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Harness racing is all in the family for trainer-breeder Brian Judy
Tuesday, July 31, 2018 - by Nicolle Neulist, for the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association

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Hinsdale, IL --- For trainer Brian Judy, breeding and racing Standardbreds is a family affair.

Brian started in harness racing through his father, Jesse Judy, who bought his first broodmare when he retired from his job as a rural mail carrier at age 65. Jesse Judy was exposed to the sport through his brothers, Dan and Allen, both of whom raced in Missouri. Brian was a natural to join his father in the sport. He had caught the horse bug as a child as he got his first pony, still unbroken, when he was ten, and has had the horse bug ever since.

Now Jesse is 92, Brian is 61 and retired from the Illinois Department of Transportation, and they are going strong with their small stable of homebreds. Right now they have a stable of three. Their pacing filly Frontier Elsa, an Illinois conceived and foaled daughter of their stallion Almahurst Frontier, surprised almost everyone when she broke her maiden at Hawthorne on July 19 at 53-1 odds, and returned to finish second against conditioned company on July 29.

The 3-year-old pacing filly’s maiden win even surprised Judy and his father, especially after Frontier Elsa got a late start training this year after Judy went back and worked with IDOT through the winter.

“I knew she had it in her, but I didn't think we could get it out of her yet. Just a little more conditioning, maybe. My father was more excited than I was -- he was shocked that she could do that!”

The victory was special for another reason, too. Brian and Jesse Judy also bred and campaigned her dam, Singin Irene. Singin Irene was by Yankee Kick, the first stallion Brian and Jesse Judy ever stood. Recalls Brian, “I foaled and raced her mother, and she got claimed away from me, and I got her back as a broodmare. And then, we lost her when Elsa was about 2-1/2 months old. We lost the mare. There's kind of a sentimental attachment there.”

In addition to Frontier Elsa, they also campaign a pair of full siblings, also by Almahurst Frontier, out of the On the Road Again mare Follow Me Home. Three-year-old pacing filly Frontier Ginger most recently finished sixth in the third leg of the Plum Peachy on July 28; 2-year-old pacing gelding Frontier Willie is working toward qualifying. They plan to stay in Illinois with all three, and to focus on racing at Hawthorne.

Through their entire time in the sport, Brian Judy and his father have trained and raced homebreds. At first they bred some to race and some to sell, but in recent years they have shifted their focus exclusively to breeding their own racehorses.

“We used to sell some of them and train some of them. We finally figured out that quality trumps quantity, and so we got less of them but we just train the ones we raise now," said Judy.

Judy and his father keep the horses at their farm in Potomac, Ill., about three hours each way when vanning the horses back and forth. With Hawthorne’s night racing, that means it can be 3 a.m. by the time the horses get home, and 4:30 a.m. by the time Judy gets to bed. The late nights and long drives are worth it for the horses, as Judy believes in the mental and physical benefits of keeping his horses at the farm.

“We're able to turn them out every day. It helps them a lot to just be a horse, spend time outside in a paddock, running around, playing. I think especially with young horses, it helps their attitude. I know we're lucky in that we're able to do that.”

Being based at his family’s farm means his training facilities are a little different than the ones in the city.

“I guess they do that in other different areas,” said Judy. “I heard up in Minnesota there are a lot of gravel road trainers. I don't think there are too many left in Illinois.”

His farm has a four-tenths-mile jog track, and then a long gravel road on which he can train for speed.

“There's a mile to the crossroad, then there's a mile and a half stretch beyond that. So, there's room to go a fast mile and slow down before you get to the crossroad to check for traffic. Basically, she's done all her training on the gravel road, on the straight mile.”

In addition to its advantages, however, training at the farm has a few drawbacks -- especially with younger horses, as their first schooling race tends to be a bit newer of an experience for them than it is for others who are trained at the track or at a training center.

“They see the equipment on the track, and other horses in harness. Often times our young horses don't see another horse in harness other than me jogging one of their stablemates. As far as being on the track together, we've gone to Chicago before and they've never seen another horse side-by-side, which is a definite disadvantage. That's their first introduction to drag tractors and spray trucks and 20 other horses going different directions.”

With all those new stimuli during that first visit to the track, that’s when the Standardbred’s temperament shines.

“You've probably noticed how solid Standardbreds are as far as common sense,” said Judy. “My wife was a skeptic. I used to break quarter horses for people, and she was just amazed at how sane and level-headed Standardbreds as a breed are. She said, ‘I wouldn't believe it. You told me how good they were. I've seen it. It's true.’”

Still, in the balance, the long nights are worth it not only for the horses, but also for the people involved with the horses. Harness racing has kept Brian Judy close to his father.

“I've gotten to spend more time with my father in the last 20 years than I did in the first 40.”

The time with the horses has also been a welcome constant during a difficult year.

“He's a trooper, though. He won't miss a trip. He lives for the next race -- he just loves it. It's kind of bittersweet. We lost my mother in March. She and Dad had been married for 70 years last June. Dad's main focus is the horses now; he's always looking ahead. I live a couple miles away. When I get there, it doesn't matter how early I get there, he's always got the horses fed, and waiting on me.”

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