Hambletonian:  Trainer Ron Burke Seeks Elusive First Win in Harness Racing’s Top Event

Dominant success sows seeds of outsized expectations.

Trainer Ron Burke probably realizes that more than anyone in harness racing heading into the $1 million Hambletonian Saturday at The Meadowlands Racetrack. It is the one prize that has frustratingly slipped through his hands.

The Hambletonian is the sport’s premier event, the equivalent of the Kentucky Derby for the thoroughbreds. Like the Derby, the Hambo is restricted to 3-year-olds. A horse gets only one shot at immortality.

Ten trotters will line up for the one-mile final with Burke sending out both elimination winners: Celebrity Bambino, the 2-1 favorite from the rail, and Point of Perfect, 6-1 from post 5.

Burke is the runaway leader in terms of training wins and money earned. Burke, 53, is closing in on 14,000 career wins. Virgil Morgan, Jr., next on the all-time list, trails by almost 6,600 victories.

Burke trainees have already banked $306 million. Jimmy Takter is next at $175 million.

Some observers have compared Burke to Todd Pletcher in light of their far-flung success with their respective breeds. Both know how elusive the ultimate prize can be.

Pletcher went 0-for-24 before finally getting his Derby win with Super Saver in 2010. Burke has been on the cusp of a Hambo trophy several times, only to come away empty.

His Southwind Frank lost by a nose to Marion Marauder in 2016. Burke’s sensational filly Mission Brief was second by three-quarters of a length to Pinkman in 2015.

Then came the cruelest turn of all in 2017. What The Hill was first under the wire only to suffer the first disqualification in Hambletonian history for interference in the stretch.

If at first you don’t succeed …

Burke again holds a strong Hambo hand. Celebrity Bambino leads the Burke Brigade after cruising to a dominant 1:50 4/5 win in last week’s eliminations.

“I thought he was super in the elimination,” Burke said. “He was never stressed. I just didn’t want him coming into the final tired. It’s what we’ve expected all along from him. We’ve had big hopes.”

Burke always held out hope for Point of Perfect despite his 0-for-15 mark as a 2-year-old. He is coming around at the right time, as evidenced by his 1:51 2/5 mile in a 16-1 upset score last week.

“He’s probably not as good as he’s been as he’s been in his last three or four races and he’s probably not as bad as when he was 0-for-15,” Burke said.

The major dangers to the Burke duo are Oh Well, the 7-2 second choice after a second-place finish as the 3-5 favorite behind Point of Perfect in the eliminations and Winners Bet, 4-1 from post 4 after a parked-out trip from post 10 to hold on gamely for fourth behind Celebrity Bambino.

A year ago, the biggest payoff in Hambo history occurred when 52-1 longshot Cool Papa Bell pulled off a huge upset returning $106 on a $2 win bet.

Post time is 4:45 p.m. ET.

The picks: Celebrity Bambino, Winner’s Bet, Osceola

The field for the $1 million Hambletonian, from the rail out, with driver, trainer, and odds:

1 Celebrity Bambino (Yannick Gringas, Ron Burke), 2-1
2 Oh Well (Tim Tetrick, Marcus Melander), 7-2
3 Osceola (Doug McNair, Gregg McNair), 12-1
4 Winner’s Bet (Dexter Dunn, Domenico Cecere), 4-1
5 Point Of Perfect (David Miller, Ron Burke), 6-1
6 Up Your Deo (Ake Svanstedt, Ake Svanstedt), 15-1
7 Southwind Coors (James McDonald, Matt Bax), 20-1
8 French Wine (Andy Miller, Julie Miller), 12-1
9 Ghostly Casper (Brian Sears, Benoit Baillargeon), 10-1
10 Tactical Approach (Scott Zeron, Nancy Takter), 15-1

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