Four expert handicappers break down the four biggest stakes on one of the biggest race cards of the year.
Saturday at Mohegan Sun Pocono (post time 6:30 pm. Eastern time), one of the best collections of equine talent assembled this year will do battle in a stakes-laden card featuring the $300,000 James M. Lynch Memorial for three-year-old pacing fillies (race nine), the $500,000 Max C. Hempt Memorial for sophomore pacing colts (race 10), the $500,000 Ben Franklin for older pacers (race 11) and the $500,000 Earl Beal Jr. Memorial for three-year-old trotting colts (race 12).
To celebrate this tremendous card of racing, Harness Racing Update is proud to bring you handicapping of the four stakes from four experts — Sam McKee, the Hall of Fame race caller from the Meadowlands Racetrack; Chad Rozema, a lead standardbred analyst and broadcaster with the Woodbine Entertainment Group; Hall of Fame handicapper, statistician, broadcaster and historian Bob Heyden and HRU columnist Dean Towers, an officer with the Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA).
James M. Lynch Memorial
SELECTIONS: 7 – 6 – 8 – 3
7 PURE COUNTRY – Strong grind-em-down effort in her elimination and coming off back-to-back wins. Last year’s 2-year-old champion seems to be back to her bruising self. Got a little lucky to shake free of mid-race traffic in the Fan Hanover. Might follow Darlinonthebeach tonight.
6 DARLINONTHEBEACH – Made it close chasing the champion last week off excess cover. Figures to be much closer to the front in the early stages tonight and may get some first turn protection from stable mate JK Fannie. She’s tough like her mom and will give it her all.
8 BLUE MOON STRIDE – Might actually be better tracking than from off the pace and can glue herself to Pure Country’s back at the start. Quality filly with both speed and versatility.
3 NEWBORN SASSY – Parlayed a good close-up trip into an elimination win. Just had a bit too far to come in Canada in the Fan Hanover. Big shot for a big piece of this one.
SELECTIONS: 6 – 7 – 8 – 2
6 DARLINONTHEBEACH – Certainly one of the top fillies in the division, but is still searching for her first big-money win. She was great from off the pace in the elim, but I would expect a more forwardly placed approach tonight. She has all the tools to be successful.
7 PURE COUNTRY – Gutsy first-over effort from the Dan Patch winner in her elim as she wore down Blue Moon Stride. She’s so handy and her versatility will serve her well Saturday from this post. The Takter star is on a roll and should be right there.
8 BLUE MOON STRIDE – Worked her way to the lead early last week and looked like she might upset the favourite before settling for second. She’s more powerful on the end of her miles this year and will need a huge effort to hit the board from this draw.
2 I SAID DIAMONDS – Put up the early fractions in her elim before being picked off late by Newborn Sassy. She should be tighter second time back after a month hiatus and figures to make her presence felt early. She’s 11-for-11 in the money during her career and merits some respect.
SELECTIONS: 7 – 6 – 3 – 8
7 PURE COUNTRY – Hasn’t missed a beat turning three. Jimmy Takter set the then stakes mark in 2012 with American Jewel of 1:49.2, one of four daughters of Somebeachsomewhere in this powerful field. Brett Miller can either be the last to the top or grind it the last quarter. She has proven she can handle it either way. Diamond Creek bred three Breeders Crown winners in 2015 and are continuing right on.
6 DARLINONTHEBEACH – Is one of 11 homebreds in these four finals — and one of two for Nancy Johansson in here. Owned by the farm that went one-two in the 2013 Horse of the Year ballot (White Birch) she’s been on her game in every start. Her dam, Darlins Delight, won this in 2006. She looms as the main rival for Pure Country in a great race to start the Pick 4.
3 NEWBORN SASSY – Is quietly over 50 per cent lifetime (nine-for-17) for the over-achieving JoAnn Looney barn. That outfit has defeated the 2015 Pace and Hambletonian winner. She gets dismissed in the wagering too. She has yet to be favored in any sophomore start. She has proven she belongs with the elite of the class and driver Tetrick had the first two sub-1:50 wins in this stake with Southwind Tempo and American Jewel. (2007, 2012).
