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Tim Tetrick, an Illinois native who has become a record-setter since moving east, has six contenders at Saturday's Festival.

The equine superstars competing in the American National Festival of Racing include four Breeders Crown champions and the winner of a $1million stake, but the most influential ''shipper'' at Balmoral Park on Saturday night will be a face all too familiar to local horseplayers.

Record-smashing driver Tim Tetrick doesn't get back to his old haunts too often in these days of piddling purses on the Chicago circuit, but when the prodigal son of Illinois harness racing returns, everybody knows he is here.

Without ''reaching'' in the least, Tetrick could sweep the six lucrative open-company events to be contested over Balmoral's 1-mile oval, where he recorded his first significant stakes victory in the Am Nat aged trot behind the legendary Illinois-bred Plesac what seems eons ago as a 20-year-old in 2002.

Tetrick's distinctive green, gold and white colors will be prominent behind four morning-line favorites and two second choices in the Am Nats. There's a compelling reason why the native of Downstate Flora (population 5,086) warrants such consideration: Since departing here in 2006, he has put up numbers that are the envy of the all-time greats, including the season record for victories with 1,189 in '07. He also broke the seasonal earnings records with $18.35 million in '07 and $19.73 million in '08 and is closing in on being the leading money-winner in North America for a fourth consecutive year.

Follow that purse

Here's the irony. Tetrick admitted to me on Thursday that if Illinois racing had not fallen on hard times, he never would have relocated to the East Coast.

''I doubt I would have ever left if [the state's tracks] had gotten slots,'' Tetrick said. ''Heck, even if it would have stayed the same way it was the first couple years I was here without slots, you know, racing for good money and with the drives I was getting, I would still be there.

''I'm an Illinois guy. The only reason I left was because I figured I could make more money driving where the purses were better because of slots.''

So thanks to the Illinois Legislature's decision to allow our slots-less tracks to wither on the vine, Tetrick's career took a meteoric rise. If there is a big race anywhere in North America, it's pretty much a given that the ''Bionic Man'' (as he has been dubbed by Meadowlands announcers for having hip-replacement surgery) will have a live horse in it. The only mega stakes Tetrick hasn't won are the Hambletonian, the Little Brown Jug and the North America Cup. Unlike other top drivers who spent years working their way up, he didn't have to ''pay his dues'' for very long. That he has gotten so big so fast even surprised Tetrick.

''To be honest, when I first left Chicago, I was just hoping that I could go to Dover [Downs in Delaware], fit in there, and if was lucky, I would get a lot of drives,'' he said. ''I never thought it would go like this. I was fortunate enough to get on a roll there, and I've been on it ever since.''

Quality starts

It could be argued that in the first two years of his East Coast adventure, Tetrick put up huge numbers because he drove day and night, literally, at tracks in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But in the last couple of years, Tetrick is earning similar money while making fewer starts.

''Those first two years, I really worked my butt off going up and down the road,'' he said. ''In the last couple, I've been emphasizing quality over quantity, and it's still working out great.''

Tetrick has kept his record-breaking roll going pretty much by letting his driving speak for itself. Top trainers in the sport seek him out, not vice versa.

''I never have been one to go out and ask a trainer for a drive,'' Tetrick said. ''When I was 18 or 19, my dad [longtime Downstate horseman Tom Tetrick] told me not to go begging for drives ... for two reasons. No. 1, if you go begging and then screw up the first time, you'll never get a second drive. And No. 2, if they put you down [on a horse], they did it for a reason, so if you screw up, they'll give you another chance. There's a whole lot more pressure on you when you've been the one begging for a drive.''


??What, when, where: American National Festival of Racing, Saturday (first post 7:10 p.m.), Balmoral Park, 26345 S. Dixie Highway, Crete.

??Featuring: Six American National stakes for pacers and trotters with purses totalling $938,000. The stakes have attracted four horses ranked in the national Top 10 and nationally known drivers Tim Tetrick, John Campbell, David Miller and Yannick Gingras.



??$124,000 aged trot (fourth race on the card): The race drew a short field of five, but two of them are among the best trotters in North America. Buck I St Pat won the Breeders Crown mare trot last month and has earned $2.04 million. Enough Talk (the Am Nat winner in 2008) took the Breeders Crown open trot and has a bankroll of $1.77 million. Hamel's pick: Buck I St Pat (credit Tetrick and the pylons).

??$95,000 2-year-old filly pace (fifth race): Sensational Illinois-bred Pardon was supplemented into the field of nine on the strength of 13 victories in 14 starts. But this is open company and she didn't draw well (Post 9). Then there's the lingering memory of Pardon's getting passed in deep stretch on Super Night by Fox Valley Touche. Touche (on the board 12 times in 15 races), Swinging Beauty (Tetrick) and perhaps Little Maeve figure. Hamel's pick: Pardon (but she is far from a mortal lock).

??$127,000 2-year-old male pace (sixth race): Elimination winner Mystic Desire has hit the board 10 times in 11 starts, with seven victories, and will be in rein to Tetrick. Illinois-bred Playing For Keeps also has shown consistency during his freshman campaign. And that was a pretty impressive elimination score for fellow Ill-bred Mr. Bedrock. Hamel's pick: Mystic Desire.

??$156,000 aged pace (seventh race): The feel-good story line would see Won The West, with Miller at the reins, become the first horse to win four consecutive American Nationals. Balmoral's the-stretch-goes-on-forever configuration plays perfectly into his fast-closing style. The triple millionaire and No. 2-ranked standardbred in North America is in cracking-good form with a victory in the Breeders Crown three starts back. The lightning-fast Hypnotic Blue Chip, with Tetrick, is the X-factor in a field of seven that includes four million-dollar earners. Hamel's (admittedly sentimental) pick: Won The West.

??$245,000 3-year-old male pace (eighth race): One More Laugh hasn't been as sharp of late as when he won the Meadowlands Pace in mid-July, but there's no Rock N Roll Heaven here. If you think Laugh will lose, Allthatgltrsisgold, Iam Bonsera, Tobago Cays and even Razzle Dazzle (Campbell) are factors in a field of nine, so this is the best betting race among the six stakes. Hamel's pick: One More Laugh (and Tetrick).

??$191,000 3-year-old filly pace (ninth race): Breeders Crown champion Put On A Show (left) has been trouncing far better for owners that include Craig Henderson of Chicago. As Sun-Times handicapper Tom Krish would say, Show (12-for-15) is futile to look beyond with Tetrick in tow and the rail. Illinois-bred Rev Me Up is capable and gets Gingras. Hamel's pick: Put On A Show.