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Harness race owners Tony and Michael Somone

SomoneThe general public recognizes thoroughbred racing because of the big-name Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

But the Somone brothers, Tony and Michael, instead gravitated to harness racing as teens. They grew up close to Maywood Park, which with its sister track in Crete, Balmoral Park, is a hub of Illinois standardbred harness racing.

“When I was about 16, I went to the harness races with my friends,” recalls Michael, assistant vice president at Amalgamated Bank of Chicago. (He’s also been vice president of the Italian-American Labor Council for the past eight years.) “They (his older friends) would go make a bet for me.”

Tony’s introduction to harness racing, however, wasn’t necessarily his choice. One evening, he pulled up in the driveway of his girlfriend’s house. But his girlfriend’s father apparently wasn’t keen on Tony spending time alone with his daughter. So Dad insisted they go to the track. He gave them $20, and they ended up winning $180–a sum Tony attributes to beginner’s luck.

“We really didn’t know what we were doing,” Tony says. “Then I really fell in love with the sport. … It sort of flourished from there.”

Tony also ended up falling in love with his girlfriend in this story, Jenny. The couple has been married 28 years and has two children: Tom (24) and Elizabeth (21).

Eventually, Tony and Michael started going to the track together, and Michael remembers a conversation they had one day that turned out to be prophetic.

Micheal recalls that “We kept saying, ‘We’re going to be partners one day. Someday we’re going to own one of these horses.'”

These past 15 years, the Somone brothers have owned several horses, including their current trio. Like most racing horses, each is cleverly named: Middle Aged Crazy, Smooth Transition and Diamond Brady. Smooth Transition has been in Springfield dealing with medical issues, but Michael notes the horse is scheduled to return to Maywood to resume training.

Diamond Brady also has been in Springfield, racing on the county fair circuit while Middle Aged Crazy races in Dover. Delaware; given his success he might be stay out East for quite a while.

“He’s racing very well,” Michael says. “The purses are very high there. He’s a little bit of a cash cow. He keeps everybody else paid for.”

Owning racehorses can be lucrative but Michael and Tony never have haggled over finances. It’s something they’re proud of, and Michael attributes that to being raised in an Italian family.

“We’re 100 percent Italian,” Michael says. “Meals with the family were standard on Sundays. We’ve smiled and disagreed on things, but we’ve never had an argument in 15 years and that has a lot to do with our upbringing. We’ve always tried to make this business a family thing.”

“There’s a lot of money and potential money involved, but we’ve never had an issue,” agrees Tony. He’s executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, a non-profit organization designed to preserve, promote and maintain harness racing in Illinois, according to the organization’s website.

In his role, Tony represents the state’s harness horsemen legislatively, in contract talks, and with health and some liability insurance matters.

“As far as the money part goes, we trust each other,” he says of his fraternal partner. “We were raised the same way and have similar values about what’s important. It’s (horse racing) very rewarding and enjoyable. It’s become part of our lives, and it’s trickled down to our children’s lives.”

He adds: We’ve had some good, fun banter. “We’ve argued about naming the horses, but it’s all in fun.”

And sometimes it’s in the name of encouraging others.

A few years ago, Tony’s son Tom, who has Down Syndrome, was involved in the Life Skills Program at Lyons Township High School, attended by special needs high school graduates not ready to enter the workforce.

While there, Tom routinely talked about the horses with his teachers and classmates.

“We’ve taken him to race track for as long as we can remember, and everybody knows him,” Tony said. “He enjoys the horses. He enjoys visiting with them and the camaraderie of a guy thing. I think he likes that and seeing the people and the horses and hanging out.”

Around that time, the Somone brothers had just bought a new horse, and that horse didn’t have a name.

“Some of his teachers at Lyons Township knew that Tom was talking a lot about horses,” Tony says. “My wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we had the kids at Tom’s class pick out a name for horse, and bring Tom’s class to the barn and visit the horse?'”

Jenny’s suggestion became reality. More than a dozen of his classmates and their teachers first went over to the barn to see the horse.

“This horse a really large animal,” Tony points out. “He was an absolute show-stopper, but he was gentle, kind and caring, and if you could use such a word with a horse, compassionate. The horse fell in love with these kids, and they fell in love with him.”

Tom’s class bantered around several names, and decided to name the horse Smooth Transition because, as Tony explains, the name coincided with the goal of Tom’s class: “to have smooth transition into life and into work force, and out of high school.”

“The exciting thing is sharing it (the horses) with people and with kids and children,” Michael adds. “I can bring them to the barn and they’re just in awe. We’re constantly trying to bring kids in; they’re so excited and they talk about it for months at a time. It’s not about the money or being in the winner’s circle. It’s about sharing with other people.”

Interestingly, Tom’s influence on the family is such that Michael’s son, Michael Jr., is now a special education teacher; Tony’s daughter, Elizabeth, is in nursing school.

Tony said of his son, “He’s touched us in a way that wasn’t what you planned on in life. He’s really been a glue that’s helped our family, and extended family, stay as close as we are. Life works in funny ways.”

 

About Mike Sandrolini

Mike Sandrolini has been published in the Elmhurst Independent, Voyager Media, the Daily Herald, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Bear Report. His stories and columns have been recognized for editorial excellence at regional, state and national newspaper contests over the years. He also has co-authored two books: “Bear With Me: A Family History of George Halas and the Chicago Bears” and “All the Good in Sports.” His father, Raymond, is a native of Gaggio Montano, a small village around 30 miles southwest of Bologna.