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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


 By Ken Weingartner, USTA — When Prince Henry set the all-age track record for a three year old trotter at the Newton County Fair in Kentland, Ind., last week, he did more than put his name in the history book. He continued his leading role in a fairytale.

Prince Henry was bred by 87-year-old Vernon Oakerson, a lifelong Indiana resident, who purchased his first Standardbred yearling in 1993. The yearling, a filly named Royal Pet Me, raced just four times, but Oakerson kept her as a broodmare.

Royal Pet Me had only one foal, but it was a filly, as she launched a maternal line that generations later resulted in Prince Henry’s arrival. Prince Henry is the final homebred out of the family for Oakerson, who has been slowed by health issues in recent years and sold his broodmares in April 2022.

Two months later, Prince Henry stepped out to race for the first time. The son of Musclesprinctonian-Exciting Iza has been creating memories ever since.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Oakerson’s wife, Sondra, said. “My husband has had dreams, and maybes, and hopefuls. This is a blessing. He finally got one that’s a dream come true.”

Prince Henry raced 12 times as a 2-year-old, with eight starts coming on the Indiana Sired Fair Circuit. In seven preliminary rounds of the Governor’s Cup Series at the fairs, Prince Henry posted three wins, a second and third on his way to becoming Oakerson’s first homebred finalist in the series championship, where he finished eighth.

This year, Prince Henry has competed in eight events at the fairs. He has hit the board five times, winning four, and tops the circuit’s points standings for 3-year-old male trotters.

“The competition is very tough on the fair circuit, so we’re just happy for the success he’s had the last couple years,” said Matt Tucker, who is Oakerson’s grandson and the race marketing intern at Harrah’s Hoosier Park. “He’s on the smaller side, so I think that’s why he gets along well on the fair tracks; he gets around the turns well.

“He’s also got a lot of gate speed. Of the seven wins he has, he’s led the whole mile in almost all of them. If he gets the lead, we know he has a chance. He’s had some horses come first-up at him and he’s dug in gamely down the stretch.”

In his track-record performance at Kentland last week, Prince Henry won by 7-1/2 lengths in 2:05 for driver Mike Detweiler and trainer Leander Schwartz. The previous all-age trotting record, 2:06.2, was first set in 1989 by 7-year-old gelding The Appraiser. It was equaled in 2006 by 3-year-old filly Skip To Express and again in 2015 by 3-year-old gelding ER Ben.

“That was very unexpected, but we were all grateful,” said Tucker, who attended the race with his grandparents and aunt, Darla Shore. “Rick Uppal, who is the announcer, said it could be a track record when he got to the half in 1:01.1. When he got to three-quarters, we knew he had a shot at it. When he hit the wire and we saw 2:05, it was like, wow. That was pretty cool.”

Said Sondra Oakerson several days after Prince Henry’s performance, “We’re still smiling from the race. The people there were fantastic. Everybody was rooting for Henry. It was a fun time. I want everyone to know that we appreciate that Hoosier hospitality.”

Prince Henry is one of two homebreds still racing for the Oakersons, along with 3-year-old filly trotter Diva’s Pretty Lady.

Vernon, who had been involved with Trottingbreds since the early 1970s, got started in Standardbred harness racing with his brother, Gene, in 1989 with the purchase of 3-year-old trotter Fodder John.

“They were itching to try it,” Sondra Oakerson said. “It’s been a good trip.”

Prince Henry, who as a young horse was nicknamed Hank, which became “Henry” to give a more regal ring when paired with “Prince,” will make his next start Tuesday at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair in Goshen, Ind., in a division of the Maple City Trot.

The fair championships are Aug. 16 at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

“We’re just hoping he gives us a shot,” Tucker said. “If he wins the final, that’s great. But even if he finishes last, he doesn’t owe us anything. It’s really special what he’s been doing for us. He’s just one of a kind for our family.”

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