HARRINGTON — Watching Wakizashi Hanover come over the wire first during the North American Cup was one of the best moments in JoAnn Looney King’s life in the horse racing world.
“There are no words to describe that,” Mrs. Looney King said last week. “That’s something that’s going to replay in my mind over and over again.
“It’s just a dream come true after all these years to win a race like that.”
The $1 Million Pepsi North America Cup, held June 20 at Mowhawk Racetrack in Campbellville, Ontario Canada, is harness racing’s biggest annual event, but this win was decades in the making.
Mrs. Looney King, who along with her husband Jim King Jr. trained the winning horse, has been a prominent figure in the sport for decades.
“Both JoAnn and her husband Jim have been hard-working members of the horsemen community for decades and
are talented horsemen,” said Matt Sparacino, assistant general manager and director of public relations for Harrington Raceway and Casino.
“To have horses stabled in Harrington finish first and second (Wiggle It Jiggleit) in one of the sport’s biggest races speaks volumes about how Delaware stacks up nationally in terms of the quality of our horses and skill of our trainers.”
When it comes to those trainers, the Looney name is synonymous with horse racing in Harrington.
In 1956, Mrs. Looney King’s parents, Helen M. and Elmer Looney, took all their money out of the bank, $350, went to a sale in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and bought a horse named Reggie Scott.
Little did they know he would become a free-legged pacer and that the $350 purchase put them on track in what has become a noteworthy family business that has spanned generations.
The Looneys raced everywhere in the Northeast, from Vermont’s Green Mountain to The Meadowlands in New Jersey to Dover Downs. Their daughter seemed destined to follow their lead.
“I just loved being at the barn and with the horses,” Mrs. Looney King. “As they say, it gets in your blood and it was just always there. No matter what I did I always came back to this.”
Mrs. Looney King started out as a driver in the 1970s.
“You were an oddity if you were a woman out on that race track,” Mrs. Looney King said. “Back in the ’60s women weren’t allowed to drive. Eventually they had to let women drive and that’s what really made me want to continue with it.”
Daughter Heather Vitale, producer and host of the local television show “Post Time,” recalled people yelling “go back to the kitchen” at her mother in a blog on harnessracingupdate.com Thursday.Horse trainer and former driver JoAnn Looney King of Harrington stands next to her father’s harness racing gear while holding husband Jim’s driving helmet.[/caption]
“Once there was a time when a judge scratched my mother from the program at the last minute because a woman driving at his track was ‘a frivolous whim.’ I couldn’t help but wonder was all this heartbreak worth it?” Ms. Vitale wrote.
And then there were the injuries — a broken pelvis, a shattered elbow.
Her mom never broke stride, though.
“There were places that didn’t let me drive because I was a woman and there wasn’t too much I could do about it,” Mrs. Looney King said. “I didn’t like it.”
But she didn’t give up.
“I didn’t get discouraged because I was just going to do it,” she said. “They weren’t going to stop me. I knew they had to let me do it at some point.”
Time has brought perspective to Ms. Vitale, who praises how her mother juggled pursuing the career she loved and raising daughters who sometimes wanted the cookie-baking mother portrayed in idyllic television sitcoms.
“She was throwing on a cape every morning juggling the love for her two daughters and the love for her career,” Ms. Vitale wrote in the blog. “Back then I didn’t understand how hard she was trying to make it all balance, but these days I do.”
A 24/7 job
Mrs. Looney King was a driver for about 10 years before she transitioned into training horses.
“It had a lot do with my health,” she said. “I had some health issues, so I just kind of backed out of it. Also my daughter (Susan) started driving, so I kind of let her take that over.”
She said being a trainer is completely different from being a driver.
“You’re a trainer 24/7,” Mrs. Looney King said. “You’re always thinking about what you can do to help and improve a horse.
“When you’re a driver you’re out there for split seconds making split-second decisions. As a trainer you get to think about it a little bit more.”
Victor Kirby, who is a trainer and driver for the couple during local races, said it’s an extra incentive having a trainer who was a former driver.
“The two positions are different,” he said. “It’s hard to understand what’s going out on the track if you’ve never been a driver before.
“They both understand what’s going on and that’s a positive aspect for me because they’ve both been there before.”
Mrs. Looney King said when it comes to training horses it’s a trial-and-error process.
“If one thing doesn’t work then you try something else,” Mrs. Looney King said. “Horses are like people: Some of them are faster, some of them are nervous.
“Through the training process you get to know everything about them.”
One technique she learned from her parents was finding something good in a horse no matter what.
“They worked so hard all of the time,” Mrs. Looney King said. “They always liked their horses no matter how slow or fast they were.
“They always found something good in a horse so I try to remember that.”
She had the same belief with Wakizashi Hanover, who was a 5-1 second pick for the North American Cup race.
“He’s been racing very well lately,” Mrs. Looney King said. “We knew how good he was but knew he had to be at the right place at the right time and that would be how we would win. He was up against great horses.
“It’s by far one of the biggest accomplishments in the businesses. We’re the little guys,” she said.
“There are big guys in this business. We’re not one of them and for a little guy to win that race is just a dream come true. Little guys don’t win big races like that. It’s very seldom.”
Just because she won a $1 million race, don’t expect Mrs. Looney King to slow down anytime soon.
“It’s been a really tough road, but I have a great husband,” she said. “He supports me in everything and together we’ve been a great team because I don’t think even one of us would be where we are if it wasn’t for the other.
“This was my calling. I’ll do this until I’ll drop dead.”