Through thick and thin, Simmons a success

Hinsdale, IL — Fifty-three years is a long time in any type of business and veteran horseman Tom Simmons would know. He has successfully steered his way during six decades of Illinois’ Standardbred industry that has seen the state’s harness racing pari-mutuel venues shrink from 10 to just one.

Through all the Prairie state racing industry’s ups and downs, the now 72-year-old Simmons has been one of the most successful horsemen in its history.

Simmons is the only Illinois horseman with over 3,000 winners (3,322) as a driver and over 2,000 ($2,096) as a trainer, no small feat, especially in a state that has seen its pari-mutuel racing of Standardbreds diminish to a single cold weather meeting at Hawthorne.

Since he first began driving professionally in 1971, wherever Simmons ventured success followed, and nowhere more than Quad City Downs in East Moline, Ill.

Simmons shared the 1985 driving crown at the East Moline facility with Joel Smith, each had 119 winners. Tom then rattled off three more driving titles all alone in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Also in 1987, he was the runner-up in the trainer standings to Richard Kurtsworth.

Simmons came up a winner off the Quad City racetrack as well. He would spend some of his spare time at the track’s popcorn stand where his number one fan, and eventual wife, Benita was employed.

In 1988, Simmons captured the money-winning title and was second in dash winners at Fairmount Park in southern Illinois. In 1989 Tom finished third in money won and in winning drives at the Collinsville, Ill., facility.

A native of Odessa, Missouri, Simmons had an unforgettable moment at old Sportsman’s Park on Super Night 1992 when he guided the barn’s 2-year-old colt pacer Brass Door to a victory in the $360,000 Orange and Blue Colt Stake.

In 1997, the Super Night races were moved to Balmoral Park, and Simmons continued to shine in the Orange and Blue colt division, driving his stable’s Honest Lawyer to a 1:53.2 triumph on Super Night 2002.

Five years later Simmons sent out his barn’s Froggy Turner (Dave Magee) and Jolly Lester (Dale Hiteman) in the same rich Balmoral ICF freshman stake race and the Simmons trained entry came from far out of it to finish one-two.

One of Tom Simmons’ top horses was Constant Change, winner of both the 2003 and 2004 Maywood Park Pacing Series championships. Maywood Park photo.

Probably Simmons’ most consistently successful pacer at Maywood Park was Constant Change, regularly driven by Hiteman. The son of Cole Muffler won back-to-back Maywood Park Pacing Series championships in 2003 and 2004 for ICF horses four and up, taking on the likes of Taser Gun, Fox Valley Devious, and Move Itt.

What sticks out for Simmons concerning Hawthorne harness racing goes back to the 1980s when the Stickney, Ill., track raced Standardbreds every year from the first week of January through the first couple of weeks in February, six days a week.

“I still find it hard to believe just how good the purses were at those old Hawthorne meetings,” said Simmons. “I worked for (trainer) Connel Willis back then. We raced doubleheaders a few times a week and had some big handles, especially on Saturdays.”

On Feb. 16, 1980, a Saturday afternoon, Hawthorne became the first Illinois racing facility to handle, on track, more than $2 million on a single Standardbred program. A total of $2,099,418 went through its pari-mutuel system on what your author remembers was a 10-race card, and the program handle that same night was in the neighborhood of $1.5 million as well.

The first Illinois OTB opened in 1987 in Peoria, so it was still a time when you had to be on-track to place a bet, ensuring the horseman’s program “cut” to about half of the track’s “take.” And that time no one in the industry ever heard of the word “recapture.” As far as Illinois harness racing, those were indeed its “glory days.”

There’s good news concerning Simmons’ familiar maroon and white colors. They won’t be put away anytime soon.

“I think we’ve still got a few good years left,” added the longtime Illinois horseman.

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