Buckeye horseman makes great strides in his budding career
story by Jay Wolf
Competing against the likes of Aaron Merriman, Ronnie Wrenn Jr., and Kurt Sugg every night makes it tough to grab headlines, but thanks to hard work and a gift horse Luke Ebersole is making great strides at MGM Northfield Park.
Ebersole, who turned 30 in early May, is a native of Chesterville, a 250-resident village in north-central Ohio, and is a fourth-generation horseman.
“The family got into the sport when my great-grandfather, Leland, built a pony track on the family farm,” said Ebersole. “My dad took it from the ponies to racehorses. That’s what sparked it all.”
His mother and father, Linda and Jeff, still breed and train a small stable at the Knox County Fairgrounds in Mt. Vernon.
“I started with my dad,” Ebersole said. “He taught me so much.”
Ebersole received his fair license at 16 and won his first race at the Mt. Gilead County Fair in 2007 with Eagle Sam, an older pacer who was trained by his father.
The young Ebersole then took jobs outside of the industry—working in a food warehouse at the Kroger Distribution Center and pouring concrete.
“It was pretty chilly in the freezer,” Ebersole said. “I still have the bib overalls they gave me. I jog horses in them when it gets really cold up here.
“We poured concrete in the underground coal mines, dairy farms and other commercial projects.”
While he was between concrete jobs, Ebersole returned home and started back with his father’s stable. He was hooked once again.
After stints with some of the state’s top conditioners—Ammon Hershberger, Clair Umholtz, Eric Hamlet and Kelly O’Donnell—Ebersole opened his own stable in 2017 at Sahbra Farms, where he currently trains 10 head.
Among those horses is a 4-year-old pacer that has special meaning for the Ebersole family.
Linda went to the 2013 Fall Blooded Horse Sale looking for a broodmare prospect and came home with Esquisse Hanover, an Art Major mare out of Edra Hanover. Esquisse Hanover is a half-sister to Eddard Hanover ($613,797) and world champion Elver Hanover ($363,450).
Esquisse Hanover’s second foal for the Ebersoles was by Palone Ranger, who was standing at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI) in Wooster.
Linda named the foal after a family pastime: high school cross country. Cross Country then became a Christmas gift to Luke and his brother Logan.
The Ebersole brothers invited a friend, Cody Sipe, to join the ownership group.
“[Cody and I] met through hunting,” Ebersole said. “We used to hunt a lot together. We even worked together for a couple of years pouring concrete.”
Sipe’s grandfather, Donald, was part of a heartwarming story in 1995 when John Campbell came to the Morrow County Fairgrounds to fulfill the elder Sipe’s lifelong dream to have a horse good enough for the Hall of Famer to drive. Donald died on Sept. 21 of that year, the morning of Campbell’s third and last Little Brown Jug victory with Nick’s Fantasy.
Ebersole put Cross Country though his early paces and saw the potential.
“While training him down, he always acted like he had a little fire to him,” he said. “I would just get crooked when he started going fast, especially going into the first turn.”
Using some advice from Ohio Hall of Famer Don McKirgan and Hamlet, Ebersole added a Murphy blind, a roller burr head pole and a gaiting strap. He took the 2-year-old gelding to the Trumbull County Fair in Cortland for a test run with all the rigging changes and not only did they make it through the first turn well, they also established a new track record of 1:58.3.
Cross Country finished his freshman campaign with three wins in seven starts and $16,996 on his card.
With a promising sophomore in the barn, optimism for a great 2019 was high, but it all came crashing down on Dec. 12, 2018, when Ebersole was injured in a three-horse accident at Northfield Park.
While sitting third on the rail, Ebersole hooked wheels and then was spun around and thrown to the track. The trailing pacer, Wit And Wisdom, fell on top of him, breaking Ebersole’s cheekbone and fracturing his jaw.
“I saw him start to fall and his chest coming at me,” Ebersole said. “The next thing I remember was waking up in the infield. Those were actually the first broken bones I had ever had.”
Thanks to the assistance of family and friends, Ebersole was back in the bike less than three months later.
“[The accident] was a reality check,” Ebersole said. “I am thankful every day and I was lucky it wasn’t worse than what it was. I am also thankful that I surrounded myself with good peers and I was taken care of.”
With his health back on track, it was time for Ebersole to turn his attention to Cross Country’s sophomore season. The pair kicked it off with a 1:53.2 win at Northfield Park in a non-winners series leg.
Cross Country then headed into the Ohio Sire Stakes (OSS) season with a solid second-place finish in the first leg on May 5 at Miami Valley Raceway in 1:50.3.
For the second OSS leg on June 29, it was back to the familiar confines of Northfield Park. Ebersole and Cross Country sat patiently in the pocket and sprinted past the pacesetting Ohio Vintage in the short stretch to score a victory in a lifetime best 1:50.4.
A slow start and a first-over trip resulted in a disappointing seventh-place finish in the third leg on July 27 at Eldorado Scioto Downs.
Heading into the final leg on Aug. 23 at the same facility, Ebersole and Cross Country needed a solid performance to secure a spot in the $300,000 final.
Ebersole wasn’t going to let another slow start doom his chances. Cross Country was fired off the wings of the gate to grab the early lead. The pair relinquished the top spot before the half-mile station and were shuffled back through the field. In the final turn, they found some daylight and came home a fast-closing third, solidifying their spot in the Labor Day weekend event.
“I was just honored to be in the final,” said Ebersole. “I was grateful for the opportunity.”
Looking for a way to support their sons and friend, 20-plus members of “Team Cross Country” invaded the suburban Cleveland oval despite the cool and wet weather conditions.
“They took a limo up to Northfield that night,” Ebersole said. “It was great to have all of them there.”
Leaving from post position six, Cross Country again left quickly and found the two-hole before the quarter and, like the final leg, needed some late room and rallied for a respectable third-place finish.
Cross Country and Ebersole then turned their attention to the Delaware County Fair. It was suspected that Cross Country would be one of the favorites in a division of the $108,900 Ohio Breeders Championships (OBC). Instead, the gelding was entered in the $3,800 division of the Ohio Fair Racing Conference on Jugette Day.
“Palone Ranger wasn’t paid into the OBC, so it was meant to be that I had to race in the fair race,” Ebersole said.
Sent off as the overwhelming 1-9 choice, the punters assumed it would be a romp for Ebersole.
“It was an easy race once we got underway,” Ebersole said. “I didn’t want anything to go wrong. Once the wings folded, things were good.”
His definition of good was an open-length romp in 1:51.4, the same time as the pair of richer OBC events on Jug Day.
“I was more nervous for that start than going for $300,000 the week before,” Ebersole said. “It’s Delaware. It was always a dream to win at Delaware, and with one of my own it was special.”
With the Delaware victory under his belt, Ebersole shut Cross Country down for the season.
“The little guy doesn’t know he is little,” Ebersole said. “To have a horse as good as him, it’s been fun and very gratifying.”
Ebersole enjoyed arguably the greatest night of his young career on Jan. 19 of this year, when he visited the Northfield Park winner’s circle three times, never finishing worse than fourth in his nine drives. Two of his wins came with his own trainees.
“That night was so special,” he said. “To train two of the winners and own one of them—that made it a great night.”
Ebersole then quickly gave the credit to his fellow horsemen at Sahbra Farms.
“I love the group at Sahbra Farms,” he said. “We work well together, and they are like family. They understand where I am in my career and I am very comfortable asking for advice or help. I am thankful for their assistance.”
With continued hard work and the support of family and friends, the sky is the limit for Luke Ebersole.
Jay Wolf is the publicity director for the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.