While most follow in the footsteps of family members to become a horseman, there are some that take a more unfamiliar route to get a driver or trainer’s license — going from the grandstand to the backstretch. That’s the case with Illinois horseman Jim Molitor.
The 45-year-old Molitor grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, not far from the city’s “other” Airport, known as Midway. Those familiar with the area know from Midway it’s a short three-mile commute down busy Cicero Avenue to where Hawthorne Race Course has proudly stood for many decades and where harness racing reigned supreme for more than 50 years at neighbouring Sportsman’s Park, once upon a time hailed as one of the nation’s jewels of Standardbred racing.
Molitor and his St. Lawrence Catholic High School buddy “T J” spent many nights, and plenty of days, at the two historic Chicago circuit racetracks, and for several years after their graduations.
“Sportsman’s Park was great,” said Molitor. “You saw the best horses and drivers go at it year after year. And Hawthorne raced in the winter with doubleheaders and had some of country’s best horses and horsemen, too. It was so cool.
“You got to watch an entire card. Then go home and get something to eat and come back for 10 more races on the night card. It didn’t take long to get me hooked on the sport.”
Sportsman’s Park closed in 1997 and now neighbour Hawthorne stands alone as Illinois’ lone Standardbred pari-mutuel track. Nevertheless, the loss of Sportsman’s never dampened Molitor’s enthusiasm for the harness racing industry.
“I would talk to some of the great Illinois drivers like Dave Magee and Lavern Hostetler about becoming a driver and trainer and get their suggestions on what to do to follow my dream. I remember Magee telling me ‘If a bucket needs to be picked up and moved, do it. Be the guy that’s always there to help out.”’
Molitor no doubt carried many a bucket and mucked countless stalls before getting his driver’s license in 2006 and his trainer’s license a season later.
“Warming up horses helped me quite a lot,” continued Molitor. “Driving in my first qualifying race was awesome. Guys like Tim Tetrick, Dave Magee and Tony Morgan were in it.”
As expected, success didn’t come quickly for Molitor. There were some lean years before he stepped into the Illinois limelight in 2021 when he visited the Hawthorne winner’s circle not once, but twice, on the track’s showcase Night of Champions.
His stable’s sophomore Ryans Loan Shark captured the $79,000 Robert F. Carey Memorial three-year-old male pacing final and a half-dozen races later Apple Valley came away with the $117,000 Incredible Tillie juvenile filly pacing championship.
The Michael J. Perrin homebred Apple Valley went on to be named the 2021 Illinois freshman filly pacer of the year and last month was honored as the state’s three-year-old distaff champion after finishing first or second in 12 of 13 starts and banking $97,235 for her Glenwood, Ill. owner and breeder.
In Apple Valley’s first two seasons of racing the daughter of Major Bombay-Ali Cat posted an eye-catching record of 11 wins and six seconds in 20 trips to the starting gate, a mark of 1:51.4, and $177,983 in purse earnings.
Molitor has been gearing up Apple Valley for the mare’s four-year-old season.
“She’s coming along well. We sent her last weekend to trainer Robert Taylor who has a real nice facility in Indiana. She’ll get ready on a good track there. She’ll probably qualify in a couple of weeks at Hoosier and then race in Indiana until Springfield opens in June.
“Robert is a good horseman and a friend of mine. He had her the early part of last year. Apple Valley is four now, so this season she’ll have to go against some good older Illinois-bred mares like Fox Valley Exploit, however I expect Apple Valley to be very competitive in her division.”