By John Furgele
There is much hope in the harness racing world for a more productive and profitable 2021, but before we move too far forward, let’s look at the trotters and pacers, and drivers and trainers that played starring roles last year when the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live.
Last week, the Dan Patch Award winners were announced in a virtual ceremony. And to the surprise of hardly anyone, trainer Nancy Takter was not only voted top trainer, but three of her horses also earned Dan Patch honors.
Here’s the rundown:
The 3-year old beat out the sensational filly Party Girl Hill in what was surprisingly a comfortable margin (93-31) in voting conducted by the United State Harness Racing Writers Association. Party Girl Hill had “to settle” for 3-year old Female Pacer of the Year.
She did all she could do, going 15-0-1 in 16 starts, but Tall Dark Stranger proved his mettle by winning the richest pacing races on the calendar; the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park and the $630,000 Meadowlands Pace.
In addition, he captured the Cane Pace, the Kentucky Sire Stakes final and finished a close second at the Breeders Crown. Trained by Nancy Takter, TDS went 11-1-0 in his 13 starts and became the 19th 3-year old male pacer to capture Horse of the Year honors. Naturally, he was voted Pacer of the Year and was the only horse in 2020 to exceed $1 million in earnings with $1.3 million.
In becoming only the third trotter to win Breeders Crown races at ages 2, 3 and 4, Gimpanzee beat out Hambletonian winner Ramona Hill and Amigo Volo. Trained by Marcus Melander and driven by Brian Sears, he finished just under $1 million in 2020 earnings with $980,964. He won the Breeders Crown Open Trot, the Hambo Maturity and the Cashman, and for the year went 8-1-1 in 11 starts. He also won Older Trotter of the Year.
Went 5-0-3 in 10 starts and will be a horse to watch for the Hambletonian in 2021.
Despite the pandemic, she made 14 starts and was an impressive 10-1-1 . If she continues this dominance in 2021, will we see her in the Hambo or the Hambletonian Oaks?
If the award was for the second half of the year, this gelding might have had a shot at Horse of the Year. If you watched him trot, you could see him maturing by the race. He finished 9-1-2 in 15 starts and that included two year-enders — the Kentucky Futurity and the Breeders Crown Trot.
She won the most prestigious race on the harness calendar, the Hambletonian and went 6-1-1 in 10 starts. Unfortunately, she broke in two races late in the year — one being the Breeders Crown — and those may have cost her a shot at Horse of the Year and denied her a shot to capture further accolades.
This was a tough category because of the duels between the winner and runner-up Atlanta. When both are at the top of their respective games, Atlanta may be a tad better, but Manchego’s consistency earned her the honor in 2020. Both will likely wind up in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame – and maybe both in the same year.
Pacers usually get much faster once they turn 3, so keep your eyes on this one. He was a perfect 10-for-10 in 2020. Top wins included the $600,000 Breeders Crown and the $250,000 Kentucky Sire Stakes final.
Went 8-2-0 in 13 starts; top wins included the $600,000 Breeders Crown and the $151,030 Kindergarten Stakes final.
The 4-year old went 6-3-2 in 13 starts and saved his best for last by winning the $340,000 TVG Open Pace.
Another great season for this 5-year old, going 8-1-0 in 13 starts highlighted by the wins in the Breeders Crown, and the Dayton Distaff.
The daughter of legendary trainer Jimmy Takter, Nancy is now an established star in her own right and had a slew of riches at her disposal. She trained three Dan Patch division winners: Kissin In The Sand, Manchego and Tall Dark Stranger and is loaded again for 2021.
The New Zealand native came to North America in 2019 and is 2-for-2 in winning this award. In 2020, his earnings totaled $11.2 million and he drove the best of the best — Party Girl Hill, Fire Start Hanover, Bettor’s Wish, Kissin In The Sand, Manchego and Amigo Volo. And, just to erase any doubts, he won four Breeders Crown races.
In horse racing, it’s pretty simple; no breeders, no races and Brittany Farm continues to be dedicated to the sport’s future. The farm has bred Manchego, Bettor’s Wish and 2-year colt Pacer of the Year, Perfect Sting.
In 2020, they were third among breeders with $5.5 million in earnings.
A three generation operation with 50 years in the sport is led by matriarch Marlys Pinske, son Karl and grandson Carl. The top horse in their group is Venerate, who earned $767,914 in 2020.
All she did was produce the three-time Breeders Crown winner Gimpanzee, and all he did was earn $2.7 million in his now concluded career.
A great pacer in her own right (she was 12-for-12 as a 2-year old), she has produced two great fillies; JK First Lady, who broke 1:50 at ages 2 and 3 and JK Alwaysbalady, who finished second in the 2020 Breeders Crown final.
The trainers get all the glory, do all the interviews in the winner’s circle, but where would they be without people like Kelly Smith, who are there every day to tend to the precious athletes. Smith has worked for Hall of Fame trainer Chuck Sylvester for 30 years, and in 1993 helped Winky’s Goal win the Hambletonian. She also had a helping hand in caring for 2013 Breeders Crown winner Spider Blue Chip.
It was a trying year to be sure, and the biggest award should go to the sport itself, which managed to get through a year that saw many challenges, obstacles and tribulations. But in the end, the races went on.
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.