8 BLUE MOON STRIDE – Looms the most dangerous horse in the field simply because she figures to tailgate Pure Country. Andy McCarthy is slowly coming into his own. He qualified a pair, but this filly is just starting to flex her muscles and can bring some longshot glory to Australia with an upset. A must-use in the trifectas and supers.
SELECTIONS: 6 – 2 – 7 – 3
6 DARLINONTHE BEACH – Feels like the leader of the division, even though she’s lost her last two. She has been driven conservatively, but will likely be sent to the lead here, and if she gets it, the race might be over. I think the world of this filly. She’ll be my pick 4 key.
2 I SAID DIAMONDS – Was ready to go off the month break in her prep, but in my view, she probably wasn’t tight enough to go 1:50 race speed. She should be forwardly placed and has a great shot to hit the ticket.
7 PURE COUNTRY – Has done absolutely nothing wrong her last two, but I am not sold on her yet. She was fortunate my top pick was trapped along the wood in the Fan Hanover, and grinded down a 6-1 shot in her last. I think her lines are flattering her a little, and she’ll be a very short price.
3 NEWBORN SASSY – Has turned into a nice, useful filly. She always seems to fire and is as honest as the day is long. She’s probably not quite as fast as my top three choices, but if she gets some racing luck I don’t think anyone would be too surprised to see her convert.
Max C. Hempt Memorial
SELECTIONS: 7 – 8 – 2 – 6
7 KATIES ROCKER – Couldn’t touch Racing Hill in his elimination but has a puncher’s chance at a decent price with a little bit of racing luck. Has plenty of try and might get either a good up-close spot or a good pace set-up with Control The Moment outside of him.
8 CONTROL THE MOMENT – Very talented colt who will probably have to send out of there at full speed for the third straight start. Someone will probably sting him a bit in the opening three-eighths or they might not have much chance to track him down.
2 RACING HILL – Razor sharp right now and in the catbird seat drawing inside the main contenders. Was able to wear down Control The Moment in the NA Cup final and might well be sitting on his back tonight with a passing lane. Pocono – like practically all five-eighths mile tracks today – plays to speed and this colt could end up in the perfect spot.
6 BOSTON RED ROCKS – Couldn’t quite get past Control The Moment in his elimination, but seemed sharper than he did in the North America Cup final. Tetrick may well be as good a tactical big race driver as there is right now. No reason he can’t step up and regain the top spot among sophomore pacing colts.
SELECTIONS: 2 – 8 – 7 – 6
2 RACING HILL – Posted his first win of the year by capturing his elim with an impressive front-end march where he had to fend off a rushing Talk Show going to three quarters. The Alagna pupil draws an advantageous post and should be tough to keep from gaining his first big money final.
8 CONTROL THE MOMENT – Followed up his tough trip in the NA Cup with a sharp wire-to-wire elim victory. The unfortunate draw could lead to a similar trip scenario as two back, but I believe he’s getting stronger with each start. I wouldn’t count him out as a win candidate.
7 KATIES ROCKER – Worked out an ideal trip last week but proved to be second best behind Racing Hill. He came on strong late last season and showed he was capable of threatening on the Grand Circuit. The strong finisher can land on the ticket if he gets off to a quick start.
6 BOSTON RED ROCKS – Was given a chance to win by Tetrick last week, but his inside rally fell a half-length short of Control The Moment. He’s missed the board just once in his career and can trip out for another top result if he’s quick off the gate.
SELECTIONS: 2 – 6 – 7 – 8
2 RACING HILL – Will likely be the choice at post time, with the emphasis on post position. He simply drew better than the three main contenders, who’ve gotten 6-7-8. From the first crop of the richest horse of 2011, Roll With Joe ($1,649,725), he can leave in a huge hurry and force the others to make early decisions or encounter traffic issues. One of three homebreds on a card where all four final faves are homebreds.
