By Dean Towers
April and May are the months in harness racing I love, and kind of love to hate. The three year olds we all watched, followed and examined at two are coming back, the qualifiers are fast, frequent and furious, and stakes season is just on the horizon. During this time we also have a silly season (that’s the part I kind of don’t like).
Yes, this is the time of year when one race, one break, one on-a-line race can suddenly become a tragedy of epic proportions. On the flip side, one good mile – whatever the circumstance – can mean the end of the competition; give him or her the trophy right now.
This past weekend the multi-talented trotting lass Mission Brief made her debut at the Big M. She seemed to be unwilling to sit in a hole, brushed to the front and won easily, but her gait did not seem anything like we’re used to with her- at cruising speed she is the proverbial glass of champagne on the back trotter, but wasn’t this night. I was not at the track, but I noticed after the race Darin Zocalli tweeted that she broke after the wire.
We better strike Mission Brief off the Hambletonian list then, shouldn’t we?
Conversely, Artspeak, the many-gears son of Western Ideal made his debut. That 9-5 price was high because Art seemed to be pretty risky. He was shut down early last year because of breaks and in his first qualifier he made another one, just like last season. Oh, oh, he was tweaked training down and his problems are still there.
We better strike him off the North America Cup list then, shouldn’t we?
All Art did was brush to the lead, come home in 54 flat pacing 1:49 while never being asked. His last three quarters were an astounding 1:20.3. Before the race, trouble, after the race he was supposedly beating the early season buzz horse Wiggle it Jiggle it by open lengths.
How quickly things change.
A less than impressive effort by the super-fast Mission Brief is concerning. I am sure Ron and Yannick and the owners are concerned, but it’s not the end of the world. In April after the first qualifier I am sure Tony and the crew were concerned about Artspeak, too, but with a little patience and hard work, that concern seems to have made the way right out the shedrow door. Ron and his team don’t miss much, and they’ll probably figure things out just fine.
I find this type of ‘right now’ reaction is a sign of the times.
Back in 1980, it was irrelevant if a horse won a debut at three or four. In fact, often times the horse was trained down to 2:01, in preparation for a race that would go in 1:57, come off the pace, brush home in :28 and come third. After the race, the press, the connections, virtually everyone would read about the solid debut in a newspaper or trade magazine. Everything would be just fine.
Even as recent as 2003 this phenomenon was for the most part, harness racing. No Pan Intended, the three-year-old trained by Duke Sugg, took back to last in his nw2 debut and brushed home like a good horse should. After seasoning somewhat over the next few races he found his feet. He won 17 of 21, including the classics. No one remembers his debut, and no one wrung hands that he lost. In fact, he took his lifetime mark in his last career start, not his first at three.
Nowadays, that’s been turned on its ear. With a non-winners of three field ready to go 1:50 or sub-1:50, trainers want their charges to be able to go 1:50 or better right off the bat. That means two or three or sometimes more high speed qualifiers to get tight. If the alternative is chosen, where a trainer wants to brush home in an overnight or a useful prep for a long season, he or she can be crucified, sometimes I suspect by their owners. On social media it can be even worse.
Frankly, I surmise that most colt trainers want nothing to do with this kind of speed in April or early May. I think they’d love to be Duke Sugg and let their charges find their feet. But it’s just not 2015 harness racing.
As stars like Sebastian K, Father Patrick and last year’s Horse of the Year JK Shesalady get set for their debuts, don’t forget, it’s early. As Mission Brief and Artspeak try to live up to lofty expectations, remember it’s a long year. A loss in April or May – heck any one loss actually – is not the end of the world; a win is not the be all and end all. They’re horses – all different and all with their own set of issues. Give them some time and patience. It will all work out in the wash.