For five decades, trainer Mike Schulfer has plied his wares as a Standardbred trainer quietly, always flying under the radar of the spotlight and media.
Yet the 65-year-old Lowell, Indiana native has amassed $2,697,923 during those years as a conditioner and $2,419,916 as a driver.
Those statistics aren’t bad for a former psychologist who worked at the Elgin State Hospital before deciding to become a harness horse trainer in 1973.
“I received my degree in psychology from Loyola University and afterwards, at the hospital, worked at helping to move troubled folks into half-way houses,” Mike explained. “It really just didn’t suit me and I had always liked the horses, so I quit the job at the hospital and invested in some racehorses.”
Mike had attended the races as a child with his father, who was a doctor and owned several harness horses. He had also raced harness ponies as a youngster.
“That’s how I was bitten by the harness bug initially,” he laughed. “Plus, I thought I could make a lot more money with the horses!
Today Mike and his wife Norma—a retired school teacher—train a stable of nine horses stabled at Balmoral. The youngest of their three children, son Hans, 29, also helps with the barn chores.
“Harness racing is a business of firsts,” Mike stressed. “You always remember your first win as a driver, your first win as a trainer—all those moments are special. Ever since I’ve been in this business, I’ve always wanted to win a Super Night Championship race. I’ve won a couple of Super Night consolations, but to win a final would be very special.”
Now it appears that Mike may get another first, as last Sunday he harnessed Fox Valley Absolut to win a $15,000 Lorna Propes elim in 1:52.4 for driver Bobby Smolin. The 7-year-old daughter of Sportsmaster has been a member of his stable since he first purchased her at the 2007 Walker Standardbred Sale for $5,000.
Under Mike’s tutelage, the brown mare has amassed $368,686, racing steadily every season since she was a freshman.
“As a yearling, you couldn’t find a fault with her,” Mike recalled. “She trained down well and I always thought she’d be a nice horse. She would train with another horse, that horse would come in blowing its guts out, and she’d just be standing there. She’s still like that.”
Owned in partnership by James W. & James D. Strzalka, Norma Schulfer, and Nancy Magnus, Fox Valley Absolut best season came in 2012, when she earned $92,359 and took a lifetime mark of 1:51.3 for these connections.
“She made a lot of money last season,” Mike observed. “But then this season hasn’t been as fortuitous, and in fact, a few weeks before coming into this elim, she had a five-race streak where she hadn’t gotten a check. That really had me concerned, but she has really gotten good at the perfect time it seems.”
Fox Valley Absolut is the 12th of 19 foals out of the Albatross mare Assailed p,3,1:56.2 ($13,728). She is a full sister to Fox Valley Assault p,7,1:52.2F ($363,537); Larry Horse p,8,1:52.4 ($220,264); Fox Valley Angie p,3,1:52.2 ($77,180); Fox Valley Backoff p,3,1:55 ($63,555); Bazooka p,3, 1:52 ($13,813) and the 2-year-old Fox Valley Ace p,2,Q1:58.4 ($11,201).
She also has half-siblings in: Pine Valley (by Jenna’s Beach Boy) p,4,1:51.2 ($39,2651); Passailed (by Abercrombie) p,4,1:50.2s ($318,666); Dee Flashion (by No Nukes) p,3,1:54.2s ($45,037); Beach Assault (by Jenna’s Beach Boy) p,6,1:59h ($43,850); Allamerican Aspen (by Jate Lobell) p,3,1:53.2s ($33,050) and American Pie (by Richess Hanover) p,3,1:56.4 ($10,308).
“The cool thing about this mare is that she’s made all of her money by just knocking out the checks week after week, not in big stake races. She was third in the Filly Orange & Blue at 2, but I think what has sustained her is that she is pretty sound and good-legged.”
Mike says the mare has no quirks to speak of, except that she does seem to have a taste for human flesh.
“You have to be especially careful when you go to check her up. If you don’t know her, she’ll get you. She’s a biter, and has gotten my wife and myself pretty good a number of times. Other than that, she’s fine to be around.”
When Fox Valley Absolut goes postward in tonight’s $123,000 Lorna Propes Championship, you can bet Mike and his family will be hoping that she takes a big “bite” out of the competition.