by Brett Sturman
Here’s a factoid for you: If Stay Hungry wins the Little Brown Jug today, it will mark the first time in horse racing history that a thoroughbred and standardbred Triple Crown has been won in the same year. But other than a catchy statistic, where does winning the so-called Triple Crown in harness racing actually get you.
Speaking strictly in terms of the pacing Triple Crown in harness racing (although almost the identical could be said for the trotting side of the Triple Crown, too), does the Cane Pace, the Messenger Stakes or the Little Brown Jug really come with any added prestige solely because of their status as Triple Crown races? They can’t, and it’s evident by where Stay Hungry (Somebeachsomewhere-My Little Dragon) stands in recent week’s Hambo Society/Breeders Crown Top 10 poll leading up the Jug.
In last week’s Sept. 11 issued poll, Stay Hungry made the final spot at #10. However, Stay Hungry entered that week’s poll having won three out of four, including wins in the Cane Pace and the Messenger Stakes final – the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. In this current week’s poll Stay Hungry didn’t race but moved up a notch to #9 and gained a first-place vote in the process; largely due to a slew of top 10 horses losing similar to what the Big Ten’s weekend looked like in college football.
The question becomes, how can a horse that has won the two Triple Crown races so far not be more highly regarded? Keep in mind, this isn’t some slouch of a horse that came out of nowhere and got lucky in some races. Stay Hungry is last year’s Breeders Crown champion who also has North America Cup and Meadowlands Pace eliminations wins to his credit this year.
The obvious answer is, unfortunately, Triple Crown races aren’t thought of as any different than other comparable stakes races.
And that’s too bad because if the Triple Crown were more of a real thing, there wouldn’t be anything that says “harness racing” more than going for such glory at the Delaware County Fair. The Little Brown Jug is symbolic of grassroots harness racing and it’s entirely fitting that the race be the final leg of the Triple Crown; it’s just that in this case the race doesn’t take on any additional meaning because it happens to be a Triple Crown race.
Sure, it would be nice if Stay Hungry were to win the Little Brown Jug and the Triple Crown. But it would have that much more meaning if the Triple Crown was actually something that horses made it a point to try to accomplish.
Unlike their thoroughbred counterparts who live and die by these races, part of the reason the Triple Crown is elusive in harness racing is because top horses aren’t even thought to be entered in some or all of the Triple Crown races. It’s neither a priority nor a goal. There’s no Triple Crown incentive to enter the Messenger stakes for example over some other stakes race around that same time with a similar purse, so why bother with it?
Harness racing should either re-tool the Triple Crown process from the very beginning or do away with it entirely. Right now, it’s a token term and if it had any meaning at all, the horse going for it all in the Little Brown Jug wouldn’t be an afterthought in the current ranking of the sports best horses.
If Stay Hungry wins the Jug it would be hard not to see him moving all the way up to #1 in next week’s poll. And it won’t be because of this column calling for it or because of the Triple Crown, but because what he’s done in recent weeks. In addition to a game Messenger final over Jimmy Freight, he came back a week following that race to win the Simcoe and is quickly building on his resume for divisional honors; something that he was runner-up as a 2-year-old last year. If not Stay Hungry in the Jug, then who else?
Meadowlands Pace winner Courtly Choice is sure to be protecting rail position from next door neighbor in post #2, speedster Hayden Hanover who is in excellent form himself right now. If I had to guess I’d say that with all of the early speed to the inside, it’s likely that both Stay Hungry and Dorsoduro Hanover (posts 4 and 5, respectively) will be coming from off the pace in their elimination. Both have proved they can be versatile and win that way and even though winning the elimination isn’t essential, posts for the second heat will mirror order of finish between the two eliminations so there certainly is an incentive to finish as high as possible. For Courtly Choice, he’s a $45,000 late supplement to the Jug and his connections have been rewarded thus far by drawing the rail position. It’s the third time Courtly Choice has supplemented to a race this year. It worked out in the Meadowlands Pace but not much as so in the Cane Pace; currently at #6 with two first-place votes he’s another with the potential to rocket near the top of the weekly rankings with a Jug win.
In the other elimination, Lather Up seems like an all or nothing proposition from the rail. He’s had his share of issues this year but he’s still 10 out of 12 on the year and broke in the only races he lost (though I think he was beaten in the Hempt the break aside). He’s ultra-fast when right and the biggest question will be if he can navigate the tight half-mile turns that did proved disastrous for him at Northfield one night in August. Who can forget the Jug three years ago with Wiggle It Jiggleit and now Montrell Teague is live to quickly pick up yet another Jug. I’d expect him to fire. The other horse to watch in this elimination is Wes Delight who was a Crawford Farms acquisition and goes from Harder to Chris Oakes. This horse got off to a fast start earlier this year beating some top foes in PASS action; likely to take action off that 12-1 morning line despite the outside post. Done Well is another that’s had his share of issues this year; Tetrick knows him well by now. Babes Dig Me has improved in recent weeks and This Is The Plan was resurgent last out at Pocono in the PASS finals as a big longshot.
Although only 13 horses have entered for the race, this year’s Jug seems deeper with talent than some of the recent year’s editions. Post position advantages aside, a reasonable case can be made to some degree for almost half of the horses. Triple crown or no triple crown, winning this year’s Little Brown Jug will be a deserving achievement.
Selections: Lather Up, Stay Hungry, Courtly Choice