Perhaps no family more epitomizes harness racing in Illinois than that of the Simpsons of Fairfield.
Patriarch Buddy Simpson—a mainstay colt trainer for six decades—has been a member of the Prairie State’s Hall of Fame since 2002. At age 82 he continues to drive and train with career stats of 1,078 wins and purse earnings in excess of $2.28 million.
Now, his son Dirk is slated to be elected into the same elite club at the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association Awards Banquet on Feb. 3. As well, Dirk’s son Brandon, 31, has forged a successful career as a catch-driver on the East Coast in the past few years.
Dirk, 55, has proved he has a superior eye for spotting top horseflesh—especially those of the trotting genre. His list of trainees reads like a Who’s Who of some of the finest Illinois-bred to have ever graced a racing surface. Dirk actually began driving before embarking on his successful conditioning career and to date has racked up 723 driving wins and $2,428,039 in earnings since he first began steering Standardbreds in 1977.
In the early 1990s Dirk began focusing more and more on training, and after a stint serving as a second trainer for Tex Moats, he opened a public stable, with success coming easily to him.
One of his first standouts was the gelding Champion On Ice—who still holds the world record for a sophomore gelding on a mile track of 1:53.2, which he set in Springfield, IL in 1994. The son of Armbro Charger-Icecapade earned $266,660 with a top mark of 1:53.1 for owners Jack & Peggy Hood of Valparasio, IN. He was enshrined into the Illinois Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Champion On Ice was a pleasure to be around but he was also frustrating at times,” Dirk recalled. “He would often switch to the pace late in the mile, and once, at DuQuoin, he flipped off a toe weight that hit (driver) Dave Magee in the mouth. That didn’t deter Dave from driving him, thank goodness!”
Champion On Ice set the ball rolling for Dirk, who had his most successful season in 2000, when he conditioned 378 starters to 60 wins, 55 seconds and 51 thirds for $1,132, 147 in seasonal earnings. Dirk’s roster that year included the one of the year’s top trotting colts Dreamaster, T, 3 , 1:54.2M ($767,636), the favorite in the $1 million Hambletonian, who ultimately finished fifth, and the top trotting filly, Mystical Michelle, T, 3, 1:56.2M ($339,116).
The following years Dirk continued to condition a string of winners who campaigned successfully both in Illinois and nationally. One of his top performers was the trotter Customize, who captured the $108,000 Su Mac Lad Final for owner Bart Cavanagh Sr. of Media, PA in 1:56.2 on Super Night, 2004. The colt went on to win 10 of 18 starts at three, and was either first or second in all of his 16 starts at two. He recorded a career best mark of 1:55.3 while winning an ISOBA stake for Dave Magee on October 10 at Balmoral that year.
In 2007 Dirk harnessed Before He Cheats to multiple victories, including the $120,000 Su Mac Lad, which saw the colt establish a new stakes record clocking of 1:55 for owner Sam Bowie of Lexington, KY.
Unraced at two, the colt went on to garner 2007 Illinois Horse of the Year honors with seasonal stats of 21-5-0 and $320,189 with a mark of 3, 1:53.3.
Just three years later, Dirk won his second Illinois Horse of the year title with the freshman pacing filly Pardon, who went on to win 15 of 33 starts and $301,413. Pardon amassed $227,008 for her connections in 2010, with a near unblemished record. She recorded a mark of p, 2, 1:52.3M at Springfield en route to capturing the $35,000 Illinois State Fair Stakes.
“It’s rare for a filly to gain the title, and even rarer for a 2-year-old to get it, but I thought she had a solid shot,” Simpson said. “She was tough.”
More recently, Simpson has harnessed Our Dragon King to multiple stake victories, including a career best 1:52.2 score in the $157,000 American National Freshman Colt and Gelding Pace on Nov. 10, 2012 at Balmoral Park. The colt went on to win the $110,000 Abe Lincoln in his final start of the season, having amassed $279,148 with a 7-3-0 record from 15 starts in 2012.
But Dirk’s top contender in 2012 was the freshman filly Trot Fudge Sundae, the only 2-year-old Illinois-bred pacing filly ever to win an American National. The daughter of American Native was purchased privately from trainer Mike Brink in July and went on to win her first eight starts for Dirk, trotting her fastest mile of the season in 1:57 at DuQuoin.
She won 10 of 13 starts with a pair of seconds and seasonal earnings of $183,210 and was named Illinois Two-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year.
“She was just so dominant week after week,” Dirk noted. “She’s a very smart filly, however, who doesn’t require a lot of training and pretty much takes care of herself.”
With training totals of 911 wins and $9,934,946 in career earnings, and his roster of champions, Dirk’s induction in the Illinois Hall of Fame is certainly well-deserved.