by Brett Sturman
Ariana G seeks to become the first female to win the $500,000 Earl Beal final in its seven-year history on Saturday night at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, after last week becoming the first female to even enter the race. The heroine of the trotting ranks has overwhelmed her divisional rivals for the last year now and a win Saturday should keep her squarely on the march to the ultimate showdown with her male counterparts — the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands almost one month from today.
Trained by Jimmy Takter and driven by Yannick Gingras, Ariana G was able to waltz around the track last week unopposed in comfortably winning her elimination. Takter has owned this race in recent years, winning three straight editions of the race with Corky, Father Patrick and Pinkman between 2013 and 2015.
After being able to set her own terms through a near :58 half mile last week in her elimination race and her debut against males, Ariana G may find the going a bit tougher in Saturday’s Beal final. Landing an outside post could complicate things, but the far larger concern should be the colt starting all the way from the inside, Long Tom.
Long Tom is one of two Muscle Hills in here (Ariana G being the other) and he’s come back this season in spectacular form after being highly regarded when first arriving here from Europe in the spring of last year. With Tim Tetrick in tow, Long Tom will be driven with confidence and won’t be intimidated by the super filly.
Regarding his chances Tetrick said, “I think I’ve got a really good shot. (Ariana G) has an outside post and I’ve got an inside slot. My horse has done nothing wrong and has raced really well every time this year… Last week, (Long Tom) was off three weeks so he should be even tighter and fitter now. He trotted really good last week; never pulled the plugs and he won by open lengths.”
Tetrick drove Long Tom on three different occasions last year as 2-year-old in the Bluegrass and International Stallion Stakes at Lexington, as well as the Matron at Dover. Tetrick observed that we’re looking at a much different horse this year than what we saw last year. He described Long Tom as “very much improved. He grew up a lot and he filled out. Last year he would make some mistakes. He would hit a knee, hit a shin and his gait wasn’t flawless.” But this year has been completely different.
“He’s come back this year and has been super gaited,” Tetrick said of the Marcus Melander trainee. “He’s gotten wider so he’s not touching his knees like he was last year. He just seems like a very different horse than last year.”
After winning the $100,000 NJSS final at the Meadowlands, Long Tom crushed his Beal elimination competition when he romped home by six lengths while never being asked. Him and Ariana G are the only ones in here to not yet taste defeat in 2017 and the Beal sets up what could be the beginning of this colt and filly rivalry, should they meet back up in the Hambletonian.
In the Ben Franklin, the freakishly fast Mel Mara has come back this year looking like a horse that’s now been able to consistently put it all together. The speedball has been finishing off his miles strong and he was pacing away strongly from his rivals in last week’s elimination. Don’t forget that this one wasn’t that far beaten in last year’s race for the ages that was won by Always B Miki in 1:47.
With 8-year-old Mel Mara being installed as the program favorite and the 9-year-old Keystone Velocity being the second morning line choice, the top two program horses are 17 years old, combined. Keystone Velocity has been only a conditioned level horse for much of his career, but the Levy winner has stepped up time and time again when it counts for trainer Allard and he’ll probably drift up in odds once again despite winning his elimination last week.
Perhaps the best alternative to the favorite is the gritty All Bets Off. This one was touched off last week by Keystone Velocity but he went the far tougher trip of the two when McWicked stayed on the inside and had to go first over a very long way. Dealt A Winner was the other elimination winner when he got first run at a longshot on the lead and was able to win easily; it came in the weakest of the eliminations however.
What a puzzle the Max Hempt has turned into in the course of just one week. It figures that after writing a column about how boring and formful elimination races are that two of the three Hempt elimination would produce shockers, including the slaying of 1-9 favorite Fear The Dragon.
The question in this race is what to make of the performance last week from the North America Cup winner. Fear The Dragon had no real response when passed by Miso Fast and it’s possible that he was simply a tired horse coming off that taxing NA Cup final where almost all of the top finishers were only pacing home in last quarters of :28 to :29. Fear The Dragon was cutting back into Miso Fast’s lead approaching the wire but that might have had more to do with Kakaley shutting the engines down on his horse that already had the race well in hand. Miso Fast finally had a chance last week to flaunt his best after a series of no shot chances; this post should suit his racing style well.
Downbytheseaside is certainly getting along well with Sears. After winning his elimination last week in first over style, Sears will having Downbytheseaside motoring early in the final. That was a wicked display of speed this one showed at Mohawk two back and he obviously owns a strong history of the Pocono track. In the Downbytheseaside elimination last week, Donttellmeagain lunged late when he found a seam in the stretch for Tetrick. He may need similar luck but could play a late role if there is some type of prolonged battle up front.
In the James Lynch, it seems like Idyllic Beach may suddenly be forgotten while starting from post 9 and having been assigned a 6-1 morning line. This is a very well-matched group of filly pacers and in all likelihood this one would have won the Fan Hanover at Mohawk two back if not for a bad couple of steps in the stretch. There was nothing wrong with her race last week almost nailing the 1-5 Tequilla Monday in what turned out to be a two-horse breakaway and I’m sure Yannick will figure out a way to get involved; I wouldn’t overlook.
Agent Q was able to turn the tables on Bettor’s Up after that filly nosed her out in the Fan Hanover; rubber match now. Tequila Monday was able to get some redemption last week in her elimination after coming up short in the Fan Hanover as the heavily backed fave; will most likely be controlling the race from the rail with Sears. You have to get Brazuca credit for winning on the step up last week and she was well backed at the windows to do so; gets the ultimate test for class now.
Lynch: Idyllic Beach, Tequilla Monday, Agent Q
Hempt: Miso Fast, Downbytheseaside, Fear The Dragon
Franklin: Mel Mara, All Bets Off, Rockin Ron
Beal: Long Tom, Ariana G, Bill’s Man