Atlanta thrives on heat racing, wins Kentucky Filly Futurity

Two months after defeating the boys in the Hambletonian, Atlanta scored another two-heat victory that brought Rick Zeron to tears.

by Dave Briggs

Apparently, Atlanta thrives on heat racing. Two months after beating the boys in two heats in the Hambletonian for the father-son team of trainer Rick Zeron and driver Scott Zeron, the mighty filly returned to form Sunday afternoon with a two-heat victory at Red Mile in the 53rd Kentucky Filly Futurity, sponsored by the Father Patrick Syndicate and Diamond Creek Farms.

“A lot of people told me, one person especially – Mike Lachance – that fillies are way better going two heats than colts,” said Rick.

“He said something about the personality of a filly,” Scott added. “That they can get stretched out and then come right back. And he would know.”

Scott said he was confident about how Atlanta would perform in the final after she finished a game second by a neck to Plunge Blue Chip in their heat in a 1:49.4 mile that equaled the world record Plunge Blue Chip set earlier this year at the Meadowlands. Chief rival Manchego tired in the stretch to finish seven lengths back in third and was subsequently scratched from the final.

“I was very confident because she came across the wire very comfortably, so I was more than thrilled with the way she finished,” the driver said. “If anything, when I went past Manchego, I just kind of relaxed and I didn’t really want to go to the well, being in the elimination. To me, it was just a matter of getting her idled down the lane, but, in saying that, I kind of let Plunge Blue Chip get up to me and stay with me the whole time.”

Rick predicted in March that Atlanta would beat Manchego one day. That prediction has come true.

“Yeah. Once. Today,” Rick said. “That was the only time we ever beat her.”

Following Atlanta’s second-place effort in her heat, Rick decided, despite hesitation, to pull Atlanta’s shoes.

“Everybody I noticed today was pulling shoes and I didn’t want to pull the shoes and race her two heats. So I said to Scott, ‘If you can get us through the first heat and get into the final I’ll pull the shoes off her.’ (Trainer) George Ducharme came by and gave me a perfect set of bell boots for her because we didn’t have any.”

Scott sent the Chapter Seven—Hemi Blue Chip filly for the lead in the final while Plunge Blue Chip tucked into the pocket ahead of Lily Stride trotting into third. By the quarter in :28.2, Atlanta faced no pressure and rated to the half in :56.1. Plunge Blue Chip continued to track from the pocket.

Atlanta’s lead opened rounding the final turn as Plunge Blue Chip hit a wall and faded at the pylons, forcing the backfield wide. Seviyorum, pulling first over past the half, rushed into second with about a three-length deficit past the 1:24.3 third-quarter and continued to gain ground chasing through the stretch. Atlanta remained strong on the lead and hit the wire a length in front of Seviyorum at the wire in 1:51.1. Nixie Volo closed for third and Top Expectations took fourth.

Winning her seventh race from 11 starts this year and her 11th from 21 overall, Atlanta surpassed $1 million in earnings for owners Rick Zeron along with partners Crawford Farms, Holland Racing Stable, Howard Taylor and Brad Grant. She paid $4.20 to win.

The other elimination for the Filly Futurity went to Lily Stride in a 1:50.2 lifetime-best performance for owners Emilio and Maria Rosati and trainer Mark Harder.

The Futurity triumph was the first time Atlanta has reached the winner’s circle in the five starts since the Hambletonian.

“It took a little out of her in the Hambletonian. It showed that it took a little out of her, I’m not going to lie to you. She didn’t recover for a couple of weeks after that,” Rick said. “I think she just got exhausted that day. It was a tough day. She’s turned the corner and she’s coming back now. I raced her 10 days ago up in Canada in the open. I was on the fence, in a torrential downpour, finished second and she was on the bit. Scott said she looked good. She was on the bit and did everything that I wanted her to. We brought her down here and we had a good couple of weeks or a week-and-a-half…. Everything just worked out for us today.”

In the winner’s circle, Rick, who has been known to let the emotions flow after big victories, dabbed away a few tears.

“That’s why I had the sunglasses on,” Rick said, laughing. “She means everything to me. She’s a great filly. She has been great from the day we bought her right up to today. She’s done everything Scott asked her to do and then a little bit more. She always seems to come back in the second heat and be even stronger. Today, I raced her with her shoes on in the first heat. In the second heat, I took them off because I needed that extra, that second. That’s where I got that second, I think.”

It was the first time Rick has raced in the Filly Futurity. What did it mean to win one of the biggest races at Red Mile in front of his peers?

“Everything… and to have my son drive? There’s nothing else to say. That’s it. It’s family,” Rick said.

A day after Crawford Farms celebrated a 1:48.4 trotting world record with their beloved 6-year-old gelding Homicide Hunter (full story here), Michelle and Albert Crawford were back in the limelight as part of Atlanta’s winner’s circle.

“It feels great, super. It was our weekend,” said Albert. “She’s such a tough filly, isn’t she? I mean, two heats twice now and she just runs away.”

Rick said Atlanta will race in the Breeders Crown at the end of the month and then head for Chris Coyle’s Olive Branch Farm in North Carolina to be turned out.

“We’ll pick her up around the 15th of January and we’ll go back to Florida,” Rick said. “We’ll go back with her to Sunshine Meadows. They have a big banner for her there, Sunshine Meadows does – ‘Home of Hambletonian champion Atlanta.’ They are great guys down there, the people at Sunshine Meadows, and I’m looking forward to having another great winter there.”

If all goes well, will Atlanta race in Europe?

“At five,” Rick said. “I would never try her in the Elitlopp at four, but five? Absolutely.”

— with files by Ray Cotolo for Red Mile