by Brett Sturman
It’s now been one month since racing has resumed at the Meadowlands and even less time than that elsewhere, but it’s taken no time for some of the racing plotlines for this season to already take shape.
Beginning with last Saturday, last year’s 2-year-old pacing divisional winner Tall Dark Stranger made it known that the road to the Meadowlands Pace with eliminations next weekend will go through him. Underscoring what Ray Schnittker was quoted as saying in this column last week, horse’s these days no longer need a start or two before being able to put up fast miles.
While making his first pari-mutuel start since last year’s Breeders Crown, Tall Dark Stranger came wide off dull cover to win going away under wraps in 1:47.4. Granted, a 1:47 mile isn’t quite what it used to be and fellow 3-year-old Allywag Hanover went in 1:48.2 just two races prior, but that really was a visually impressive mile. Tall Dark Stranger’s chief rival from last year, Papi Rob Hanover qualified last week in 1:50.3 and will get a single prep this weekend in advance of the Meadowlands Pace eliminations when he starts from post 10 in a mid-level conditioned race. Also, in that same race, making his sophomore debut as well, is Capt Midnight.
Tall Dark Stranger is trained by Nancy Takter, who has been blazing the way at the Meadowlands since June. Winning 11 times from 27 starters, top trotting stars such as Manchego and Sorella (4 for 4 combined) and pacing mare Kissin In The Sand (1:47.4) have led the way.
One new name to the trainer standings in North America is Shane Tritton, son of Peter Tritton. The younger Tritton has gotten off to a fast 5 for 9 start at the Meadowlands winning solely with his stock of horses imported from Down Under, including a perfect 2 for 2 with My Ruebe Star N. Conversely, perennial top trainer Ron Burke is off to an uncharacteristically slow start at the Meadowlands, winning just four times from 60 starters at that track. He’s bound to heat up at some point, but for the past few weeks, horses from the barn have underachieved at low prices.
Last year’s Driver of the Year award came down to Tim Tetrick and Dexter Dunn, and currently those drivers sit 1-2 at the Meadowlands with Tetrick currently three wins ahead of Dunn, who has picked right up from where he left off from last year’s dream season. Yannick Gingras is just a couple of wins back in third, and I’d expect those three to battle it out all season long for the top drivers spot.
With the rivalry of Tall Dark Stranger and Papi Rob Hanover to potentially be renewed next week, another rivalry already resumed this past week at Yonkers. In the fillies and mares open handicap at Yonkers, defending Horse of the Year Shartin N overcame post 8 with relative ease and wore down pacesetter Caviart Ally who had to settle for third in 1:52. Shartin N was actually above even money that race and I can’t recall the last time her odds were that high; I guess post 8 will do that sometimes. Caviart Ally got the better of Shartin N a couple of times towards the end of last year, but everyone in that aged mares division is going to have to step up big to have any chance of dethroning Shartin N.
Despite being slow out of the gate at the Meadowlands, trainer Burke is outpacing the rest of the trainer colony at Pocono Downs. In fact, one might have thought that the trainer standings since the return of racing would look much different due to the absence of the indicted formerly leading trainers, but the standings look like about what you’d expect. Burke is followed by Garcia-Herrera and then by Erv Miller, along with Jen Bongiorno sporting a perfect 4-4 record. At Pocono, the reliable trainers remain the ones most playable. On the driver’s side, George Napolitano still leads the way as expected, but just narrowly for the time being over Matt Kakaley.
Elsewhere in PA, it’s too early to assess how the trainers and drivers are shaking out at Harrah’s Philadelphia, but a new season’s mark for 2-year-old pacers was set yesterday (Thursday) when a Captaintreacherous colt named Red Right Hand won his PASS division in 1:52. In the preceding race, the fastest horse to date by freshman sire Always B Miki was set when closely named Always A Miki cruised first over in another PASS division in 1:52.2. Both 2-year-olds are trained by Takter.
Overall, if it seems like a lot of tracks are seeing record handle in some form or another over the past month, it’s because they are. In looking at the economic indicators put forth by the USTA, the one bright spot in the lost days of racing due to the coronavirus has been the increase in wagering. While race days and purses are down over 50 per cent due to the shutdowns, the amount of money wagered on a per-race basis is up nearly 20 per cent from last year. It’s the result of a pent-up demand for wagering due in part to the fact that other sports people would normally wager on still hasn’t returned. The numbers may also give credence to the “less is more” notion, that less race days but larger and higher quality race fields will produce higher handle.