DELAWARE, Ohio -- Late on Wednesday, after his Princess Cruiser finished sixth out of seven in the Jugette for 3-year-old fillies, trainer Jim Mulinix, equal parts dejected and nervous, headed back to his hotel room to get ready for one of the biggest days of his professional life.
Before the next sunset, A Rocknroll Dance would go to the gate in the Little Brown Jug at Delaware County Fairgrounds. Rocknroll is a big name these days and so is Mulinix, but that hasn't always been the case for the human half of the equation.
"Almost all of the trainers in the Jug are hall-of-famers or will be in the future," Mulinix said in the quaint, time-stands-still Jug Barn Thursday morning. "Well, except for a couple of us little guys."
So this little guy from Wauseon turned on the TV in his hotel room and there was the movie Rocky. It has been around for more than 35 years, Rocky Balboa swapping punches with Apollo Creed, and Mulinix was sure he'd seen the end of it, but maybe not.
"I was waiting for Rocky to win and, I'll be darned, Rocky lost," Mulinix said. "I didn't remember it that way. But the bottom line is he was a contender, the heavyweight contender.
"And, right then, I realized that's what the Jug was all about for me. It's an honor. Win or lose, we were a contender and we made all those hall-of-famers a little nervous."
As it turned out, the win-or-lose part came up lose. A Rocknroll Dance, with Yannick Gingras in the sulky, has arguably been the top 3-year-old colt pacer in the country in 2012, but was off his game Thursday.
Mulinix's horse couldn't overcome the luck of the draw. Starting on the far outside in its elimination heat, Rocknroll advanced to the finals with a third-place finish, but then had to start from the No. 5 post in the seven-horse Jug championship heat.
Gingras couldn't make a charge out of the gate, got parked on the rail, and finished sixth. Michael's Power, a New York-owned horse, barely missed its lifetime best time while crossing in 1:50 to win the Grand Circuit event, part of pacing's triple crown, by 1 3/4 lengths over Sweet Lou.
The combined Mulinix-A Rocknroll Dance story, the no-name trainer and $15,000 yearling nobody else wanted, has captured the fancy of harness racing fans everywhere, and 48,247 were on hand Thursday for the greatest county fair racing program in America.
Rocknroll was trying to add to winner's circle appearances in the $600,000 Meadowlands Pace and the $500,000 Battle of the Brandywine, and bump its career earnings of more than $1.8 million in less than two full seasons of racing.
This was the race Mulinix, a product of Anthony Wayne High School, wanted the most. So did Ohio, especially northwest Ohio.
They've been running the Jug since 1946, when Ensign Hanover -- owned by Kentuckians, trained by an Indiana resident, and bred at a farm in Pennsylvania -- won the winner's share of a $35,000 purse.
Not then, and not in the 66 years since, has a northwest Ohio owned and trained horse won the Jug. This figured to be the best chance, but the drought continues.
Still, as Mulinix said, it was an honor for one of the "little guys" to make it to what is now a $487,550 event.
The one-time University of Toledo football player had been here once before, in 2010, with a horse named Just Crowned, which he trained but did not own.
"We really weren't a contender," he said. "But we were in this very same stall and I sat in this same chair and watched all the hall-of-famers, watched their operations. It gave me the idea that I was capable of doing this."
His purchase and development of A Rocknroll Dance put to bed any questions, regardless of Thursday's disappointment. He called the last two years a life-altering event for himself, wife Ellen, and fellow owner Denny Miller of Archbold.
"I look around here and these are the guys I always looked up to," Mulinix said of other owners and trainers in the Jug Barn. "Now to have them call me by name, to have my horse and stable be considered a threat, to have their respect … well, it's been quite a ride. I'm proud of my horse and I'm proud of what we've done."
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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