story by Neil Milbert
At a time when Illinois racing has lost most of its luster due to the 2016 closing of Balmoral Park and Maywood Park and the corresponding discontinuation of the American-National races that attracted many of North America’s top horses, a bright new star named Fox Valley Gemini has appeared on the horizon.
As a 2-year-old, Fox Valley Gemini, a gelded son of Yankee Skyscaper – Epona, was named the 2017 Illinois Horse of the Year after winning all nine of his races against fellow Illinois-breds for trainer Terry Leonard and earning $157,570 for 79-year-old owner Jim Ballinger of Atwater, Ill.
Neither Fox Valley Gemini’s yearling sale price nor his early training at Rush Creek Farm suggested he would turn out to be this kind of pacer.
He was bred by Dr. Kenneth (Doc) Walker at Fox Valley Standardbreds, and the circumstances of the acquisition were a bit unconventional.
“Epona was an invitational pacer I bought, a front-runner who raced at Running Aces,” Ballinger said. “When I retired her, things were looking bad in Illinois, so I gave her to Doc Walker for a breeding fee.”
Walker bred her to Sportsmaster and the mating produced a colt named Fancy Creek Link. Ballinger paid $8,800 to acquire him as a yearling.
“He raced in Minnesota for my (trainer) son, Brett,” Ballinger said. “He wasn’t so great as a 2-year-old, but he came on as a 3-year-old and was a pretty good horse with a mark of around 1:53. Then, this spring, when he was training at the Carrollton Fairgrounds, he had a heart attack and died.”
Even though Fancy Creek Link hadn’t shown much as a 2-year-old, Ballinger decided to buy Fox Valley Gemini at the 2016 Fox Valley Standardbred Sale for $2,700.
“We were having some trouble with him,” Ballinger said. “Now, I wish we hadn’t (gelded him). I’ve been in the horse business for over 60 years and this definitely is the best one I’ve ever had.”
Brett broke Fox Valley Gemini, and trained him at the Carrollton Fairgrounds during the spring. When he left for Running Aces, he dropped the gelding off at Rush Creek Farm to finish preparations for the start of his racing career.
Leonard didn’t have a clue as to what the future had in store.
“When we first started training him, he didn’t seem to be interested in beating anybody at all,” the 67-year-old trainer said. “We finally started training him from behind with some other colts and he’d go by one, then two and then three. Evidently, he thought that was OK. Now he is up near the top of all the horses I’ve trained in 40 some years.”
This year, the gelding extended his unbeaten streak to 16 races before illness caught up with him while he was racing at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. He finished second in an Aug. 11 Illinois State Fair Colt Stakes elimination, trailing the victorious You’remyhearthrob, and was fourth behind the same horse in the final on Aug. 15.
“I got a pretty good trip in the elimination, (but) he just didn’t have it,” said Leonard’s son, Casey, who has driven Fox Valley Gemini in all of his races. “He might have been sick then. He was definitely sick in the final.”
Ballinger said the veterinarian’s examination revealed Fox Valley Gemini had sores on his throat, indicating that he was fighting a bacterial infection when he competed.
“I don’t know if he could have beaten Kyle Wilfong’s horse (You’remyhearthrob) if he was 100 percent,” Casey said. “Kyle’s horse raced exceptionally well down there.”
However, in his two prior starts at Hawthorne Race Course, Fox Valley Gemini was the better of the two. In a July 12 Illinois-conceived-and-foaled race, he established a lifetime mark of 1:51 in defeating You’remyhearthrob by a half-length and on July 27, in the third leg of the Robert F. Carey Memorial Series, he forced his rival to settle for third when he moved four-wide in the stretch to win in 1:52.
“He performed exceptionally well,” Casey said. “Those were two of his best races. I thought he was on the right track.”
After being sidetracked in Springfield, Leonard abandoned his plans to send Fox Valley Gemini to the Du Quoin State Fair, and instead returned the gelding to the farm to recuperate. Light jogging was the extent of his training for most of August.
By Labor Day weekend, Fox Valley Gemini had resumed regular training in preparation for Hawthorne’s Illinois Night of Champions and the Carey Memorial final on Sept. 22.
After the disappointment on the fair circuit, the gelding rebounded with triumphs in the final leg of the Carey Memorial Series on Sept. 14 and the $160,080 final.
This year, Fox Valley Gemini has continued to demonstrate he is equally adept at pacing up-front or coming from behind.
“He’s by far the best young horse I’ve driven,” said Casey, who won the driving championship at the recently concluded Hawthorne meeting. “He’s very athletic-looking and very well-proportioned. He’s very fleet of foot; he’s very versatile; he’s got a lot of grit and determination. He has raced out of the nine-hole two times and both times he had to work hard to get in position and then had to move early to stay there.”
Fox Valley Gemini is one of only two horses owned by Ballinger. The other is his 2-year-old half-sister, Fox Valley Zelda.
“She’s by Sportsmaster and I paid $22,000 to get her at the (2017 Illinois Classic) yearling sale at Springfield,” he said. “What Fox Valley Gemini was doing drove the price up.
“Brett had her in Minnesota this year. She didn’t do much.”
Ballinger’s involvement in the sport dates back to his boyhood.
“My dad got in the horse business in the early ’50s,” he said. “I won my first race as a driver when I was 16. I started out at Washington Park and I got licensed at Maywood. I drove at Washington, Maywood, Fairmount Park and Quad City Downs.
“Because I was getting too old, I thought maybe I’d have to get out of the business, but my son, Brett, has taken over. He trains at the Carrollton Fairgrounds during the winter and goes to Minnesota with six or seven horses every summer and I’ve had a (working) relationship with Terry for quite a while—20 years or so.”
According to Leonard, Ballinger is an exemplary client.
“The great thing about training for Jim is that he puts no pressure on us,” he said. “Jim was hoping we could go to Du Quoin, but because of Gemini’s situation after Springfield, we couldn’t do that and he was totally fine with that.”
Ballinger laments not having his wife, Phyllis, who died in 2007; his mother, Lucille, who died in 2008; and his father, George, who died in 1973, here to enjoy the ride he is having with his once-in-a-lifetime horse. And, because Fox Valley Gemini is a gelding, many more years of stardom would seem to be in the offing.
Ballinger and Leonard have not determined where Fox Valley Gemini will race when he enters the older horse ranks in 2019. One option is sending him to Running Aces with Brett; the other is keeping him in Illinois with Leonard and allowing him to choose where and when the horse will compete. HB
Neil Milbert is a freelance writer living in Illinois. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.