Wowza! What a night! After an interminable winter extended by indictments, a wicked pandemic and a wide range of assorted tests and cruelties, Tall Dark Stranger’s epic stretch battle with Papi Rob Hanover in the Meadowlands Pace was exactly what we needed.
by Dave Briggs
We needed this.
On a grand evening at the Meadowlands, that fact was never more clear than in waning seconds of the main event itself when the two chief protagonists repeatedly traded vicious haymakers — again! — in a donnybrook for the ages.
This time, thank the Racing Gods, the judges didn’t need to sort it out.
This time, there was no question Tall Dark Stranger came back on in deep stretch after being headed by Papi Rob Hanover — in case you are among those that doubted Tall Dark Stranger’s connections’ contention that he was doing precisely that in the Breeders Crown last October when wheels got bumped.
The Crown, the last major stakes card until last night’s delight at The Big M, seems like a lifetime and several worlds away now — 266 days to be exact.
Between now and then we have been collectively battered and laid low by an interminable winter extended by indictments, a wicked pandemic and a wide range of assorted tests and cruelties.
Battered, but not completely broken. For one cannot possibly survive for long in harness racing if one does not possess — to borrow from the name of a recent longshot winner at The Meadows trained by Tom Fanning — Enduring Hope.
So, we pray for races like last night’s Meadowlands Pace, where uber-talented heavyweights act like it and highly-touted, big-money stakes deliver in the form of raised goosebumps, pulses and endorphins.
That’s not always the case, of course.
But in this, of all years, we needed this: an epic battle of equine fortitude and speed and strength that reminded us what we love so much about horses.
We needed it played out on an delightful card on the biggest stage featuring more than $2.6 million in purses, betting that exceeded $5 million and a raft of equine superstars that had collective earnings north of $53 million heading into the night.
We needed it like a kid in Grade 7 needs to burst from school when the final bell rings on the last day before summer vacation. That’s exactly how it felt watching the whole delicious card unfold.
Here was Manchego dominating the Miss Versatility as you knew she would.
There was Andrew McCarthy blasting Ramona Hill to victory out of the 10-hole in the Delvin Miller for Tony Alagna.
Here was Back Of The Neck and Ready For Moni inching closer to Hambletonian glory with strong victories in their Stanley Dancer divisions.
There was McCarthy and Alagna teaming up again to score from an outside post — this time with Reflect With Me from the 8-hole in the Mistletoe Shalee.
Here was Dancin Lou sprinting to victory in 1:47.2 in the William Haughton.
There was Gimpanzee laying claim to the title of North America’s best trotter with a jaw-dropper from post 13 in the Hambletonian Maturity.
Here was Dexter Dunn orchestrating a 50-1 shocker with Major Occasion A over Horse of the Year Shartin N in the recently-renamed Dorothy Haughton.
But the $636,650 Meadowlands Pace was not only the toast of the night, it is destined to go down as one of the most talked about in its rich 43-year history along with Sonsam from the 10-hole, Real Desire vs. Bettors Delight and the granddaddy of them all: the night Art Official nosed out Somebeachsomewhere.
Even masks and distancing and a crowd limited by COVID-19 couldn’t ruin Tall Dark Stranger (Yannick Gingras) edging Papi Rob Hanover (David Miller) by a neck in 1:47.2.
Yes, the card, given the pandemic, was far from normal, but The Meadowlands’ stellar broadcasting crew, led by the two Daves — buoyant Brower and savvy Little — did their utmost to make it seem as if everything was right in world.
And for one night it certainly seemed that way in a time when professional sports are mostly on pause, concert venues are silent and even mighty Broadway is dark.
Maybe Saturday was just a momentary distraction from the misery.
Likely, the euphoria won’t last long.
But, dammit, we needed this.