Cullipher’s top pick showing significant talent

Trainer Jeff Cullipher’s rookie trotter TJ’s Top Pick is perfect through five career starts and set a 1:53.3 track record for gelded 2-year-old trotters on Wednesday in Indiana Sires Stakes action at Harrah’s Hoosier Park.

by James Platz

Last year, as Jeff Cullipher reviewed yearling videos in preparation for the fall sales, trotter TJ’s Top Pick left quite an impression on the conditioner. Now the gelded freshman is making an even bigger impression in the Indiana racing community with a quick turn of foot and a perfect record through five starts. His last effort, a 1:53.3 clocking in the third round of Indiana Sires Stakes (ISS) action Wednesday, (Aug. 21), established a new Harrah’s Hoosier Park track record.

“I’m not a crazy video person. I usually just watch videos to make sure there is not something I don’t like about a horse. But this one here, he was such a classy going thing,” Cullipher said. “This particular horse stood out to me on the video like no other that I had ever seen.”

Cullipher and Pennsylvania-based partner Tom Pollack were not looking to invest in many trotters at last year’s Hoosier Classic sale. They were interested in another that would sell for over six figures, but were able to acquire TJ’s Top Pick, a Swan For All colt cataloged with the name Meadowbrook Rusty, for a $40,000 final bid. When it came time to train the baby, with no other 2-year-old trotters in the barn, TJ’s Top Pick was paired with pacers that were a competitive match. The first foal from Broadway Hall mare J As Ayd showed ability, but he also proved to be hyper and a nervous wreck in training. It was not until Cullipher began training him two trips that TJ’s Top Pick responded and markedly improved.

“He really didn’t start wowing me until I starting going two trips. I don’t start going two trips until I get to (2):20. The first trip you would have trouble getting him started, but once he got started he was flawless. Always the second trip he was a completely different horse,” the co-owner commented. “Every week he started getting better and better and better and better. I began to realize I’ve got some really bad pacers or I’ve got a really good trotter, I don’t know which. He was doing it so different than any colt I’ve ever trained.”

As it turned out, Cullipher did have a really good trotter in the making. Sam Widger sat behind the altered freshman in his first qualifying attempt June 14 at Hoosier Park. There, TJ’s Top Pick wired the field to win by a double-digit margin in 1:57.3, kicking home in :27.4. Twelve days later, he qualified again, this time with Trace Tetrick in the bike, once again trotting wire to wire, this time winning by six lengths in a time of 1:56.1. Tetrick was in the bike for the gelding’s pari-mutuel debut, steering him to a 1:58.3 triumph at Hoosier Park. He followed the effort with a track record-equaling 1:54.2 performance in his second career start, a $65,000 Indiana Sires Stakes division. By the time TJ’s Top Pick lined up behind the gate for his third start, Tetrick had become a minority partner on the freshman.

“He’s a super nice colt. He’s very intelligent and likes his job. He’s got a lot of natural ability, and Jeff’s done a great job with him, teaching him manners and teaching him how to race,” Tetrick said of the young trotter. “I asked if I could get in on a piece, and luckily, they let me. I’m just glad to be part of the team and along for the ride with him.”

Five starts in it has proven to be quite a ride. TJ’s Top Pick matched his speedy time in the second round of ISS competition, trotting to an eight-length score on July 30. He then competed on the Grand Circuit at the Indiana State Fair, winning a division of the Hoosier Stake with a :27.1 last quarter that propelled him to a 1:58.3 triumph. Back at Harrah’s Hoosier Park last Wednesday night, Cullipher’s charge became sole owner of the track record for freshman trotting geldings, winning by just over four lengths on his way to registering the 1:53.3 mile. Talking about TJ’s Top Pick leading up to the race, Tetrick noted a time in that range was not out of the question for the talented trotter.

“He doesn’t know how fast he’s going. He’s got a big turn of speed,” said the driver. “I think he can trot sub-:54 if he needs to. I think if things go well :53.1 or :53.2 would not be out of the question, but hopefully we don’t have to do it until it’s necessary.”

The partnership of Pollack and Cullipher has paid dividends. The team finished the Meadowlands meet as the leading owners. However, when it comes to Indiana Sires Stakes and the fall Super Finals, they have yet to reach the winner’s circle. Cullipher has campaigned capable horses, but have run into divisional standouts, making it hard to break through. This season, however, they find themselves on the other end of the equation with the trotter to beat in the freshman trotting colt category. Whether they convert potential into a Super Final victory, only time will tell.

“Trace has yet to pull the earplugs on him,” Cullipher said. “I’m not saying he can go anymore, I just don’t know what he can do.”

To date, TJ’s Top Pick has pulled in $113,121 in his five victories. He is staked to fall events at Hoosier Park as well as the Bluegrass Stake in Lexington, his lone engagement outside Indiana.