Yonkers, NY — Dennis Watson isn’t getting much sleep these days. His George Morton Levy Memorial Pacing Series contender Lyons Steel is 12th in the standings before the last preliminary leg on Saturday night (April 13). A victory in the last leg would likely earn him a spot in the estimated $660,000 final April 20. It would be the biggest race of Watson’s training career.
“That would be the greatest thing for me, I mean the greatest thing,” Watson said. “I’m used to racing cheap horses and I’ve never had the opportunity to train a good stakes horse of my own in my own stable. My head doesn’t get big, the same helmet fits me and I remain humble. A lot of people, my family, everybody watches when he races. It’s a big opportunity.”
A regular trainer/driver at Freehold for years, Watson’s career in harness racing began as a teenager working for Sonny Dancer. Amid a difficult upbringing, Watson discovered his passion for working with horses.
“I was born in a women’s prison and went to a foster home around where Dancer used to train,” he said. “I lived down the street from him and I took an interest in training horses and that’s how I got started with Dancer when I was 15 years old. He used to pick us up at the foster home and take us to the track and we used to watch them train and that’s how I got started working with racehorses with him. He was a first-class trainer. I enjoyed it, being top trainer at Liberty Bell and these tracks.”
Watson eventually went out on his own, but finding horses he could afford proved challenging. Watson improvised and made a career out of rehabilitating Standardbreds sold by the Amish.
“I mainly used to deal with Amish horses,” he said. “I used to wait at the Amish truck and I’d look at their papers and take them off the truck. Whatever amount of money I had to buy, I took them off the Amish truck and patched them up and got them back to the races. That’s all I had. Nobody would give you a horse to train, but I would patch those horses up and get them to the races and one time I made the second-leading driver at Freehold racing those horses.”
Now semi-retired, Watson’s stable consists of a small group of claimers and young horses. The standout among them is Lyons Steel, a 4-year-old Rock N Roll Heaven gelding who Watson and owner Bryan Dzugan purchased at the 2018 Meadowlands January Mixed Sale for $17,000.
Watson and Dzugan connected while campaigning the hard-knocking claimer Whataorse at Freehold and the Meadowlands between 2013 and last summer. Watson worked with Whataorse early in the gelding’s career, but lost him to a claim in 2011. After racing in Pennsylvania for some time, Whataorse returned to Freehold and Watson worked with Dzugan to get the gelding back. The partnership paid off and Watson and Dzugan went to the sale together last winter.
“We went over a bunch of young horses at the Meadowlands sale and we picked Lyons Steel out,” Watson said. “We went for it and he got him. It was a great deal.”
Lyons Steel proved to be a project. After going just 1-for-9 as a 2-year-old and failing to make an impression in the New York Sire Stakes Excelsior A division, Lyons Steel began his sophomore season with an 0-for-10 streak racing in overnights at Freehold and the Meadowlands.
“When we got him, he wasn’t performing too well, but I just kept working with him until I got him straightened out,” Watson said. “We had to teach him. He used to make breaks and stuff, but when he did get it together, he would show a lot of speed, so I said this is a horse worth dealing with.”
Lyons Steel finally broke through with a 1:58 win in a $2,800 overnight at Freehold April 27, 2018. He doubled up in his next start a week later, scoring in a 1:55.2 victory for $3,300. Lyons Steel continued to improve, surprising his connections with a runner up finish in NYSS individually timed in 1:50 at Vernon Downs May 28.
“I really didn’t know how fast he was,” Watson said. “Every place I asked him to go, he would do whatever I asked him to do. He didn’t start off too good, but he still showed potential. He couldn’t get around the half mile track when I first got him. He was a case. I like dealing with tough cases like that.”
Lyons Steel went 5-for-32 in 2018, earning $107,578. His impressive development led to Watson and Dzugan nominating him to the Levy Series this spring.
“We just said let’s take a shot and go in there,” Watson said. “We were going to race him a couple starts and see if he was competitive and if he was, we were going to let him stay in there. We took a chance.”
Lyons Steel ran into trouble in the first leg of the series when the field scattered behind breaking rival Windsong Leo. In week two, Lyons Steel finished fifth beaten 5-3/4 lengths, but Watson saw enough from his :27.3 final quarter to continue in the series. Week three proved to be the breakthrough as Lyons Steel kicked away from his rivals to win by 4-1/2 lengths in 1:50.4., the fastest mile of the season at Yonkers.
“I kind of put that first race aside and said, ‘let’s see what happens in the next one,'” Watson said. “And the next race, they went a pretty good last half and he was still competitive, so I said, let’s put him in another one and take another shot, and that’s when he showed real great speed.
“He fooled me a little bit, he fooled me. When he came out of that hole like a slingshot, he likes to do that, so I thought if he keeps going, he would fare well. He did keep going and he didn’t have to get urged. He was in hand, so that means he still has more in him. He didn’t hit him or anything, didn’t have to touch him.”
Last week, Lyons Steel left from post six, but was caught in a speed duel with The Downtown Bus. Parked the mile, Lyons Steel tired to finish seventh, leaving the 4-year-old with 163 points heading into Saturday’s last preliminary leg.
Lyons Steel is a 7-1 morning line from post four in Saturday’s seventh race while rival The Downtown Bus drew post one as the 5-2 early favorite. Gokudo Hanover is 3-1 from post six while Imarocnrollegend will start at 6-1 from post two. A win by any of the four aforementioned horses would likely earn them a spot in the final. Major Crocker, Always At My Place, Rodeo Romeo, and Bettors Fire complete the field.
“I’m a little nervous about the race coming up because the one he got into the duel with has got the rail and we have the four hole,” Watson said. “I never tell a driver how to drive, so the decision is his. I just hope we fare well. I probably won’t sleep (Friday) night; I don’t think so.
“Oh, it would mean a lot to make the final. Yes, it would.”
Saturday night’s card features four divisions of the Levy Series fifth leg and the regular Open Handicap Trot. The Blue Chip Matchmaker and Levy Series finals will be held Saturday, April 20.
Live harness racing is featured at Yonkers Raceway every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. First post time is 6:50 p.m. For the full card please click here.