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James Lackey finds confidence in harness racing
Friday, July 13, 2018 - by Nicolle Neulist, for the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association

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Hinsdale, IL --- Trainer-driver James Lackey described most of Rockinaroundheaven’s summer meet as unlucky. Though she won twice at Cal Expo earlier in the year, picking up a program and reading through her chart lines at Hawthorne grounds his description in fact: “Nasty break.” “Three wide third quarter.” “Poor position.” “Wide early.”

The summer had been so tough that Lackey and his friend who bred and owns the mare, Kenneth Seastrom, were beginning to consider either selling or retiring the 5-year-old daughter of Rock N Roll Heaven.

Four Footed Fotos photo
James Lackey drove Rockinaroundheaven (right) to victory over Melodies That Rock in the seventh race at Hawthorne on July 5.

In the seventh race at Hawthorne on Thursday (July 5), few thought Rockinaroundheaven’s luck would turn for the better; at 40-1, she went off the second-longest shot in the field of 10. Yet, things began to look up as soon as the starting car zoomed away.

Despite the fact that Rockinaroundheaven drew the nine hole, she cleared quickly to the inside, then continued contentedly in the pocket once Hard Headed Women wrestled the lead into the backstretch. Lackey tipped Rockinaroundheaven off the rail approaching the turn for home, led by 2-1/2 lengths into the final furlong, and had enough to hold off late-running Melodies That Rock.

In short, the race unfolded perfectly.

“She's a little aggressive at the start; she would rather be in the mix,” explained Lackey after the race. “If they're going fairly quickly, it's almost better for her. She'd rather be going fast, and preferably on somebody's helmet, than slow. It actually came up ideal for her.”

Unlike many trainers who race at Hawthorne during the summer, Lackey races in California the other half of the year. He went to college in California, graduating from The University of California at Davis, and has raced mainly on the California circuit for most of his career.

Three years ago, as California’s harness racing year shortened, Lackey decided to find a second place to race. He considered several states in the Midwest, including Minnesota and Indiana. But, Illinois had something that these other states didn't.

"The thing that made up my mind was to be able to go to Odds On Acres," he explained. "It's like a country club for horses. I think it's as good a place as you can keep your horse. The air is good, the stalls are very big, they're fully matted, the track is excellent, there are plenty of turnouts.”

Rockinaroundheaven is one of just four horses Lackey has in his Crete-based stable at the moment. However, even with a stable so small, he appreciates the value of teamwork.

“I have a wonderful fellow that works for me. His name is Leonardo Herrera. And, he's a good horseman. He really, really cares about the horses. He's not just a guy who works for me, he's my friend. We talk it over. We're a good team.”

Lackey always planned to work with animals, though he did not always plan to race Standardbreds.

“I wanted to be a vet,” he recalled. “I was good scholastically, but when I went to the interview, you had to be a little bit of a salesman. Everyone who gets that far is good scholastically -- you had to say something to impress the interviewer. And, I barely looked the guy in the eye.”

He then decided to go into harness racing. He had become acquainted with the sport through his father, who raced horses in Chicago when Lackey was a child. During a career spanning more than four decades, the sport has proven a good fit for his mind, and Lackey has found it most rewarding to figure out difficult horses.

“I've had the most success with horses that aren't just ‘jog them and train them every day.’ You kind of have to get inside their heads. There's still a little bit of art in training horses.”

Among the horses Lackey has trained, he had no doubt about who was the best to set foot in his stable: Western Paradise. The 1996 son of Western Hanover began his career with Lackey. Western Paradise qualified in May of 1999 with Lackey in the bike, won his first pari-mutuel start the next month, and raced successfully with Lackey until late in his 4-year-old year.

By then, he knew the bay horse was too good to spend so much of the year in California, so he sent the horse to Joe Anderson, a friend and well-established harness trainer in Chicago.

“Joe Anderson is a very dear friend of mine. In a lot of different situations he's done a lot to help me. When I had a horse good enough to come to this part of the country it was an easy decision to send the horse to Joe Anderson and he did a fabulous job.”

Western Paradise went on to race in the 2002 Breeders Crown Open Pace, and earned more than $400,000 on the racetrack. Lackey has no regrets about the decision to place the horse with his friend.

“He was a good horse. While I didn't train him when he did most of his winning, he was still a horse that I picked out as a yearling, and I took it easy on him, where he had a chance to develop and then go to battle as an aged horse, versus trying to get the big money as a young horse.”

Lackey has come a long way from his timid days. His confidence, in everything from making decisions about his horses to sitting down and having a conversation with someone he hasn’t yet met, has only been strengthened by his harness racing career.

“One thing about the horses: you get confidence in yourself when you have success at some other thing, he said.”

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