By John Furgele
Yes, there’s the $1 million Hambletonian on Saturday at the Meadowlands, but there’s a whole bunch of intriguing races on the undercard, too, highlighted by the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks for 3-year-old trotting fillies.
A total of 16 races are on the program, with a first post time at noon ET. The Meadowlands usually runs at night, so a hot, dry and fast track in the afternoon could produce some mighty fast times.
The Oaks elimination heats were contested last week, and when the post-position draw was held earlier in the week, Millies Possession was made the 9-5 favorite. She is trained by Jim Campbell and will be driven by Dexter Dunn. She’s done nothing wrong this year — eight starts, eight wins and her 1:51.1 time is the fastest in the field. The second and third choices are When Dovescry at 5-2 and Evident Beauty at 7-2.
Ten of the races feature purses of $100,000 or more and that figure is always an eye-catcher in harness racing. Even the first race, a $40,000 pace for 4-year olds, features 10 wily veterans, all of whom have broken 1:50 for the mile this year, led by Heyden Hanover’s 1:47.3; think about that, a sub 1:48 horse pacing in a 40k race.
As much as we love the 3-year olds, what draws me into harness racing is watching the veterans perform, and the Sam McKee Memorial Pace, which drew 12 starters and will thus be run at 1 1/8 miles, features a talented field.
Leading the way is Lather Up. All he’s done this year is bank $411,405 in just nine starts; six of them wins. On July 6, he tied the mark for fastest mile ever run by a standardbred when he stopped the clock in 1:46 on the Meadowlands track.
He is joined by McWicked, the reigning Horse of the Year, an award he won as a 7-year old. He might be finding his form at the right time; his last start was a win in the $260,000 Gerrity Memorial Pace at Saratoga on July 20. If you’re looking for the upset, the one to watch is This Is The Plan at 9-2. He only has one win this year, but he has run fast and he has had the misfortune of going head-to-head with Lather Up. That doesn’t change Saturday, but this is a horse that can win. Despite the one win in 11 starts, he has still managed to bank over $498,000 this year. He is used to the big stage and the big race and figures to push the pace. Those three appear to be the class of the field, but you never know what can happen with the extra eighth of a mile.
The John Cashman Memorial features veteran trotters running for $280,000 and a stellar field of 10 is led by 6-year old Marion Marauder, who in 2016 won the Trotting Triple Crown, which began in the Hambletonian. He has only made three starts this year, which is similar to last year when he was able to score big on Hambo Day. He loves the track and will be closing late for driver Scott Zeron.
The hot trotter in the race is Guardian Angel As, who last Sunday captured the $250,000 Spirit of Massachusetts Trot at Plainridge Park. The wise guys might want to throw him out, but he won with ease last week and my hunch says he will be ready to run even faster on Saturday.
Six Pack is also in the field and the one thing I never dismiss on Hambo Day is driver Ake Svanstedt. He’s unconventional, but always seems to come up with the goods on Hambo Day. Cruzado Dela Noche has raced internationally this year, but last year he won the $1 million International Trot at Yonkers and has run on the Big M track several times. Guardian Angel As is the deserving favorite, but this race, depending on pace, could be wide open.
The Cane Pace is the first leg of the Pacing Triple Crown. On paper, it figures to be mano a mano between Captain Crunch and Bettor’s Wish. In seven starts, Bettor’s Wish is 5-2-0 with $554,630 in earnings while Captain Crunch comes in with 4-0-0 in six starts to go along with $511,574 in earnings. In June, these two went 1-2 at the Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park, which at $1 million is the richest race in North America for pacers, with Crunch winning in the shadow of the wire. The purse may “only” be $285,362, but forget about that, this will be a dandy.
The Shady Daisy for 3-year old filly pacers is headlined by the trio of Warrawee Ubeat, Stonebridge Soul, and Tall Drink Hanover, and at 8-1, don’t discount Treacherous Reign.
The John Steele features three mares—Plunge Blue Chip, Manchego, and Phaetosive that ran in the Hambo Oaks last year. Joining them is the venerable Hannelore Hanover, who seems to be recapturing her great form of 2017 when she was voted Horse of the Year. She has three wins in five starts and has the legendary combo of Yannick Gingras driving and Ron Burke training.
I am saving the best for last, the $183,500 Lady Liberty because it features in my opinion, the best horse in training, the terrific Shartin N. Last week, she toyed with the field at Plainridge Park in the $100,000 Clara Barton Pace and it will take a herculean effort to knock off her Saturday. The field is solid with Caviart Ally, Apple Bottom Jeans, and Don’t Think Twice A, but thus far, nobody has been able to touch the “Wonder from Down Under,” who has won 11 of 12 and 10 straight this year.
There is a wild card in the name of Seaswift Joy N, who like Shartin N, is a New Zealand bred. In 19 starts, Seaswift Joy N has 10 wins, two seconds and a third, earning $195,572, all of that internationally. Brian Sears picks up the drive and that is telling. The Hall of Famer must see something in the mare to take the drive on Hambo Day.
The complete card can be found here at https://racing.ustrotting.com/chart.aspx
It is a spectacular day of racing with 16 races and 147 horses ready to run (10 of those will run twice – Hambo elims and the final) on the famed one-mile Meadowlands oval. That oval insures that there will be no excuses. In 2017 and 2018, over 18,000 were on hand with all-source handle exceeding $7 million both years. The weather looks good too, with sun and a high of 85 degrees in the forecast. Let’s hope the hot weather will provide hot racing on the first Saturday in August.
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.