Chicago couple enjoying racing at the Big M

When 5-year-old pacer Bobcat Bay won earlier this month at The Meadowlands, it was a momentous occasion in the Musillami household. It had been 14 years since Chicago’s Nancy and Don Musillami had a horse compete at The Big M – fittingly Bobcat Bay’s mother, Madeira Island – and their homebred harness racing gelding made them proud, winning by 2-3/4 lengths at odds of 15 -1.

After Bobcat Bay won at Hawthorne last summer, driver Ridge Warren, Benita Simmons, owner Don Musillami, his son Tony, daughter-in-law Nicole and grandchildren Siena (in the bike) and Enzo celebrated in the winner’s circle. (Four Footed Photos photo)

“It sure is exciting to race there,” Don said. “That’s the goal, to get to The Meadowlands if you’ve got something good enough. It’s big time for us. When you’re watching the races and waiting for yours to come along, the excitement just builds as the night goes on. That was an awful fun race and a great beginning for us.”

Bobcat Bay, trained in New Jersey by Jeff Smith, returns to The Meadowlands on Saturday for a $13,500 conditioned pace. He is 8-1 on the morning line and will start from post four with driver Corey Callahan.

“He’s definitely been a blessing for us,” Don said. “Through this pandemic, it’s been such a rough go of just going to work, going home, and doing nothing. Horse racing fills that void and creates a little excitement.

“My wife and I, and my kids, this is what we have in common more than anything, horse racing. I have three kids and eight grand kids. I can’t get them to do much unless there’s a horse racing. If there’s a horse racing, they’re all there. This horse is the binder to the family right now. He keeps everybody excited. It’s a good thing.”

Don and Nancy primarily race Illinois- and Indiana-bred horses. They have been owners since 1989, when Don secretly purchased a female pacer named Missy Ilene.

That’s Bobcat Bay on the inside (Four Footed Photos)

“We would go to the track, and I saw the excitement my wife had for racing,” Don said. “So, I bought this horse and put it in her name. We went to the track, and she didn’t have a clue that she owned this horse.

“Before the race went off, I asked my wife who she liked. She said she kind of liked the (number) three horse. I said I thought the six horse was going to win. She looked down and saw her name in the program, and that was the end of it.”

Missy Ilene won easily, and Nancy received a substantial offer to sell the filly.

“She said, no, that’s my horse,” Don recalled with a laugh. “She kept that horse and turned her into a broodmare and had three nice foals out of her. We kept her until the day she passed. That’s how we started.”

Bobcat Bay, a son of stallion Panther Hanover, is one of five horses in the couple’s racing stable now. As a yearling, Bobcat Bay lost his left eye in an incident with another horse, but it has not hindered him in any way. He has won 12 of 45 races, hit the board 15 additional times, and earned $83,345. Tom Simmons trained the horse prior to Bobcat Bay’s move to New Jersey this year.

“He’s just one of those special horses,” said Don, who for 52 years has owned and operated a custom picture framing business. “From the time he started, you’d never know (about his injury). He’s just gone forward. He’s just a trying horse, a hard knocker. There wasn’t much opportunity for him up here right now. We thought he would be a good candidate to send out east and it looks like he’s going to fit fine out there.”

Which, Don hopes, means more fun times for the family.

“I’ve been doing this since the ’80s and the excitement of horse racing just never goes away,” Don said. “It’s worked out well.”

by Ken Weingartner, for the USTA

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