Observations from the 75th Little Brown Jug

by Brett Sturman

There were certainly many top-level performances across Thursday’s 20-race Little Brown Jug card and causes for joy, but first things first. If there was ever a racing venue that was COVID-19 impacted by not having fans allowed to attend, it was the Delaware County Fairgrounds on Jug Day.

Unlike any other harness racetrack, Jug Day thrives on live attendance. In a regular year attendance for this year’s Jug would have been between 40-50,000 people, and the atmosphere that’s produced by it goes a long way in making the Jug the event that it is. Whereas other tracks have been racing for months and the omission of spectators has been largely unnoticed, it shows in Delaware. Watching the Little Brown Jug final conducted to the background of an eerie silence; it creates a far different dynamic when juxtaposed against any other Little Brown Jug.

One thought I had throughout the day was if pumping fake crowd noise similar to what other professional sports are currently doing into the race broadcasts would have helped to capture a normal Jug environment. The Jug races on the day were all interesting in their own right, but would have the crowd noise from the Life Sign or Wiggle It Jiggleit Jug’s heightened the level of excitement? Even for venerable announcer Roger Huston, I wondered at times if some of his calls were impacted by not being able to feed off the typically frenzied crowd. It may sound silly, but perhaps filling in races with crowd noise is something that could be used at any harness track to help give the appearance of crowd excitement throughout races.

With that being said, the racing action on the day didn’t disappoint. Even lacking drivers such as Gingras, Sears and McCarthy that would have been at the Jug under normal circumstances, it gave other drivers opportunities to shine that they may not have had otherwise. The biggest name of course in that regard is driver Joe Bongiorno.

Bongiorno picked up the drive on Tony Alagna’s Captain Barbossa who had most recently been driven by Andrew McCarthy, and certainly made the most of the situation. Bongiorno partnered beautifully with Captain Barbossa in winning the 75th Little Brown Jug. Captain Barbossa came into his elimination as a 20-1 longshot, though he’d been somewhat of a tough-luck horse this year. In the elimination, Captain Barbossa closed with solid late pace to be second behind elimination winner Sandbetweenmytoes, and Bongiorno was able to make sure that the Captaintreacherous gelding had enough left in reserve for the final.

Many races are won or lost into the first turn, and Bongiorno arguably won the race there by having the sense to leave and get around Seeyou At Thebeach who Bongiorno sensed was steppy. With that move, Captain Barbossa was able to sit third and watch the elimination winners Sandbetweenmytoes and Catch The Fire duel through a :26 opening quarter.

Sandbetweenmytoes won the early battle but after getting to the half in :53.3 he had the sting taken out of him and Bongiorno was able to make the winning move and roll first-over with Captain Barbossa to go right on by the race leaders. Cattlewash who was hard used and wide early from the outside post was able to track the move of Captain Barbossa but couldn’t make any impression in the stretch. Catch The Fire was caught behind the tiring leader and managed to get up for third. Winning the Jug a day after his 27th birthday, Bongiorno should retain the drive going forward on Captain Barbossa – he earned it.

Captain Barbossa came into the day off a second-place finish in the Somebeachsomewhere at Woodbine Mohawk nearly two weeks ago. The winner of that race was Warrawee Vital, who disappointed in his Jug elimination. Warrawee Vital was made the 6-5 favorite coming into the race in career form off a 1:48.2 win. However, he had little to offer when Tetrick pulled him to the outside and called him, never getting close and eventually finishing last. For a track known for races dominated on the front end – and there was plenty of that as usual on Thursday – both Jug eliminations and the Jug final were won by horses not first or second at the quarter or half-mile calls.

It probably goes without saying that handle was in some way directly impacted by not having live attendance. The handle for the 7-horse Jug final was just $34,146. By comparison, the handle in the 2018 Jug final was close to $50,000. Live handle for the entire Jug day is usually around $1 million and missing that is a large amount to make up for.

On the undercard, there were a couple Ohio-bred 2-year-olds that are liable to make some noise next year against open caliber company. Rivals Heart Of Chewbacca and Charlie May both shined in their respective divisions of the Ohio Breeders Championships for 2-year-old colts and geldings. Both winners in identical 1:52:2 times on the day, their talent may go beyond the borders of Ohio. After Charlie May won, owner Don Tiger said that his McArdle gelding would be staked to all the top 3-year-old races next year and from the sound of it we may be able to expect similar with Heart of Chewbacca.

The fastest 2-year-old of the day came much later in the card, and that was in the Standardbred when the impeccably-bred Chase H Hanover (Captaintreacherous—Calgary Hanover) tied the world record for 2-year-old geldings on a half-mile track when he won in 1:51.1. Coming home in :26.3, the race was essentially over when he made the lead after just a few strides despite starting from post 5. Comfortably fending off the well-regarded Lou’s Pearlman, Chase H Hanover is another that the Standardbred stake on Jug day could launch into future stardom.

Immediately prior that race, Plunge Blue Chip became a three-time world champion. In winning the Ms. Versatility in 1:51:3, she trotted the fastest mile in history on a half-mile track. The showdown between her and Manchego never came to be as that foe jumped off stride into the second turn, but Plunge Blue Chip was on her game regardless. It’s amazing to think that the despite being a 3-time world champion that she’ll go down in history as “only” the third best filly trotter from her division, being constantly overshadowed by Atlanta and Manchego. What an unbelievable crop that was.

The Jug Day broadcast went on for 7-plus hours, but the entire team did an excellent job. Between Dave Brower, Dave Bianconi, Wendy Ross and Jason Settlemoir, there was quality insights and discussions provided throughout all the races. There was no dead-air and quite a decent amount of “inside baseball” that could have been seen throughout the various driver and trainer interviews throughout the day – it gave a really good perspective into the sport.

And all in all, with fans or no fans, it was a solid day of racing. Congratulations to Captain Barbossa and all his connections for a well-earned Little Brown Jug victory.