A smile formed on Lee Battaglia’s face, and his eyes lit up, as he reminisced about a favorite former athlete with whom he had contact.
It was not Kurt Thomas, the former Olympic gymnast who was Battaglia’s teammate at Indiana State and who Battaglia later coached.
It was not Jenny Covers, the former Prairie Ridge gymnast who won seven state titles and now competes for the University of Minnesota.
The athlete of whom Battaglia spoke was much heavier and has four legs. His name is Coach Jimi Lee, a thoroughbred Battaglia purchased with his partner, trainer Jimmy DiVito, in 2001. It was the third horse they co-owned and by far their most successful.
Battaglia is better known for his coaching prowess at Crystal Lake Gymnastics Training Center. He also is the coach of Prairie Ridge’s High School team, a co-op that draws girls from Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake Central and Prairie Ridge.
Battaglia’s other business is owning race horses. He owns three on his own and six with DiVito, who trains all their horses. When Coach’s Choice, a 3-year-old filly, runs on opening day Friday at Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero, Battaglia will not be there. He will be coaching Prairie Ridge in the girls gymnastics state meet in Palatine, where the Wolves will be favored to win the team trophy.
Battaglia sees a correlation with the two sports in which he is involved.
“Horses are athletes, just like a gymnast,” he said. “You put them in races where they can win. A horse that isn’t as good as Jimi Lee can run in a $10,000 claiming race. Then, you have Jimi Lee, who can run in a $100,000 race. Their training is very similar to athletes, it’s the same thing.”
Battaglia had a limited knowledge of horses before 1989 when Peter DiVito, Jimmy’s son, was training at Battaglia’s United States Gymnastics Training Center in Lake Zurich. Battaglia remembers Jimmy sitting at the gym, during his son’s practice, reading a racing form. It piqued Battaglia’s curiosity, and eventually he and DiVito talked more about horses.
Battaglia liked horses, but his extent of contact had been as a boy riding one of the harnessed ponies at a fair. DiVito’s father trained horses for 60 years – “We have 100 years training between us now,” he says – and brought Battaglia along into the racing game.
“We have a real good partnership,” said DiVito, who lives in Palatine and races their horses mainly at Hawthorne and Arlington Park. “I do the training and he does the watching and the winning. I said, ‘Let me do the training.’ He can train the gymnasts; I can train horses.”
DiVito has the gift for finding horses at auctions. It’s instinctive, honed through years of working, observing and learning from his father. Coach Jimi Lee fit his criteria, so he bought him for $15,000, $7,500 apiece for DiVito and Battaglia.
Battaglia considers Coach Jimi Lee the best financial investment he ever has made. No wonder Battaglia often dons a cap with a horse figure and “Coach Jimi Lee” on the front.
“Jimi Lee was our lottery ticket,” Battaglia said. “We have done well, and I attribute that to Jimmy. He knows these horses. I have all the faith in the world he does a good job for us.”
There were offers for Coach Jimi Lee. Substantial, generous offers. Offers that DiVito wanted to take, but Battaglia could not. Finally, Battaglia told DiVito to not even mention when another offer was made.
“[Coach Jimi Lee] brought me some of the most memorable times of my life,” Battaglia said.
Coach Jimi Lee surpassed $1 million in career earnings at the age of 11 and was retired. He now lives in a barn at Hawthorne and, as Battaglia says, pretty much runs the place. Battaglia says he thinks Coach Jimi Lee knows he was a big deal. He does, after all, still hold Hawthorne’s course record for 6 furlongs (1:07.27).
Battaglia’s only regret with Coach Jimi Lee is that the horse was gelded when he was 2 and cannot breed.
“Ohhhhh, let me tell you,” he says, “that would be great.”
Battaglia lives in Hawthorn Woods with his wife Jeri and two dogs – a Bullmastiff named Belmont and a Pit Bull named Bonnie. He grew up in Evanston and Buffalo Grove and graduated from Buffalo Grove High School in 1977. He was the 1977 IHSA boys gymnastics state meet runner-up on the parallel bars and horizontal bar and earned a scholarship to Indiana State, where he became teammates with Thomas, the future world champion and Olympian.
He finished at Northern Illinois University, then worked as assistant coach there for two years and opened USGTC in 1986 in Lake Zurich. He helped train Thomas during his comeback through 1992, then opened CLGTC in Crystal Lake. He also co-owns Huntley Unlimited Gymnastics School with Jerry Leonard.
Prairie Ridge’s teams have become a state power through the girls he coaches in club season. He gets the best of the four District 155 high schools – C-G, Central, Crystal Lake South and Prairie Ridge – and the Wolves took third as a team last year.
Sophomores Rachael Underwood and Riley Mahoney were third and sixth overall last year. Sophomore Jada Berkland is healthy this season and has been a force. Senior Savanna Mensching, sophomore Dylann Perrone and freshman Maddie Solka also have qualified in individual events. Mensching and Danielle Dyra are the Wolves’ only seniors.
In sports parlance, Battaglia “has the horses” to pull off something extra special this weekend in Palatine.
“It’s so neat how you can train a horse to get ready for a race, and you have athletes like Rachael or Riley who are so good,” Battaglia said. “It’s fun to work with them. Like Jimi Lee, he was a natural. He wanted to do it.”