by Victoria Howard
Not many people involved in harness racing can say that one of the four-legged kids they bred and raised turned out to be a world champion, but Connie Hochstetler can. Her horse, Kadabra, grew up to be one of the most influential sires in the sport’s history.
Sadly, Kadabra recently died at age 22 after retiring from stud duty at Tara Hills Stud in Ontario, but not before leaving a legacy of Superstars to follow in his hoof steps, such as Bee A Magician, Forbidden Trade,and many, many more.
The fairytale began when a mare named Quillo was given to Connie Hochstetler by racing ambassador Buehla Dygert. A stallion named Primrose Lane (who stood in Illinois and had no national cachet) had a brief encounter with Quillo, and the result was a gorgeous colt Hochstetler named Kadabra.
Kadabra emerged as the leading 2-year-old trotter on the Chicago circuit and became a top 3-year-old, nationally. In his sophomore year, Canadian owner Peter Heffering purchased Kadabra from the Hochstetlers for a life-changing sum.
During his racing career Kadabra banked more than $1.8 million and won 25 of 36 starts on the track, becoming one of the sport’s foundation sires that lasted over a 17-year career.
Kadabra was by far one of the most dominant sires of trotters in the sport’s history and was just as impressive in the breeding shed as he was on the track.
For almost two decades the prolific stallion’s progeny amassed $91.6 million. (As of Dec. 31, 2020). He was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
“It’s very bittersweet that Kadabra has died. He was a homebred and my son (Jay’s) favorite horse. In fact, my son named him. He was a great racehorse and when he was 3-years-old we sold him to Peter Heffering, which changed our lives,” said Connie.
A third generation horseperson, both of Connie’s grandfathers raced harness horses. Her maternal grandfather was Foy Funderburk — the first leading driver at Maywood Park in Chicago.
Her paternal grandfather, Rollin Ackerman, died in a race at a Cassopolis Fair in Michigan after having a heart attack.
Connie’s father is Hall of Famer Doug Ackerman and her Uncle Jack and her brother Dr. Ackerman are also notable horsemen.
As a young girl, Connie worked in the stables before getting a job in the race office at Northville Downs when she was 15.
It was 1989 at Hawthorne Racetrack when Connie was set up by mutual friends and met her future husband, Homer. The next year they were married.
Besides helping her husband develop young horses, Connie has worked in many facets of the business. For the past 35 years, she has been the stakes coordinator for The Red Mile. She was also race secretary at the Red Mile, Canterbury Downs, the Little Brown Jug and assistant race secretary at many other tracks.
“Throughout the years, we’ve owned a lot of nice horses and although Kadabra was undoubtedly our best, his older full-brother, Life’s A Holliday, was my all time favorite.
“That horse seemed to know when my family needed money and always came through. He could be a handful and when he was turned out, I was the only one that could catch him.
“When Life’s A Holiday was 7-years-old (and after earning $700,000) we retired him, but unfortunately was involved in an accident in the field and had to be euthanized.
“That was one of my worst times, but as you know, in this business bad times go with the good times.
“Presently Homer and I have a stable of 24 — 10 horses are at Hoosier Park and the others are in Pinehurst, North Carolina. We mainly race at Hoosier Park, but will have a few in New York and on the Grand Circuit this year.
“Most of the training season I work in the stable taking care of 2 or 3. I really enjoy that time watching the babies develop.
“We’re really looking forward to watching Sugar Shoppe — a homebred out of our mare Sweet Thing and from the first crop of Walner.
“As far as drivers go, when we race in Indiana, we use drivers John DeLong and Lewayne Miller and last year racing in New York we used Tyler Buter.
“Since the demise of harness racing in Chicago, six years ago we moved to Pinehurst, North Carolina. Thirteen years ago my parents moved there and when we visited them we fell in love with the area and track. After my father’s passing seven years ago, we felt we should be nearer to my mother.”
Jay Hochstetler graduated from the University of Kentucky with an equine management degree, and is presently working for his parents at Hoosier Park.
“Last May, Jay married Dr. Amy Narotsky, the daughter of Elliot Narotsky who was the race secretary at the Chicago tracks,” Connie said.
Being in the business for decades, Connie has seen the best times and unfortunately the decline.
“I feel there is not one reason for the decline in our sport. Twenty years ago when harness racing was in its prime there was not as much to do and many people would come to the track for a nice evening out. It was a great time and I miss the fans.
“Another thing that hurt us is the closing of the stable areas. Owners and guests were able to visit their horses and that was exciting for them. Now, many stay home to watch their horse race and that’s not nearly as exciting as being there, cheering their horse on, and going to the winner’s circle if the horse won.
“There are many other things that have hurt our sport — too many to list — but harness racing has been very good to my family and I am grateful for it.
“Because of harness racing, I met my husband Homer and made countless of good friends and business associates. I pray it flourishes in the future.”