By John Furgele
The old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” certainly applies to the Borgata Pacing Final. For years, the race was known as the Levy, but when the Rooney family sold Yonkers Raceway to MGM, the new owners rebranded the race and changed the name.
No matter. One thing remains: the race continues to draw the best older pacers in harness racing and on Monday, April 19, eight of them will be competing in the $514,000 final.
There were five legs where horses accumulated points to qualify. Each horse received 25 points for starting and from there, it was 50 for first, 25 for second, 12 for third, 8 for fourth and 5 for fifth. The eight with the most points made the final.
Leonidas is the one to beat. Buoyed by his upset in last December’s Potomac Pace at Rosecroft, he won all four of his starts to finish with 300 points. It won’t be easy for driver Austin Siegelman as they drew post 7 at the tight half-mile oval.
Leonidas is a closer; on paper it might make sense to let the others go and settle at the back and then make a big move right after the three-quarters mark. On the other hand, Siegelman could gun for the lead and then try to slow things down in the second quarter. In his four races, he has done a little of both. In the first leg, he came from off the pace, but in his last two starts, he made easy leads and dominated.
An outside post is never a bargain in harness racing, so while’s he’s the horse to beat, the safer wager seems to be in the exotics. He’s listed as 6-1, but a post from 1-4 may have made him the odds-on choice.
Western Joe finished second with 283 points, but unlike Leonidas, he ran in all five legs and recorded two victories. This will be his 12th start of the year; only Rockapelo (making his 13th) has raced more in 2021.
This Is The Plan was another horse that participated in all five legs. He picked up one win and finished with 275 points, but he fared worse than Leonidas when he drew post 8. Despite the tough draw, much respect has been allotted to trainer Ron Burke and driver Yannick Gingras. He’s listed at 5-1.
Hesa Kingslayer had three wins in his four starts and finished with 262 points. He drew the two and that makes him a live one at 6-1.
Backstreet Shadow qualified fifth with two wins and 250 points. He’ll come out of post 6 for Burke and driver Tim Tetrick at 4-1. No stranger to the big stage, he’ll be looking to avenge his narrow defeat to Leonidas at the Potomac Pace.
The freshest horse is Rockapelo. He had two wins and 230 points but skipped the fifth leg to gear up for the final. Will that help or hurt? The good news is that he drew post 1 which will give driver George Brennan lots of options. Knowing Brennan, my guess is that he sits in the pocket and lets things play out.
Mach N Cheese ran in all five legs, finishing with 220 points and one win. He’ll get Joe Bongiorno in the bike and will leave from post 3.
Lyons Steel rounds out the field and drew post 4 for Corey Callahan. He had one win and 192 points in his four races.
This is a race I always look forward to and missed badly last year. Usually run on Saturday evening, it moves to Monday because of Yonkers’ new Monday-Friday racing schedule. The Monday spotlight will be a positive. Yonkers doesn’t have to compete with the Meadowlands, or any thoroughbred stakes races and my guess is that handle will be high. Some of the fifth leg races were handling $125,000 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the final top $300,000.
Having Leonidas in post 7 makes the race more intriguing. To me, he’s the best horse, but he has obstacles. In a way, this race resembles a handicap where the best horse is forced to come from the outside.
I think Leonidas takes his time and settles in the back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him last as they come around the first time. If any horse can bide his time, Leonidas can, and I think he will slingshot to the lead right after the 7/8 marker to secure the $257,000 first place check. I expect a scintillating finish and I think when the smoke clears, Leonidas will be 6-for-6 and the 2021 Borgata champion.
I like the scrappy Western Joe to place. He battles every time out and with one of the best drivers in Dexter Dunn, it would surprise no one if he finds his way to the winner’s circle.
I’ll take Hesa Kingslayer for show. He has taken a liking to the Yonkers oval and will benefit from post position three.
It’s a great card at Yonkers. The Borgata consolation drew eight horses for its $100,000 pace with Western Fame the early 2-1 favorite.
The ladies are also in play. Alexa Skye, at 5-2, is the headliner in the $232,800 Blue Chip Matchmaker final for pacing mares. Like the Borgata, there is a $60,000 consolation with Soho Burning Love the 6/5 favorite.
Monday post time at Yonkers is 7:15 pm ET with the Borgata scheduled for 9:35 pm ET.
PP Horse Record Driver Trainer Morning Line
1 Rockapelo 12: 5-1-1 George Brennan Burke 9-2
2 Hesa Kingslayer 9: 4-1-3 Jim Marohn Jr. Deters 6-1
3 Mach N Cheese 6: 1-1-1 Joe Bongiorno Quevado 8-1
4 Lyons Steel 11: 5-1-1 Corey Callahan Watson 20-1
5 Western Joe 11: 4-2-1 Dexter Dunn Choate 3-1
6 Backstreet Shadow 4: 2-2-0 Tim Tetrick Burke 4-1
7 Leonidas 5: 5-0-0 Austin Siegelman Mcelhiney 6-1
8 This Is The Plan 5: 1-4-0 Yannick Gingras Burke 5-1
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.