Meet Driver Sam Widger
It was a slow and steady climb for Sam Widger to establish himself as one of the Top Ten drivers on the Chicago circuit and 43-year-old native of Canton, Illinois will always appreciate those who gave him his chance to succeed.
Many drivers make their choices in a race based on what horse has the best chance to win however Sam very often doesn’t lean that way. He’ll get off a horse with perhaps a better shot and instead opt for another for “loyalty reasons.”
“I was raised to remember where we came from and how we started out,” said Sam. “I’m grateful for those who gave me opportunities and who have stuck with me through the good and not-so-good times. With me it’s all about loyalty.”
Widger first drive came back in 1985. Through 1996 he drove horses that never won purses of more than $315,000 in a single season. Sam paid his dues through those years before his “breakout” season in 1997.
“I started off slow. I didn’t have a family name like some of the others, so I had to do it the hard way,” said Sam. “I had been driving 3 or 4 nights a week and then I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to drive Juxtaposition and things kind of took off then in the back half of ‘97. She won the Orange and Blue on Super Night and that win was my catalyst. A lot of people started to notice me when I was having a lot of success with Juxtaposition. She’s absolutely one of my favorite horses.
“Another favorite for me was back in the late 80s in my Quad City days. He was a little horse that my father and I owned named Silent Invader. He was a very handy and versatile horse. He was a cheap claimer but he was a real good little race horse,” said Sam, who resides in Beecher, Illinois with his wife Nancy. They have five children ranging in age from 25 down to 4.
In 1998 Widger’s drives made five times more ($1.62 million) than they did two years earlier. And last season Sam enjoyed his best career year in both wins (458) and purses money won ($3,375,043).
Widger had some interesting thoughts about the two one mile tracks on the Chicago circuit.
“Even though Hawthorne and Balmoral are both mile ovals, they are two completely different tracks,” said Sam. “The layouts are different. Hawthorne’s turns are tighter. I have found that some horses who struggle on half-mile tracks tend to do the same through Hawthorne’s turns.
“The surfaces are also little bit different,” continued Sam. “Hawthorne is a thoroughbred based track and its surface has more sand in it than Balmoral which has more limestone. The Hawthorne surface is a little bit looser. It’s my guess that it’s about a second slower than Balmoral. There are some horses that prefer Hawthorne’s surface and race better on it. And because it’s a bit sandier there’s less wear and tear on the sore-footed or sore-ankle horses.
“I’ve always thought for some reason on this (Hawthorne) surface it appears that you are going faster than you actually are and that might be one of the reasons they don’t go as fast on the backside here as they do in Crete. A :28 quarter on the backstretch here feels like a :27 or better to me.”
Does Sam prefer to race a horse near the front at Hawthorne or with a one-quarter mile length stretch, come from the back of the pack?
“I like to be up close here but you don’t always have the horse or the post position to get you there,” Sam replied.