can’t do it with Thoroughbreds but with Standardbreds you can come to the track and jog your horses.”

Somone began working at several tracks in his area for a few years before embarking on a career in video engineering and producing TV shows. He still owned horses and got Dave McCaffrey to be his trainer in 1997. In 2000, Tony got his license.

In 2007 Somone applied for the IHHA executive director position and eventually earned his dream job.

“Harness racing was something I loved, something I could be successful at,” he said. “I just put my name in the hat like hundreds of others, fortunately I was the last person standing. I got the job and it’s the greatest job in the world.”

Somone met Fairley -- the second VP of the IHHA -- several years ago, and the trainer “helped me sort of get to the next level by shipping my horse around to county fairs.”

Tony’s sense of participation began intensifying and he wanted to put his driver’s license to good use. However, because he owned horses with partners, he didn’t feel it was fair to ask them to let him drive and perhaps cost them a purse.

In 2012, some owners gave him a shot with their horses.

“They were just really generous people,” Somone said. “The horses needed a lot of work, they weren’t competitive horses, but I don’t want to downplay the generosity of those folks who gave me a chance. And the fact they were uncompetitive didn’t concern me, I just wanted to get my feet wet.”

Last year he bought Sleazy Mr E on his own for a good price and planned on driving him on the fair circuit. It became a tremendous learning experience for Somone, and also aided him in his executive director’s job.

“Driving mostly county fairs has allowed me to get to know all the horsemen down state and all the horsemen who are such an integral part of Illinois racing,” Tony said. “I had talked to them on the phone but now I get to put a face to a name and it’s been so beneficial for me to do my job. We are fighting here for survival, but I just love hanging out with the folks from the county fairs. They are the soul and the backbone of any state of harness racing.

“I had been involved in so many different aspects. As an owner I learned how the legislative scene works. Working at the track I knew a little about publicity and marketing. And now I’m learning about the drivers. This was a good time to take a shot at it. I’d like to think it worked out for everybody involved.”

Somone has no long-term plans for his driving career. In fact, he doesn’t look past the next race.

“I have no vision of doing this professionally, so to speak,” he said. “Whatever the future brings, it brings. Right now it’s race by race and year by year. I’m just really enjoying the moments.”

And those moments were made even better once the training wheels came off.

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