Every year around this time, stakes season pushes its frisky little face through the door frame to watch us, just as a new father observes his young. It grabs ahold of us like grandma at the family reunion, who, for some reason, has the strength of sixty bulldozers as she squeezes the bloodline out of us.
Stakes season also brings with it the famed faces of yesteryear. For thoroughbreds, it’s horses like Arrogate, Keen Ice, and other thoroughbreds that I totally know. In the harness world, we have stars such as Huntsville, Walner and, of course, Wiggle It Jiggleit.
I always like to try to catch the unknown — the star-in-the-making. Maybe because it makes me feel incredibly bright to be one of the few to discover a budding star or maybe it’s because I’m hoping that one my eye for talent (the left one) will be exhibited in the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame as a spectacle for future generations. Heck, maybe my spectacles will be mounted too.
Quite frankly, it’s probably neither, but I was one of the few who said last year that Southwind Frank would not win the Hambletonian (even before the season started) and, instead, emphasized the talent of a horse named Marion Marauder, who went on to win the Trotting Triple Crown (it’s like the thoroughbred Triple Crown, except nobody knows what it is).
Usually, I hide these lists within impenetrable vaults in the event the Russians try to exploit my observations. But I’ve matured over the last year and am ready to face the consequences of publishing my thoughts for the world to see, especially the Russians.
I collected my thoughts, bottled them up, let them ferment into words and, then, poured them out. Unfortunately this process ruined my laptop, but you can’t say I’m not dedicated!
Here are seven standardbreds to watch this stakes season:
Call Me Queen Be | Open Mare Pacers
I’ll admit, I was not a big fan of this gal last season. Most of her victories on the Grand Circuit were usually the result of perfect setups or being in against weak stakes horses that only showed up so mommy could get pictures of them in their uniforms.
But her win in the 2016 Breeders Crown Three-Year-Old Filly Pace attracted me. I had never seen her grind a mile, let alone do so against one of the top fillies in the division (L A Delight). Moving into her four-year-old campaign, she’s probably only sharpened over the winter… unless she didn’t, in which case, none of this really matters.
She made her seasonal debut a few weeks back at the Meadowlands, finishing in a conditioned pace to a pocket-sitter. Discouraging, it was also her first start in the season, and she definitely seems like she can mature enough to be a major player in the aged-mare division.
Miso Fast | Three-Year-Old Colt & Gelding Pacers
I remember being at the Meadowlands for the Breeders Crown and talking to some press people about this horse. I didn’t think he could beat the favorites Huntsville or Downbytheseaside that day, but I did think he could complete exotics. One guy was focused heavily on how small of a horse he was, saying that he had no chance because he’s more of a small-track guy.
Miso Fast finished third in the Breeders Crown.
He’s definitely a small one. But he seems like the kind of kindergartner that wears his striped shirt, denim shorts and pinwheel hat all through elementary school, then, in middle school, grows 18 inches, gains 60 pounds, and speaks at frequencies low enough to communicate with whales.
Now, as cool as it would be to see a horse that is a whale whisperer, Miso Fast more likely only grew into himself over the winter, which is a scary thought considering how good he was as a pipsqueak. If we see more races like last year’s Breeders Crown, where Huntsville and Downbytheseaside were at each other’s throats, maybe we will see Miso Fast flying in for an upset or two.
Agent Q | Three-Year-Old Filly Pacers
I hate to keep using the Breeders Crown as a reference for these horses’ abilities, but man, a lot of them tipped their hands that night, and Agent Q was no different. From post 10, she parked the whole mile and accelerated wide of all her competitors around the final turn to just miss winning the Breeders Crown to the well-placed Someomensomewhere.
Not to mention I touted Agent Q in that race, too.
She was on and off the two-year-old scene last year. Racing well in the New Jersey and in the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes, she went through the season finishing well in the big dances, but was usually an opening act to division headliner Idyllic Beach. That rally in the Breeders Crown, however, shows that she may be ready to headline her own show.
Chezatter | Three-Year-Old Filly Trotters
Trond Smedshammer seems to have a way with young fillies. While he also has looks that can kill, I always end up mystified by him and young trotters. Chezatter was somewhat the same when it came time for the Breeders Crown eliminations, but, touting her as an alternative to odds-on choice Ariana G, it was amazing to see the timing of her move to win this Breeders Crown elimination, where she beat the best filly in the division.
She was somewhat flat in the Breeders Crown final, but she also appeared as if her mind was not focused on winning the race. As she grows up, she should only get better (plus I think Ariana G is going to decline, but that’s between you and I).
Devious Man | Three-Year-Old Colt Trotters
While Walner is the only three-year-old trotter it seems anybody wants to watch, this New York Sires Stakes phenom has not been recognized for his ability. Qualifying recently against Walner, Devious Man (the number 8) cosmetically looked incredible. Head arched, ears pinned down, legs moving in front of other legs, he appeared intent on crossing that finish line. Sure, Walner has the speed, but Devious Man looks like he may have the gumption… the Forest Gumption.
Trot, Devious Man, trot!
Musical Rhythm | Aged Trotters
I talked to trainer Ben Baillargeon about Musical Rhythm heading into the Cutler Memorial and he was hopeful that the horse could “pop” this season.
Debuting at Mohawk a few weeks back, he raced from off the pace for probably the first time in his career, flying home to finish second. He put in a similar, if not better, effort in the Arthur Cutler Memorial from post 10, casually, but speedily, sliding his way into the competition after being locked in for the mile. If this guy gets better drawing luck, he will no doubt be one of the top trotters of the division.
Western Fame | Aged Pacers
This horse has a way with pacing home when he has some form of cover. His performance in the first heat of the Little Brown Jug therefore is an anomaly, but the Jug has a way of placing the spotlight on obscurity (remember pacing star Limelight Beach?).
Western Fame usually popped when he got a trip; he’s very Bolt The Duer-esque. But, given his trips this season, he has already placed himself at the forefront of the four-year-old division, joining the likes of Check Six and Boston Red Rocks, who are also very trip-dependent horses. Western Fame seems like he transcends that — or else he’s really demonstrating the significance of a pocket trip or riding cover second over.
All these horses, and likely more, will try to shine this stakes season. Hopefully they do, because divisional standouts swiping purses across the country are not as fun as witnessing challenges and upsets to their record. The handicapper in me hopes that the divisional leaders moving into this season tank, because I want to be right.
And maybe I will be right.