by Brett Sturman
The timing of it seems odd with racing just getting back underway and all, but the Meadowlands Pace is rapidly approaching. With the Meadowlands not even resuming racing until just three weeks ago, focus is now shifting from simply making it back to the track to competing in an accelerated stakes schedule.
Racing at the Meadowlands over the past couple of weeks has featured promising and some of the more well-known horses from last year at 2, but over the 36-race marathon last weekend, two of the most impressive 3-year-olds came from the barn of Ray Schnittker.
Interestingly, neither of the them are currently eligible to the Meadowlands Pace.
First up from the barn was Captain Groovy (Captaintreacherous—Let’s Groove Tonite). Following up on his June 6 triumph from opening weekend when he blew the doors off his rivals in 1:49.3 in his first start of the season, Captain Groovy came right back to win last weekend, stopping the timer in a real sparkler, 1:48 flat. He did so with a bold first over rush around the final turn, going from fourth to first in a matter of strides. For comparison of times, the very next race that night, a race with similar conditions, went in 1:50.3. The second finisher in that race was Captain Barbossa, a Tony Alagna-trained horse with Meadowlands Pace aspirations of his own.
A few races later that night, another Schnittker 3-year-old Splash Brother (So Surreal—Sugarcoated) was parked past the quarter from post 10, but it didn’t matter as he went all the way in 1:48.2, with a :25.3 kicker at the end of it. It was his second consecutive Meadowlands win following up from a 1:51 win on June 6, and in the process, he bested another well regarded Alagna trainee, the 4-5 race favorite Captain Kirk.
The respective times of 1:48 and 1:48.2 from Captain Groovy and Splash Brother are the fastest miles posted by any 3-year-old this year. Despite the big early season performances, Schnittker does not plan to pay the $62,500 supplement for either horse. Schnittker, who won the 2017 Meadowlands Pace with Huntsville, said “No, I’m not going to come up with that kind of money. They were both nice colts last year, but they weren’t over the top. A lot of my owners are sour with making stakes payments, so I try to keep it to a minimum.”
Indeed, neither horse appeared extraordinary last year. Captain Groovy earned a modest $68,744 through 9 starts last year while taking a 1:52 mark at Pocono. Splash Brother – a gelding – went winless last year in 7 starts and didn’t win his first career race until earlier this month.
The two horses combined are 4-for-4 as 3-year-olds, and the improvement in Splash Brother in particular has been profound. Regarding his performance last Saturday, Schnittker said, “I thought he’d go in 1:50 no problem; but once you get down to 1:48 territory, that’s kind rare air. He was probably 17 hands last year; he’s huge. He was that big last year, and I think he needed another year. Mark MacDonald fell off of him at Saratoga last year and he did something there and we couldn’t ever quite figure out what it was, but he was never really right the rest of the year. But he’s been training like a beast since he’s come back.”
Both Captain Groovy and Splash Brother are staked comparably. Both are staked to the Adios, and, of course, both are expected to race throughout sire stakes — Splash Brother in the New York Sires Stakes, including Empire Breeders, and Captain Groovy throughout Pennsylvania.
“Hopefully, if they’re good enough, they still have a shot of making a half-million,” said Schnittker.
On the surface it may seem like the horses are in an advantageous position if they were to supplement, having already both paced in 1:48 while some of the other contenders are still just coming back to the races — especially since this year the Meadowlands Pace plays more like a North America Cup, seeing as how early it is in the season relative to when the horses have started back in training. But, Schnittker doesn’t necessarily see there being a conditioning edge.
“I think what it is, is that our horses are getting more like the thoroughbreds. They don’t need all of the work (that they used to). It’s just, you keep them happy and they come into their conditioning a lot quicker. I didn’t train those horses any harder than I did 10 years ago, they just came out and did it. I think that the breed is changing,” the trainer said.
In looking at races from as recent as the past two weeks, it’s hard to argue that Schnittker doesn’t have a point. These days everyone races faster than they used to, and horses don’t necessarily “need” a start or two. Schnittker’s two horses qualified in the 1:55 range at Goshen and had no trouble coming out sub 1:50 at the Meadowlands. Last Saturday, the current Meadowlands Pace favorite Tall Dark Stranger paced a qualifying mile in 1:49. Atlanta made her first start of the season and went toe-to-toe with Manchego in a 1:50.2 trot. Kissininthesand paced first out in 1:47.4. The examples are endless.
In addition to Captain Groovy and Splash Brother, Schnittker also feels good about fellow 3-year-old barn mates Lake Charles and Cigars And Port.
“Lake Charles was a good colt last year, and he was third in his first start at the Meadowlands (1:50.2). He went a big trip in the same class Groovy was, he’s real nice. And I’ve got Cigars and Port. I thought he raced okay at the Meadowlands in his first start. He won the sire stake final last year at Batavia and he’s racing this weekend at Tioga. Hopefully they all stay sound and have a good year.”