6 BOSTON RED ROCKS – He stepped it up at the end of last year, but is facing some more quality at three, clearly. Still, he’s got a big engine. You have the Elliott-Tetrick angle that always helps and he did show improvement from the NA Cup final to last week’s elims.
7 KATIES ROCKER – Can deliver the goods for Jules Siegel in his home state with the right trip. He tripped out to win the NJSS final, and while that kind of journey is not likely, you have the hot hand in Dave Miller and hasn’t missed the board since November.
8 CONTROL THE MOMENT – Showed patience and gameness last week as he took to the states-showing those here that his gaudy 2015 numbers were not a mirage after all. Still, post 8, inside speed and a horse who went right by him for second in the NA Cup has drawn six spots inside him. Tough to recommend from here.
SELECTIONS: 2 – 7 – 9 – 5
2 RACING HILL – Is the obvious choice in the Hempt and I have no quarrel with that. This colt has taken a bit of time to find his feet, but when he did he’s fired off some big miles. He has a post edge, and should be able to work out a trip.
7 KATIES ROCKER – Would need to be better this week than last to contend, and I think he might be. His races at the Meadowlands showed high speed on both ends, and last week felt like a true prep to me.
9 CONTROL THE MOMENT – Is a talented colt who won his elimination quite easily; much easier than it looks on the program page. He tried to speed pop in the North America Cup and didn’t fade in the stretch, showing he’s some solid stock. I think driver Randy Waples looks for an easier journey in this final.
5 TALK SHOW – Hooked my top choice last week, closing to within a whisker at the three quarter pole while going 25.4 down the back. I think that signifies he is very sharp and a case can be made this speedy yet inconsistent colt can give them all a run at a big price.
SELECTIONS: 3 – 7 – 6 – 1
3 WIGGLE IT JIGGLEIT – In what will probably be the race of the year, perhaps the race of the decade, and maybe even a Life Sign Jug-like battle for the ages, Wiggle It Jiggleit has the post advantage and the speed to control the front end. He looks sounder, better-gaited, more muscled up and stronger at age four. Based on how the race plays out, it looks like they’ll have to come and get him on a speed favoring racetrack, which is why he gets the slightest nod.
7 ALWAYS B MIKI – This horse is an absolute monster, tough as nails, and words cannot describe his effort last week to win his elimination. There is no doubt in my mind he will pace under 1:46 this summer on a mile track under ideal conditions. Who knows, he might even do it in this race. The one minor Achilles heel he seems to have is cornering on the turns. He still gets around them fast, but a foot could easily be the difference between winning and losing in this race. He will probably be out the entire mile and will want to stay fairly close to the lead. Top two are about dead even in my mind because of the starting positions.
6 FREAKY FEET PETE – Shockingly easy 1:47.1 elimination winner is more than capable of upsetting the top pair with an up-close trip. Tricky strategy decision because the pace is going to be blazing and ending up first up might not work for anyone except Always B. Miki.
1 MEL MARA – Scary-fast horse can sustain that high speed for a long way. Parked out Always B Miki in a cutthroat elim battle but couldn’t stay with him. Perhaps the best move tonight is to yield to Wiggle It Jiggleit and try to trip out.
SELECTIONS: 7 – 6 – 3 – 2
7 ALWAYS B MIKI – Went some kind of trip in his elim being hung out after failing to clear and pulling away late to equal the world record of 1:47. The Takter star will have to be huge again in this epic showdown and I can’t wait to see what he has for an encore. A win tonight would stamp himself as the top older pacer in North America.
6 FREAKY FEET PETE – Set a new world record for 4yo’s last week when cruising to an open length 1:47.1 tally. He’s the only pacer to have defeated WIJI twice and now has to contend with that one and Always B Miki tonight. He rarely travels outside the Midwest but when he has, he’s done well.
3 WIGGLE IT JIGGLEIT – Fought off pressure while on the lead to score an elim victory in 1:48.1 and remain undefeated in five career outings over the Pocono five-eighths. Drawing inside could be key to his success as he’s expected to fight hard to control the pace. The heavyweight meets ‘Miki’ for the initial time and there should be plenty of fireworks.
