By Rich Fisher, Breeders Crown – In John Stefanos’ mind, he has reached the Cooperstown of harness racing.
As a travel baseball coach in Illinois for six years, Stefanos guided his Under-12 squad through a 104-team national tournament into the Sweet 16 held in Cooperstown, N.Y.
As a Standardbred owner his equine namesake, Coach Stefanos, has reached the Breeders Crown final for 3-year-old male pacers at Harrah’s Hoosier Park Saturday (Oct. 28).
“Dreams Park in Cooperstown is the Breeders Crown of travel baseball,” said Stefanos, whose team made it there in 2017. “This is the pinnacle. My wife and I will be there before the race. We might be coming in hot, but we’ll be there.”
The couple has a busy day. Stefanos no longer coaches baseball but is still the defensive backs coach for Marist High School outside of Chicago. On Saturday afternoon the couple will drive to Evanston, Ill., to watch the football game between Maryland and Northwestern, where Marist graduate Deuce McGuire plays offensive tackle. From there, they will rush to Anderson, Ind., to watch Captain Stefanos try to continue his incredible run.
The horse was purchased by Ken Duffy, whose twin boys played with Stefanos’ son on his Orland Park Warriors. In tribute to John’s coaching, Duffy named the colt after him and brought John on board as a part owner along with D & M Trading II LLC.
Coach Stefanos did not cost a fortune but he has produced a pretty penny. In 24 career starts the horse has hit the board 21 times, has 12 wins and earned $625,920.
“He’s been a great horse to have,” trainer Erv Miller said. “He does everything he’s supposed to do all the time. He’s easy to jog, easy to train, he really hasn’t had much of a problem anywhere along the way. He’s had a really good year. There’s nothing hard about him. He does it all.”
Stefanos likens “The Coach,” as he likes to call him, to his Warriors baseball team. Unlike most travel teams, which bring in players from multiple towns and states, Orland Park’s team was filled with all local players.
“We said we were gonna stick with 11 kids just from our town,” he said. “No one in this community has ever advanced that far. Rarely has anyone in Illinois done that.”
Much like the Warriors, little was initially expected from Coach Stefanos.
“We didn’t pay a lot for the horse, we didn’t have huge expectations, we just thought this was gonna be fun,” John said. “He goes out there, he wins, then he wins again. Then we bring the kids (from the Warriors) last year and he wins. You’re like ‘Wait a minute here!’ All of a sudden he’s the 2-year-old Horse of the Year in Indiana. I told everybody this is like a bad movie. You have a horse named after a coach and now it’s one of the top horses in the country. You want to pinch yourself. How did we get so fortunate to be in this situation?”
No matter how bad the movie, it has played to packed houses of former Warrior baseball players. Stefanos said that fraternity houses from the University of Alabama to Ole Miss; and from Ohio State to the University of Iowa tune into the Coach’s races.
“It’s been incredible,” Stefanos said. “What a horse. It’s like a community now. It’s amazing how many people follow the Coach. It’s awesome.”
Coach Stefanos will face his toughest competition yet in the Breeders Crown, but Miller feels he is ready.
“One reason we put him in is that he had been supplemented for $10,000 in February,” the trainer said. “It’s hard to let that $10,000 go and he was about on the top of his game. I just said that they spent that money then, we thought that much of him, let’s take a shot at it.”
In 13 starts this season Coach Stefanos has collected six wins, six seconds and $380,865. On Oct. 21 he won his Breeders Crown elimination with a furious finish. The gelded son of Tellitlikeitis out of Watch N Be Watched paced in 1:50.3 and went :24.2 in the final quarter with Trace Tetrick in the sulky.
“That was his best performance and it’s what we needed to go into the Breeders Crown (final),” Miller said. “If we have a little luck and he comes back to that this week, we’ll have a shot at it. He was stellar. I don’t know what the world record is for a last quarter, but it can’t be much faster than that. I know :24.2 is not seen very often.”
Stefanos said he had no great illusions of what the horse could do. In baseball parlance, he just wanted to make solid contact and hope it turns into a base hit.
“We see who’s in these races and you’ve got these billion-dollar horses, so it’s like, let’s just qualify,” he said. “The way he ran that race, coming from fifth and the way he finished was amazing. The phones were blowing up. It was awesome. So we’re obviously super pumped up.
“He’s got incredible competition (in the final), Confederate, he’s like Secretariat out there. We’re right behind him. But hey, that’s why they play the game. We’re super excited.”
Confederate won his elim while being driven by Tim Tetrick, so yet another Tetrick family showdown will be on display. Stefanos is anxious to see how it plays out.
“I feel like we’ve got a good post,” he said. “The five hole right next to Confederate at four. There’s just plenty of good horses in there. I would never count the Coach out. He’s a gamer. In the two years he has never not been in the mix. So just be in the mix.
“It’s a longshot. Obviously you’ve got these incredible horses he’s going up against. If Trace can get that perfect trip out of him, hey, anything can happen. We’re excited. This horse is a warrior. Just like our baseball team was the Warriors, this horse is also a warrior.”
Stefanos recalled a time in Cooperstown when the team was pitted against former Major Leaguer Andy Pettitte’s highly ranked squad. They brought a bunch of baseballs for Pettitte to sign, figuring he would be in a good mood after winning the contest. But the Warriors got a game-winning homer in extra innings and the baseballs were hidden away without any autograph seeking.
It was suggested that Stefanos bring some harness racing gear for the top drivers to sign after the race, and then hope he won’t want to approach them afterward if his horse wins.
“That’s a good point,” he said with a laugh. “It would be great to relive that.”
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