02/27/2012 4:04PM

Hawthorne: Brueggemann looking at another big year

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STICKNEY, Ill. – Trainer Roger Brueggemann claims to have pioneered a Hawthorne trend. Brueggeman used to be about the only person parked during training hours at a spot in Hawthorne’s lot situated midway through the homestretch that affords a decent view of the entire racetrack. Now, he says, you have to get to the little nook early in order to find a place to park.

And really, local horsemen would be foolish not to do like Brueggeman right now.

Brueggemann won his first training title during the fall-winter 2011 meet at Hawthorne, and it wasn’t really even a race, since Brueggemann’s 51 winners were 27 more than runner-up Joel Berndt.

The thing is, Hawthorne fall hasn’t traditionally been the Brueggemann barn’s bread and butter. The winter-spring season at Hawthorne is where Brueggemann has done his best work, and with the powerful Midwest Thoroughbred operation of Richard and Karen Papiese in his sails now, Brueggemann figured to get off to a blazing start in 2012.

No disappointment there. While Brueggemann slowed down this past three-day racing week, going 2-2-1 from 8 starters, he was on fire during the first three days of the Chicago season, sending out 7 winners from just 16 starters.

“A lot of horses aren’t ready to run this time of year, and in the fall, a lot of horses are sore,” said Brueggemann. “I try to have them fitter in the spring and sounder for the fall.”

Brueggemann is experiencing a career peak at age 66. His 96 winners in 2011 were 31 more than his stable had produced in a single year since 1991, when he left Fairmount Park and a part-time gig as a Quarter Horse trainer and threw in his lot as a full-time Chicago Thoroughbred guy. Through 2010, his horses never had earned more than about $1.1 million in a season, but last year his stable had earnings of almost $1.9 million. With about 70 horses in training at Hawthorne, and with Midwest likely to keep him well stocked, Brueggemann could have another career year in 2012.

Brueggemann’s senior assistant, Myron Johnson – once a groom for legendary horsemen Marion Van Berg – has several years on his boss, and the two joke about the stable’s somewhat sudden uptick.

“These are our golden years, and we’re working harder than ever,” said Brueggemann. “It’s a lot of pressure, some stress. But I really enjoy it.”

Before turning his working attention to horses, Louisiana-born Brueggemann worked full-time as an auto mechanic at a Chrysler dealership in downstate Illinois. In the late 1980’s one of the Quarter Horses he was training fell on him, shattering Brueggemann’s hip (the injury still gives him trouble), and eventually steering him away from his mechanic job and into full-time training.

Brueggemann did all right during his earliest Chicago years, winning between 10 and 15 percent of his races. His operation got a boost after a few years when it landed the Scarlet Stable of Chris Barney as a client. And just as Barney was scaling back, the Midwest job came along in 2010.

“Everything is first class with them, and [Papiese] gives you all the tools you could possibly need to be successful,” Brueggemann said.

Midwest runs a major claiming operation, which means now more than ever horses led over to race by a Chicago peer are led away from the track by a Brueggemann groom, but Brueggemann, sitting alone in his car, two stopwatches in hand and an eye on his horses buzzing around Hawthorne’s oval, said he’s not losing any friends because of that.

“I doubt I’ve been in the track kitchen over there four times in 20 years,” he said. “I never was much of a socializer.”

◗ Brueggemann isn’t the only trainer off to a hot start at the meet. Through Sunday’s action, Frank Kirby had gone 7-4-1 from 31 starters.

Florent Geroux topped the jockey standings during the fall-winter 2011 meet and through Sunday occupied the same position, though his nine winners were just one more than Constantino Roman.

◗ A pair of first-level allowance races highlight Wednesday’s nine-race program. Race 4, a six-furlong sprint for 3-year-old fillies, should have recent Fair Grounds ship-in Our Eleanor as the favorite, while Hope for Today figures to head the betting in race 7, a two-turn dirt race for older horses.