Longtime horse enthusiasts Hoppy and Chicago Phil keep things lively at Green Valley Ranch

The Chicago natives will watch another Kentucky Derby together there today. Phil favors the pedigree of Japanese speedster Derma Sotogake. Hoppy picks Angel of Empire, Confidence Game if it’s wet.

SHARE Longtime horse enthusiasts Hoppy and Chicago Phil keep things lively at Green Valley Ranch
Chicago Phil (left) and Hoppy have 100 years of horse-racing experience between them. 

Chicago Phil (left) and Hoppy have 100 years of horse-racing experience between them.

Rob Miech/Sun-Times

LAS VEGAS — Cigar, John Henry, Round Table and War Emblem, jockeys Ron Turcotte and Garrett Gomez, and trainer Jack Van Berg are always topical to Greg “Hoppy” Hopkins and “Chicago Phil” Ioriatti.

To all who sit within earshot of the two Chicago natives inside the Green Valley Ranch (GVR) race and sportsbook, in the valley’s southern foothills, entertainment is guaranteed.

The 1946-77 sweet spot, when seven tracks served Chicagoland race enthusiasts, is frequent fodder.

“The harness capital of the world, Sportsman’s Park in particular,” Chicago Phil said. “Top-class harness horses from all over the country went there. We were spoiled.”

Now, Hoppy says, “they’re down to Hawthorne. Makes me feel sad.”

He grins, though, when recalling the late Dave Feldman, the longtime horse trainer-writer for the Sun-Times. “Ice Cream Dave Feldman. If you were around him when he had a winner, he’d buy you ice cream.”

Hoppy and Chicago Phil will watch another Kentucky Derby together here today. Phil favors the pedigree of Japanese speedster Derma Sotogake. Hoppy picks Angel of Empire, Confidence Game if it’s wet.

Chicago Phil, 73, hails from Franklin Park and soared in the steel industry. Hoppy, 72, was born and raised in Aurora, where he plowed tons of snow during miserable 16-hour shifts.

They first met at GVR nearly 10 years ago.

“I was watching a Bears game,” Phil said. “Wearing my Bears stuff. And there’s a guy over there hollering for the Bears, too. It’s Hoppy! And he loves horses, like me. We became friends.”

HOOKED

As a sixth grader at St. Gertrude’s School, a priest from the next-door namesake church took Phil’s class on a field trip to Arlington Park.

“I think he used it as an excuse to have some beers,” Phil laughs. “To me, those horses were as big as life.”

A few years later, he saw his first harness races when a buddy and his father went to Maywood Park. Phil risked his final two $1 bills on a horse.

“Paid $48 to win,” he grins. “I was hooked.”

At Holy Cross High, in River Grove, he played third base and relished league games against Notre Dame High and first baseman Greg Luzinski, who’d spend his final four pro seasons with the White Sox.

Phil played baseball briefly at Illinois-Chicago before forging into steel. Horses became magnets. He and brothers John, Paul and Jim would own some fine equines, especially from New Zealand.

On Aug. 24, 1968, at Arlington Park, Phil watched the magnificent 4-year-old bay Dr. Fager set a world record — that still stands — by covering a dirt mile in a blazing 1:32.20. Only Dr. Fager has won four Eclipse Awards in the same year.

Phil moved to Southern California in 1986 and has maintained a condo there since 2009. His whip is a red 1962 Corvette.

Lately, he has delved into contests. He qualified for the National Horseplayers Championship two years ago, at Bally’s, but a poor first day sunk him.

He made his biggest score on a tight track at the L.A. County Fairgrounds, by noting how the previous day’s top finishers had started from outside posts. The next day, he played 7-8-9-10 trifectas and superfectas.

A race finished 7-8-9-10.

“Just a buck, so it was a $24 bet on both. But the tri paid $5,000, the super $12,000. In the next race, the odds on all the outside horses plummeted! People started figuring it out.”

C-NOTE GOAL

Hoppy was gung-ho to go to Vietnam, but his birthday, Nov. 10, always dodged President Nixon’s lottery-ball suctions. Poised to join the Marines, anyway, a friend returned and reported its horrors to him.

His buddy said, “Stay out of it. It’s a mess.” As a senior at Aurora East High, Hoppy had been a consensus all-Upstate Eight selection as a two-way end for the Tomcats.

“I thought I was half-way tough, but my friend scared me out of Vietnam,” Hoppy said. “Little did I know.”

His mother Ruth, father Marion and many relatives enjoyed the ponies. His parents saw Citation and Count Fleet run in the 1940s, before both went on to win Triple Crowns.

Hoppy embarked on a 30-year career, beginning in 1982, plowing snow and fixing street signs for Kane County Transportation. He retired almost 10 years ago and shudders when recalling that gig.

“Seven days in a row. Got to stretch out on an army cot and sleep for four hours, then get right back at it. When I was doing it, I remember very few mild winters.”

He’d rather discuss horses, like that day in August 2018 when he and wife Gloria went to Del Mar and wound up in the winner’s circle with Sought More Pep’s entourage.

Hoppy knew jockey Edwin Maldonado, calling him “The Candy Man,” which led to the stroll to the golden circle.

With a bankroll of around $80, he aims to win $100 on Saturdays at GVR. “My C-note,” he said. Most often, he succeeds. Hoppy recalls telling his Aurora barber, Robert Dean, when horses first captivated him.

“He and all those old-timers, whom I grew up around, went to all the tracks. They all said, ‘Nothin’ wrong with gambling, just don’t lose control because trouble will follow.’ They taught me well.”

With 100 years of horse-racing experience between them, anyone sitting near Hoppy and Chicago Phil today is in for a treat.

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