Hambletonian Picture Could Be Crystal Clear After Zweig

By Bill Finley

Can anyone beat Jimmy Takter in this year’s Hambletonian?

That question will be a lot easier to answer around 4:30 this afternoon as Takter will send out four of his Hambo hopefuls in the $370,000 Zweig Memorial at Vernon Downs. The Takter quartet, which will be coupled in the wagering, consists of Uncle Lasse, Canepa Hanover, Pinkman and Whom Shall I Fear. It’s not a matter of Takter separating himself from the pack but, now, one of his horses giving off signs they are the superior 3-year-old trotter in their stable.

“It’s going to be very difficult to beat any one of Jimmy’s horses, let alone all four,” said trainer George Ducharme, who will challenge Team Takter with Wings Of Royalty. “My horse has to step up a little bit to think he can go at this level.”

The situation is reminiscent of last year when Takter trained what most considered the top three members of the division in Father Patrick, Nuncio and Trixton. He wound up winning the Hambletonian with Trixton. This year, he has even more depth as he has at least five horses pointing for the race. His list of contenders also includes The Bank, a winner of a division of the Stanley Dancer who will sit this one out.

Of his four Zweig starters, Pinkman has been the most consistent and would be the favorite if the group were able to race uncoupled. The 2014 Dan Patch Award winner, he has lost just once this year from six tries. He will be driven by Yannick Gingras. Uncle Lasse is also a strong candidate as he gave Pinkman all he could handle when losing to him by just a head in the Beal Final at Pocono Downs.

Then there’s Canepa Hanover. He was a $300,000 yearling buy at the 2013 Harrisburg sales and, though he’s made only $129,868 in his career, he appears to be a horse with a huge upside. With Takter driving, he finished third behind Pinkman in a Dancer division, which was his first start in four weeks.

“He raced really, really well,” co-owner Marvin Katz said of Canepa Hanover’s last race. “He hadn’t raced in 28 days and considering he didn’t race a full race in finals of the Goodtimes (when he broke stride) it really had been five weeks since he raced. I know he trained well at the farm in between starts, but that was a big effort, a fast mile and he trotted home in a fast time (27). It was a great effort.

“I know this is a process and I have all the confidence in the world in Jimmy Takter. There’s no one better when it comes to bringing a horse to a big race like this. I don’t get discouraged or encouraged. I just sit back and watch the master at work.”

Whom Shall I Fear hasn’t hit the board in his last four starts and looks like the weakest of the group.

Ron Burke once thought his best shot at winning the Hambletonian was going to come with the filly Mission Brief. But she hasn’t been as sharp as she was last year, which has moved Habitat to the top of Burke’s Hambletonian contenders. Habitat was second in the Dancer, a neck behind Pinkman. Mission Brief will also appear on the card, racing in the Zweig division for fillies.

“Habitat is just always so consistent,” Burke said. “I think they will both do well this weekend and I enjoy racing at Vernon because it is such a nice track.”

As for Mission Brief, Burke has said she has been battling back problems throughout the year. He hasn’t ruled out racing her in the Hambletonian, but it seems more likely he will go with her in the Hambletonian Oaks. In her last start she lost by a nose in the Del Miller. It was the first time she has lost when not breaking stride.

“I know she was beaten last week,” Burke said. “But I really like how she came out of the race and I think we are ironing out her back issues at the right time. We’ve definitely been doing a lot of work on it.

“I thought Mission Brief raced super last week. I know how I feel when my back bothers me so I can only imagine what it is like for her. She fought back on the inside but I don’t think she ever saw that other filly (Spirit To Win) coming on the outside. You also have to give it that other filly. Mission Brief trotted her last quarter in :26.3 and the winner trotted in :26 flat.”

Ducharme won the 2013 Hambletonian with Royalty For Life, like Wings Of Royalty, a son of RC Royalty. He doesn’t think this year’s candidate stacks up to his Hambletonian winner, but he sees a horses that is on the improve.

“I don’t think he has the raw speed that Royalty For Life had,” Ducharme said. “He seems to be more a grinder type horse that seems to be getting better at the right time of the year. But Jimmy will be tough. I think he’s definitely got all the best cards in his hand.”