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Bill Zendt wins 3,000th career race

June 04, 2008

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Bill Zendt collected the 3,000th win of his driving career when he piloted Fudgjoe to victory in Tuesday’s sixth race at The Meadows.


“I was tickled to get it today and get it over with,” Zendt said. “It’s been a pretty nice career. What I remember most are all the nice horses and owners I’ve had over the years. I’ve been associated with some of my owners for 30 years.”


John Marshall, vice president for racing for The Meadows, congratulated Zendt and said: “In addition to his milestones on the charts, Bill has long represented his peers with great enthusiasm in leadership roles. We are proud to have Bill call The Meadows his home track and appreciate all that he does to further the sport of harness racing.”


Tuesday’s milestone is one of many in Zendt’s distinguished driving and training career, which began under the tutelage of his father, the respected horseman Wilbur Zendt.


“I had a great teacher in my Dad,” Zendt said. “As soon as I was of age, he let me drive everything. That doesn’t happen too often, but when I was ready, he absolutely quit driving.”


After enjoying early success at Northfield Park, Zendt, 58, became a fixture at The Meadows, recording the track’s top UDR three times in the 1980s.


National racing fans may know Zendt best as the trainer of Always Cam in her 20-1 shocker in the 2004 Breeders Crown Mare Pace, when she upset the likes of Bunny Lake in 1:49.2. Insiders also appreciate his ability to identify and develop young horses—and sell them for a tidy profit. Such was his M.O. with Noble Ability, who won a Reynolds division for Zendt before passing to new owners. Noble Ability finished his career with a mark of 1:49.1 and more than $1.7 million in earnings.


“We used to do that more than anything because the purses aren’t what they are today,” Zendt said. “If you could sell a horse for good money, you’d sell him and get another one.”


But local fans may be more likely to remember Zendt’s success with such horses as Steeplejack, Natural Ability and Prescott Hanover. In 1983, when Zendt and Steeplejack found themselves in a Meadows event with the highly touted It’s Fritz, they figured to be racing for second. But It’s Fritz broke stride on the lead; when Steeplejack sped home in a world record 1:54.3, the jubilant driver offered a flourish with his whip, an uncharacteristic display for the low-key Zendt.


Zendt guided the racing careers of Natural Ability and Prescott Hanover, reacquiring them in the twilight of their careers. He nursed Natural Ability back from a broken leg and led him to 19 victories in 1983 when the old campaigner was 14. It was one of the most remarkable final-year performances in harness racing and cemented Natural Ability’s status as a Meadows legend.


A native of Lewiston, Pa., Zendt has cut back his driving—he has about 100 starts this year—but maintains a full training load. He continues to drive such outstanding horses as Kat N Mouse, the 5-year-old mare who has banked better than $200,000 in her career. Zendt’s career driver earnings now exceed $11.7 million.


But if Zendt’s drives are fewer these days, the accomplishments of his extended family continue to grow. That family includes:


  His wife, Leslie Dunn Zendt, a successful trainer who also has excelled in amateur driving events. Among the horses she conditions is the trotter Dream Photo Kosmos (1:55.2f, $364,318).


  His son Brian, an accomplished Meadows driver who piloted Hidden Viggorish to her world record 1:53.1 mile in 2006. That remains the fastest mile ever trotted at The Meadows.


  His son Phillip, Zendt’s second trainer. “He does a great job with our young horses,” his father said. “With him training, I can go away and never have to worry about the horses.”


  His father-in-law, Walter “Boots” Dunn, a trainer, a national UDR champion in his driving days and a USTA director for District 7.


  His daughter Bethann, who co-owns such horses as the Preferred trotter Tom’s OK Lady.


  Bethann’s husband, aka Dave Palone, who ranks third on harness racing’s all-time win list.


“Family keeps you interested,” Zendt said. “You might not be in every day, but they are. I like to be out there competing; I don’t want to give it up altogether. But I get just as much enjoyment when they do good as when I win.”


Ironically, Palone is the regular driver of Fudgjoe but chose over him for another horse in today’s sixth. That opened a spot for Zendt and the rest, as they say, is history. (The Meadows)

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