2 SHAMBALLA – Parked through a quick opening quarter last week and stayed interested late to qualify for tonight’s final. Last year’s Canadian Pacing Derby runner-up at Mohawk has proven to be a top threat in the older ranks. He can finish strong and will be one to watch in the stretch with wicked fractions expected upfront.
SELECTIONS: 3 – 6 – 8 – 1
3 WIGGLE IT JIGGLEIT – May have won the race at the draw. Remember how he went right by Artspeak at the three-quarters in the Battle Of Brandywine here last year? No doubt he loves the track, and will look to do what he did in the Battle Of Lake Erie when the race ended about 20 seconds in. Not likely with the presence of Mel Mara, but still, this freak of nature is, with a win tonight, about to surpass three Horses Of The Year on the earnings list (Bunny Lake, Rocknroll Hanover and Rocknroll Heaven).
6 FREAKY FEET PETE – Uncorked a lifetime best last out and is going to be 6 or 7-1 Saturday. Love it. Not familiar with his sire Rockin Image? He was the last horse to defeat the 2010 HOY Rocknroll Heaven. How about Trace Tetrick? He won the Breeders Crown last year and it was his supplement that may have convinced the Wiggle It Jiggleit connections not to supplement (Remember WIJI is a gelding). Great action anticipated and FFP looks to be a part of it all.
8 ALWAYS B MIKI – May have the most untapped potential of any horse ever. Remember his second-place finish in the 1:46.4 Meadowlands Pace won by He’s Watching? Beyond incredible. His last two starts have seem him breezing — the first to a Canadian record and then last week to equal the Sweet Lou mark from 2014. The issue here, of course, is post 8. Let’s not forget that 2012-2013 Pacer Of The Year Captaintreacherous was lost out there in this very race in 2014. Cannot wait for the most eagerly anticipated race in — well, as long as I can remember.
1 MEL MARA – The “X-Factor” here. Olympic sprinters can take a field a long way. He’s one of them. From the rail, how could he possibly be attempting anything else? While nobody is expecting him to upset this incredible triumvrate, he can make a major nuisance of himself for a good ways.
SELECTIONS: 7 – 6 – 3 – 2
7 ALWAYS B MIKI – Back in 2008, every time Somebeachsomewhere’s hooves hit the track we weren’t surprised if something earth shattering happened. For me, Always B Miki gives me that same kind of feeling. He’s big, strong and has a world of talent with virtually no bottom. A bet against him lies on a hope he doesn’t have his “A” game, because if he does, no harness horse in the world can stick with him.
6 FREAKY FEET PETE – Is clearly harness racing’s feel good story. The Rheinheimers have managed him well and it’s fun to watch them campaign him. In last week’s elimination he raced the race of his life, has never looked sounder on the track, and didn’t even break a sweat. If you don’t like this horse, respectfully, you don’t like harness racing.
3 WIGGLE IT JIGGLEIT – Is (amazingly) relegated to the third spot in my picks, which shows just how talented the top two are, and how lucky we are to have a stocked free-for-all division in 2016 to watch. At times this monster has had a little problem finding his feet, and does have nagging issues. In a race against the top two, nothing less than perfection will suffice.
2 SHAMBALLA – Is a horse that gets little respect, but has had a whale of a year.
Earl Beal, Jr. Memorial
SELECTIONS: 7 – 4 – 9 – 6
7 SOUTHWIND FRANK – Gunned down late by a dead-game Bar Hopping in his elimination, but could have needed the race after time off and an easy New Jersey Sire Stakes win where he didn’t have to do any work in a soft middle half. He’s been dominant so far in his career with the big money on the line and despite the slight setback last week, is still the one to beat.
4 DAYSON – This is a fast colt with a good late kick to him as we saw last week. Jim Morrill always saves some horse for crunch time. He could well be the fresh horse and the main danger in the stretch.
