By John Furgele
The TVG Finals at The Meadowlands on Nov. 21 brought together some of harness racing’s most popular performers who wrapped up their careers in style.
The Finals comprised four of the 13 races on the card, with the $320,000 TVG Open Final kicking things off as race 2. Manchego, in her final start, was sent off the narrow even-money favorite over Atlanta in the field of five, and she didn’t disappoint, taking the lead in the stretch to win in 1:51.3.
The win was her 33rd in 56 career starts and pushed her earnings to $2.72 million. She started her career with a victory at The Meadowlands and used a 27.0 final quarter to fittingly end her career with a win at the same track.
The mare was trained by Jimmy Takter during her 2 and 3-year old seasons, but following his retirement, daughter Nancy picked up and the success continued.
“She’s been great since the first moment she set foot on the track,” Takter said. “I’ve appreciated every moment I’ve had with her. Ones like her don’t come around too often.”
Race 6, the $140,000 TVG Mares Trot, was taken by Plunge Blue Chip, the 9-5 second choice in the field of six. While the victory, her 23rd in 48 starts, was no shock, it was something of a surprise when winning driver and trainer Ake Svanstedt announced that this would be the last race of her career.
Svanstedt revealed that Plunge Blue Chip ($5.80) has been sold as a broodmare prospect and will be heading to Anvil and Lace Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
Bettor’s Wish has had a busy 2020. Before beginning his 4-year campaign, he bred 58 mares in New Jersey, and Saturday night he roared to an easy win in the $140,000 Open Pace to conclude his racing career.
Bettor’s Wish, no worse than third in 44 career starts, had 24 victories with $2.6 million in earnings. He will head to Diamond Creek Farm in Pennsylvania for full-time stud duty.
“I’m very sad to retire him, but it’s the right time,” trainer Chris Ryder said, “it’s the right thing to do for his stud career. There are so many good memories and I’m really going to miss him.”
The $150,000 Mare Pace saw Kissin In the Sand go out a winner as well, fighting off Shartin N to win in a dazzling 1:48.0 for Dexter Dunn (who won three of the four finals).
She will be bred to Tall Dark Stranger, the 2020 ≈ winner.
“I already told Marvin (Katz) and Bud (Hatfield) that I get to train the first baby,” said trainer Nancy Takter.
Breeding is where the money is and while it will be fun to see how the offspring of Bettor’s Wish and Kissin In The Sand perform, it is still a bittersweet feeling to seeing them race–and win–for the very last time.
All four are at the top of their games, but consider the ages. Manchego, Plunge Blue Chip and Kissin In The Sand are five and Bettor’s Wish is four, still youngsters.
There is no doubt that all could be major players on tracks for years to come, aging gracefully and taking on the younger horses when they reach the ages of six and beyond. But there is good money in breeding these days and that’s becoming more obvious in harness racing.
Standardbreds are known for their durability and some of the great ones have raced at age eight, nine, 10 and beyond. The sport’s all-time money-winner, Foiled Again, raced through age 14, the mandatory retirement age and the more he aged, the more popular he got. How popular? His 100th career win made ESPN SportsCenter’s top 10.
We’re seeing the thoroughbred influence come to harness racing. There seems to be more breeding with the big names. There have been stakes races this year where eight of the 10 starters have been sired by just two stallions. That’s not a bad thing, but you wonder if the sire poll will get smaller in the years ahead.
The good thing — in a few years we’ll have races where the sons and daughters of these four horses will square off in a big stakes race. But, I wouldn’t mind waiting a few years to see this quartet keep racing.
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.
But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.
John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.
When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.