Miller: Elkhorn's Wiswell hopes for Hambletonian success
Elkhorn is one of the few harness racing hotbeds in Wisconsin.
On Saturday, 71-year-old Bill Wiswell of Elkhorn will live a harness horse owner’s dream.
Wiswell and his partners have two horses that have a good chance to race in Saturday afternoon’s $1 million Hambletonian final, the “Kentucky Derby” for 3-year-old trotters at The Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Only 19 trotters will compete in the two $100,000 ($50,000 first-place prize money) elimination races early Saturday afternoon, with the top five finishers in each race going for the $500,000 first-place prize in the Hambletonian final at approximately 4:20 p.m.
Wiswell’s ownership group has Dover Dan trotting in the first elimination and Bill’s Man in the second. Dover Dan is 8-1 in the morning betting line, and Bill’s Man is 5-1—which indicate both trotters have a shot.
Bill’s Man, named after Wiswell, appears to be the group’s best hope. Bill’s Man has earned $186,427 in 21 career starts, including $115,986 in nine starts this year.
“Bill’s Man was the second- or third-fastest (2-year-old trotter) last year,” Wiswell said. “He’s coming on strong.”
In addition, Wiswell’s filly trotter, Fine Tuned Lady, will compete in the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks and is 10-1 in the morning line.
Fine Tuned Lady earned Wiswell and his Delaware partners $438,349 last year in 12 starts and has $79,689 on her card in eight starts this year.
The filly Ariana G, whose owners considered racing against the boys in the Hambletonian, is the huge favorite in the Oaks.
Having three entrants (with $886,279 in combined career earnings) among the 29 going for the two biggest trotting races is noteworthy—especially for someone that grew up in Elkhorn. Wiswell has owned many high-priced horses in his long career in the sport.
“Probably 35 years or something like that,” he said of his association just hours before he flew out to the East Coast on Thursday morning.
And how many horses has he been part of in those 35 years?
“Too many,” he said.
Wiswell is a speculator of harness horses. He and several long-time partners from Illinois and Delaware deal with yearlings.
He met his trainer, John Butenscheon, who was from Marengo, Illinois, when harness racing was in its prime in Chicago.
Now, like many other things in Illinois due to its governing, the sport has withered into nothing.
Butenschoen has moved his training base to Pennsylvania, where he is within a two-hour drive to casino-driven tracks in Pennsylvania and New York, along with the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Wiswell and his partners own 15 horses—all 3-years-old or younger. After their 3-year-old campaigns, Wiswell and his partners put the horses up for sale.
Why deal with all the uncertainty, and in some cases, pay six figures for a yearling that might never get to the track?
“That is where the money is, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Dealing with yearlings is somewhat like buying penny stocks. Much of the sales are based on the colt’s or filly’s parents—the dam and sire. But just like humans, there are no guarantees.
Unless your dad is LaVar Ball, of course.
Walner was considered the Hambletonian favorite since his 2-year-old campaign. Then this week, he suffered an injury, forcing his connections to withdraw him from Saturday’s eliminations.
Say goodbye to a likely $600,000 payday.
“The name of the game in this business is luck,” Wiswell said. “You keep your fingers crossed.”
But the bad luck suffered by Walner’s connections can only benefit Wiswell and his partners.
The trip to the Meadowlands on the first Saturday of August for the Hambletonian is an annual date for Wiswell since the event was moved from DuQuion, Illinois, to the New Jersey track in 1981.
This year, the trip is special. For the first time in all his years in the business, Wiswell will have an entrant—two, in fact. Plus Fine Tuned Lady in the Hambletonian Oaks.
That’s not bad for someone who once got out of the harness business because of a lack of success. But because he loved the horses, he still went to the top yearling sale in Lexington, Kentucky, every year. At one sale, the itch proved to be too much.
“I told my wife, ‘I want to get back in,” he said. “I want to go see John (Butenschoen) and see what’s going on.”
Butenschoen had owners from Delaware, which combined with Wiswell’s Illinois partners, formed the present ownership group.
And that group will have their day Saturday.
So, what horse will he have his money on?
“I don’t bet on my own horses,” he said. “The last time I bet on one my horses, he finished sixth for $200,000 (purse money). That was 35 years ago.”
Only the top five finishers share in the purse money.
When you are talking about the quality horses Wiswell’s group are involved in, the purse money is enough to keep their interest.
And Saturday afternoon, Wiswell and his friends will have a lot on the line—the finish line.