9 BAR HOPPING – Always have liked this horse. Takter was very careful with him last year racing mainly from off the pace. He seems to be learning to use his speed more and developing even more stamina. The outside post doesn’t help, but he’s a live colt on the upswing that is building a strong foundation heading for the Hambletonian.
6 BROOKLYN HILL – Has tactical early speed and will use it to sit close. Hasn’t had quite enough late punch to win yet this year, but his runner-up finishes have been quality efforts behind top ranked Southwind Frank twice and the raging Dayson last week.
SELECTIONS: 7 – 4 – 9 – 6
7 SOUTHWIND FRANK – Suffered his first defeat in almost a year last week when picked off in the final strides by Bar Hopping. The Burke pupil should be rounding into form right about now and can bounce back like true champions do. He draws one post better tonight and I’m not sure the rest can catch him.
4 DAYSON – Had a lot of work to do heading into the final turn last week, but he was up to the challenge and reeled in the leader. He’s more than just a NYSS star and fits in well here. He’s only beaten himself this year and can complete the Burke Exacta with a clean trip.
9 BAR HOPPING – Notched his first win of the campaign and bragging rights after handing Southwind Frank a rare loss last week. Tetrick might be forced to change tactics after drawing the far outside or risk parking the route. He’s a talented colt that will need a career performance to score tonight.
6 BROOKLYN HILL – Had the look of a winner in his elim, but was nailed right on the wire by Dayson. He’s been a steady contender versus the top colts and six times has finished second best to Southwind Frank. He will be forwardly placed tonight and a pocket trip behind the expected favourite could lead to another finish on the Exacta.
SELECTIONS: 7 – 6 – 4 – 9
7 SOUTHWIND FRANK – Gets to atone for a brief intermission from the winner’s circle and should have no problem here. This is not the best Beal field ever and the three horses to beat are Dayson who has erratic tendencies, Brooklyn Hill who likes the bridesmaid room and Bar Hopping who was 1-13 going into last week. No problem with these guys tonight as he begins, for real, his march to the Hambletonian
6 BROOKLYN HILL – Has eight times been second in 13 tries. That is at two and three combined. Everything went his way last time and there is no reason to believe in the final he’ll be a whole lot different. Still, he was the second fastest colt of 2015, and he did have a $390,000 price-tag on him. Dave Miller sure helps too. He has to leave and hope for a Southwind Frank Pocket and hope the fave is still a touch off.
4 DAYSON – Has that all-or-nothing thing going on. He’s 11-for-14 without a second or a third. Sire Conway Hall has re-emerged (Habitat in the Yonkers Trot 2015) and let’s not forget his Triple Crown winning son turned HOY sire Windsongs Legacy. Jim Morrill, Jr. sure got along with him last out and looks to continue.
9 BAR HOPPING – Is proof that all horses, especially three-year-olds, are on their own individual schedules. The talent has always been there, but the results, at best, have been mixed. But, remember, too, that Hambletonian Day can at times be kind to those who haven’t brought a sparkling bio. In 1995, Tagliabue entered the day one-for-seven lifetime. Plus, maybe Timmy and this son of Muscle Hill have teamed up at just the right time.
SELECTIONS: 9 – 7 – 4 – 6
9 BAR HOPPING – Even from the outside, is my top pick. This talented colt went through a little lull, with apparent nagging issues, but when he’s right – like he looked to be in his elimination – he can handle the best three year olds in the world.
7 SOUTHWIND FRANK – Last week, Southwind Frank finally had to go fractions, and met a colt who could test him. Although he was beaten, he showed his mettle and talent. With a slight post advantage he could turn the tables.
4 DAYSON – Was driven conservatively in his elimination, which was probably a wise move after a hiccup at Mohawk. The colt responded beautifully with a strong surge to run down a very nice horse in Brooklyn Hill. It would not shock me in the least if this fella has a nice trip and grabs all the chocolates.
6 BROOKLYN HILL – At the present time, looks a slight notch below my top three.