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August 3, 2006

Is Leo Burns the world's greatest athlete?


After you read the July 30 New York Times story about Burns, at 91 the world's oldest harness racer, who's so far this year driven his horse Winsome Wyoming to four wins in four starts, you might be inclined to think so.

I sure am.

Above, Burns being interviewed after yet another victory, this one at the White County Fair in Carmi, Illinois this past Sunday.

Here's the article.

    91-Year-Old Driver Is Still Setting Record Pace With Unbeaten Filly

    Leo Burns, a 91-year-old harness racer, has repeatedly proved he has not lost a step.

    Having driven his sidekick filly, Winsome Wyoming, to four victories in four starts this year, Burns donned his colors, his black-and-white helmet and goggles Tuesday night before he planted his himself in a sulky for two laps on the dusty fairgrounds track in Albion, Ill., about 40 miles northwest of Evansville, Ind.

    As Burns put the 2-year-old Winsome Wyoming through her prerace paces, the race announcer told the packed grandstand and onlookers in lawn chairs why they should pay heed to the man with the capital B on his silks. Burns is the sport’s elder statesman, with no records showing that anyone older has taken part in such a race in North America, much less won.

    Burns got polite applause. “Go Leo!” some shouted.

    Bigger ovations would follow.

    From the start, Burns and Winsome Wyoming left nothing to chance on their home track, bolting to an early six-length lead in the six-horse field just a quarter of the way through the mile-long run. Seventh lengths became eight, then 15, the announcer said, as Burns crossed the line in 2:05.4, shattering the 1997 track record for a 2-year-old filly by seven-tenths of a second.

    “Here she is, the filly; here he is, the man,” the announcer said as fans in the bleachers gave them a standing ovation. “You’re looking at a record-setting filly. You’re looking at a record-setting man, Leo Burns.”

    Burns, fiercely private, basked in the moment, grinning ear to ear.

    “Just taking it in stride,” Burns, an Iowa native, told a reporter after putting Winsome Wyoming back in her stall. “The rest of the races might not go as well.”

    Given his record, there is little chance of that.

    Burns has amassed more than 450 victories and nearly $400,000 in winnings in a trotting career spanning more than four decades, according to the United States Trotting Association. Before the recent victory in Albion, Burns’s winnings this year totaled $5,009.

    With its files dating only to 1952 in a sport that has been around in the United States since the early 1800’s, the association cannot say specifically that Burns is the oldest person to have raced. But David Carr, the association’s research chief, said it was a safe bet.

    “With all the information we can look at, we have found no one as old as he or older,” Carr said. “He’s not going into the record books, but we’re treating this as a record, acknowledging him as the oldest man to win a harness race.”

    Burns, born when Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House, shrugs at such fuss.

    “I don’t think a big deal about it,” he said before the race from the two-acre, southern Illinois farm near Albion that he shares with Rosie B, the Chihuahua who has been his companion since his wife of 57 years died a few years ago. “As long as I feel good, I’ll keep going. I’ll be O.K.”

    His next race is today in Du Quoin, Ill.

    To Dean Hoffman, Burns is “a remarkable story by any stretch, even more so because he’s so nonchalant about it.”

    “It’s not that he’s going out there to be a novelty,” said Hoffman, the senior editor of Hoof Beats, the national trotting group’s official publication. “He’s going out there driving and winning. What he’s doing just staggers the imagination.”

    While many may see harness racing as fancy — the pastime of yesteryear moguls like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Leland Stanford — it is physically demanding, at times punishing, to its drivers.

    Strapped precariously into sulkies, drivers do not have air bags or seat belts as fallbacks if something goes wrong during races in which speeds reach 30 miles an hour, or more.

    “It’s a young man’s game,” said Leroy Moore, 70, a longtime acquaintance of Burns who insisted that when on-track accidents happen, “young men bounce better than older people.”

    Competitors like Burns who run the fairgrounds circuit also risk having pacer horses spooked by anything from litter on the track to spectators allowed to get too close.

    Through the years, Burns has managed to escape serious injury. Alan Finn, 52, has not been so lucky, breaking his pelvis three years ago in a race tumble that landed him in a hospital for five days and then in bed for six weeks.

    “I honestly wouldn’t ride in a race at that age,” Finn said as he readied for his three races after Burns’s victory. Finn has never raced against Burns but said, “He knows his stuff, that’s for sure.”

    “He’s a pretty alert guy for his age,” Finn said. “Some people are just blessed to be healthy.”

    While older, experienced horses can find their own way around a track, Burns drives a 2-year-old that, like many horses her age, is more apt to “fly off the handle and do something stupid,” Hoffman said.

    “At least with an auto, if you steer left, the car goes left,” Hoffman said. “Horses often don’t do that.”

    Breaking Winsome Wyoming was not easy. After Burns bought her at public auction last year for $2,600 — “I just liked the looks of her,” he said — the horse was skittish, even obstinate. But he worked with her, even changing her bridle to a peek-a-boo version that lets the horse see straight ahead but not much to the side, startling her less.

    Victories followed.

    “Nobody can beat Burns with the filly he’s got,” said Connel Willis, 72, of suburban Chicago, after finishing a distant second to Burns here with Gumcorner Flo. “If I was going to lose, it should be to Leo. I’m glad for him. I just wish his wife was still here to see it.”


More on this remarkable man here.

I can think of a lot of things I'd much rather not be doing at 91 than harness racing — what a way to go!

August 3, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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My uncle is the "GREATEST" and my Dad, his brother and my brother, Roger would be watching from above and cheering him on to victory. My wish is to get to see him race in person. He and my Aunt Mildred Burns are the only 2 of our generations left.
Keep having fun Uncle Leo.

Posted by: Linda (Burns) Wilkening | Aug 10, 2009 2:13:06 PM

I am amazed that Leo is 94 years old and getting ready to start training his horses for this years race season. He is an inspiration to me every day, he is a icon and I'm proud as well as honored to say he is my Grandfather.

Posted by: Dami | Feb 22, 2009 1:52:51 PM

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