55 years and going strong

Horse racing has been a Wessels family affair
By Dan Johnson Regina Wessels has gotten the last laugh on her third grade class. One day the students had to tell their classmates what they wanted to do as adults. "The whole class stood up and said what you were going to be when you grew up," Wessels said. "I said I was going to be a horse trainer and everybody laughed at me: 'What do you mean?'" Sixty years later, Wessels is still doing what she predicted. She and husband Larry are two members of what is arguably the first family of Iowa quarter horse racing. The Wesselses' involvement started in their hometown of Lamont in 1956, when Roger (Butch) Wessels, Larry's brother, bought his first racehorse. Soon, he got Larry and Regina involved, and then the children of each family became followed suit. "Butch is the one that started it all," Regina said. "He was the one that started racing. We were more into barrel racing and horse shoes. We gave Butch money and he bought a yearling for us at a sale, and from then on, we were making (race) horses. "There was competitiveness, but we knew who had the better horse and it was always Butch.” Roger's son Kirk and daughter Amy are trainers. So was his son Mike and his late son, Jeff. Larry and Regina's daughter Kelly is a former trainer and now married to jockey Tom Wellington. "They're a good family," said trainer John Hammes. "The whole family has been in it all their lives. They're hard working and successful. They've paid their dues. They're very well thought of."

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Regina (right) who trains and breeds horses with husband Larry, is shown with daughter Kelly and granddaughter Kylie.

Jack Coady/Coady Photography

Roger Wessels (left), who started racing horses in 1956, with daughter Amy and son Kirk, both trainers.

All eight of the Wessels have trained Iowa-bred stakes winners. All told, they have combined to win 29 stakes races, including 23 at Prairie Meadows. Prissy Marshall, who won the 1989 Iowa Stallion Futurity was trained by Roger and ridden by Kirk. The next year, Kirk switched to training after tiring of cutting weight so he could ride and won the race with Hobo Magic. He is one of three people to win stakes at Prairie Meadows as a jockey and a trainer, along with Mark Curtis and Shannon Ritter. For 32 seasons before Prairie Meadows opened, the Wesselses spent their summer weekends traveling to bush meets in Iowa and Nebraska. "We went when we were babies," said Amy Wessels, who took up training after graduating from high school. "We've never known anything else." There wasn't much money at the bush meets, but it didn't matter. "It was so much of our life," Regina said. "We raced at Central City along with Butch and everyone else. We ate a lot of dirt, but had a lot of fun doing it. We were all involved. our son galloped for us. We had a little track (at their acreage) where we got them ready, and off we went on Sundays."

She said the love is still there, especially for horses she and Larry have bred. "It's still a thrill to me when you raise a horse and see it from the very beginning when it's out of the mare," Regina said. "It's different when you raise them and race them, rather than going out and buying one. You're waiting four years before you find out if that horse is going to run or not and if you did the right thing in the breeding part. "You get more of a satisfaction when they do well. You get more of an attachment with the horse, because you've had it so long. When you finally win a race with it and you're getting your picture taken in the winner's circle, it's an unbelievable feeling." The Wesselses will be represented in Prairie Meadows' closing weekend stakes festival, which includes three stakes on Friday and six on Saturday. Larry and Regina have Shake Yor Moneymaker for the Future of Iowa. Amy will send out A Pizoli for the Terrace Hill Stakes. Kirk’s 10-year-old Cruzin To Victory, fresh off a win against open company in the Prairie Meadows Bonus Challenge, will try to win the Terrace Hill Stakes for the third time in his career. He was part of an Iowa foal crop that included Trs Dashin Rona and Tal Task, who are also still winning at age 10. "I don't know if I'll ever have another horse like him," Kirk said. "Horses just don't last like that. It's unbelievable." He also has Pyc Biscuit, a sharp first-time starter in his trial, in the Jim Bader Futurity, and Wheres Your Wagon for the Polk County Derby. Kirk works at a door factory in Dyersville. While he trains at Prairie Meadows and is helped by his son Alex, a student at Iowa State, his wife and son Tanner help care for the horses on their farm. "We love doing it," he said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be driving 150 miles to come here. "The thrill is still there," Kirk Wessels said. "I still have the want-to to win, believe me. When I don't have the drive anymore, you won't see me here. It doesn't matter if it's a $5,000 claiming race or one of the bigger stakes, I want to win. When it's not much a thrill to me, I'll be out." “It's been very good to us. A lot of people have been real good to me.

De Passem Okey wins Covered Bridges
De Passem Okey completed a sweep of Prairie Meadows’ distance races for quarter horses by coasting to a 3-length win in the $26,500 Covered Bridges Stakes. The Covered Bridges is one of two 870-yard stakes held at Prairie Meadows. The first was the Prairie Meadows Distance Challenge that De Passem Okey won on Sept. 2. He and First to Ramble (2008) are the only two horses to win both races. De Passem Okey took the lead midway through the far turn. In the stretch, jockey Stormy Smith kept him under a hand ride while taking a peak under his shoulder to make sure he was keeping safely in front of Lfr Simply The Best. His time was 45.278 seconds. “I could have rocked a little bit further than that,” Smith said of the margin. “That’s one of the most automatic horses I ever rode. He’s something special. He’s neat, he relaxes, he rates good. That’s probably the easiest 870 horse I’ve ever ridden in my life.” It was the fourth win in De Passem Okey's last five starts, dating back to his November win in the national finals of the Distance Challenge. It was his eighth win in 11 starts since owner Steve Holt claimed him for $7,500 out of a race at Remington Park in April 2010. He has earned more than $200,000 since. “We thought he’d be a good horse, but we were just hoping he could win a race,” said Holt, who is from Guthrie, Okla. ”And he’s won a bunch. “They just mature a little bit. He’s gotten stronger and he’s just grown. He was a little underweight and we felt like he could improve. Nobody knew he was this good. “It’s an honor to have a horse like this. He’s kind of our pet. He loves what he does. When he’s done racing, he’ll be at my ranch. I never dreamed I had a champion.“ And De Passem Okey might be getting better after having knee chips removed at the end of 2010. “I really think he feels better this year,” Holt said. “He had those chips, and he’s really sound now. From what I’ve been told, next year ought to be his best year.” Holt said De Passem Okey will race twice more this year, with his next start being the Herman Jefferson Stakes at Zia Park.

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De Passem Okey, ridden by Stormy Smith, takes the Covered Bridges Stakes by three lengths.

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