Trainers explain why COVID-19 meant the Meadowlands had less impact on Dan Patch races than usual

by Debbie Little

No one can say 2020 was a typical year.

Many races were cancelled while others were shifted to later in the year, but one thing that didn’t change was that the majority of contenders for Dan Patch divisional honors passed through The Meadowlands.

In some cases, their only appearance was in a qualifier, but at least The Big M faithful had a chance to experience greatness, sometimes in its early stages.

The aptly named Perfect Sting, trained by Hall of Famer Joe Holloway, only made two appearances in East Rutherford – a qualifier in July and an overnight for 2-year-olds in August.

The pacing colt by Always B Miki should be a shoe-in for divisional honors, but why didn’t the Jersey-based Holloway race him more at The Meadowlands? It wasn’t for lack of trying.

“Things were held up because of COVID, but I still couldn’t get him a start,” said Holloway. “I would have raced at The Meadowlands.”

According to Holloway, he was dropping Perfect Sting into the entry box, but the races weren’t filling.

“I’ve raced at the Meadowlands since 1978 and that’s the first time I saw that,” he said. “The night before the Hambo they finally filled one so he raced there once.”

Perfect Sting finished his freshman campaign 10-for-10, but even in a year unaffected by the coronavirus, he would only have had maybe two additional starts.

“I would not have raced him more than 12 times and the horse is as sound a horse as I’ve had,” said Holloway. “Maybe I would have had another overnight early on. I probably would have had two overnights before I went down for the Sire Stakes and maybe I would have done the Governor’s Cup.”

Meadowlands race secretary Scott Warren said that 2020 was not the first year where he had problems filling some of those 2-year-old races, especially for pacers. He started writing them the last week in June, but in some cases got only one entry and in others no more than four.

“Pennsylvania-breds can go to Pocono and Chester and race for around the same money and not have to go nearly as fast,” said Warren. “This year we’ve put the Tompkins-Geers in June for people that are ready early and looking for a race to prep for a Sire Stakes somewhere else.”

Unlike Holloway, trainer Brett Pelling did not have a problem finding starts at The Meadowlands for his filly Test Of Faith because he wasn’t looking for any.

“She qualified at Magical Acres, which is close to home, and they don’t have to go as much and she headed off to New York,” said Pelling. “So, she had no need to be at The Meadowlands going the speeds they go there. I’m very protective. I just see it every year. I see these 2-year-olds that come out and they qualify in [1:]52 and they race in [1:]51, they do this, they do that, and very rarely are they the ones that have the great careers. I think more are ruined than are made.”

The season for Test Of Faith was different than for Pelling’s other fillies because co-owner Melvin Segal was in a New York state of mind.

“His input was, ‘I want to be ready to go for the first Sire Stakes in New York,’” said Pelling. “So, her whole schedule, she was always three or four weeks ahead of my other ones simply to be ready for Monticello. I said to myself, ‘If you’re going to race in the first leg of the Sire Stakes at Monticello, you’re really not going to be around for the Breeders Crown.’”

Because of coronavirus, Monticello was not open for the June 22 race, so Test Of Faith’s first start was at Vernon Downs on July 4 instead. In all, she raced in five legs of the NYSS, winning four, before taking the big-money final.

“She was dominant,” said Pelling. “The time that she was second she got run into from behind. They locked wheels, pulled up to a stop and then she caught the field, circled the field and finished second.”

Pelling knows his filly is in a tight race for divisional honors with Fire Start Hanover, who raced later into the year and won the Breeders Crown and Kindergarten, but finished sixth in the Three Diamonds to end her season.

“Your season either starts early and ends or starts in the middle and ends later,” said Pelling. “If I raced in the first Sire Stakes race at Monticello and went all the way to the Breeders Crown, I think it was 17 starts, and you’re not doing that.

“They never raced against each other, which is unfortunate. They did race on the same day [at the Red Mile in divisions of the International Stallion Stake] and on that day, I think the other filly paced [1:]50 and change, we went [1:]48 and change.”

Another 2-year-old that we didn’t see as often as expected at The Meadowlands was Lady Chaos, trained by Hall of Famer Linda Toscano.

She qualified early at The Meadowlands at the end of June, raced in an overnight there for trotting fillies on July 24 and only returned to New Jersey for her last start of the season in the Goldsmith Maid.

“She was Pennsylvania eligible and she was Kentucky eligible,” said Toscano. “In hindsight, I wish she had been eligible to the Doherty, but she wasn’t. And then, unfortunately, she was sick in her last start. She didn’t act sick going into the Goldsmith Maid, but the next morning she had [a fever of] 103.”

Toscano shared a barn in Lexington with Holloway and said their 2-year-olds were both eligible to the Kindergarten at The Meadowlands.

“We were going to start them at The Meadowlands in the Kindergarten and prep them there and then they changed the Kindergarten and moved them to September because of COVID,” said Toscano. “So that’s why both his colt and my filly did not race in the Kindergartens.”

Lady Chaos is in a divisional battle with Anoka Hanover, trained by Noel Daley.

The two fillies started their season together in a qualifier, won by Lady Chaos, and ended it together in the Goldsmith Maid, won by Anoka Hanover.

“I would be shocked if [Lady Chaos] wins it,” said Toscano. “I think she deserves to be considered, but honestly, when push comes to shove, it’s a horse race and Noel’s won that day.

“If we had pulled the plug after the Breeders Crown, I think people would say, ‘it would be a much harder decision to make.’ But, unfortunately, she wasn’t great on the night of the Goldsmith Maid and I think it will cost her.”

Trainer Chris Ryder didn’t have a lot of input as to where Party Girl Hill would race in 2020 since she was staked prior to him getting the filly.

However, The Meadowlands followers did at least get to see her compete in two qualifiers and her first race of the year in an overnight for 3-year-old pacing fillies.

Ryder loves to race at The Meadowlands and certainly would have done so in any other year.

“There may have been one or two races dropped because of COVID that she would have been in,” he said. “She was invited to the TVG [to compete against older mares] but we didn’t do it. People say if she wins the TVG she might have been Horse of the Year, but I make one point that everybody misses that Tall Dark Stranger never went out of his comfort zone. He didn’t go to the TVG but he’s going to be Horse of the Year.

“He never went on a half. He never went on a five-eighths. He drew bad one time and finished fourth. I’m not taking anything away from Tall Dark Stranger. He’s a hell of a horse, obviously. But he never stepped out of his comfort zone whereas Party Girl Hill did. She went against the boys at the Red Mile. She didn’t have to but she did.”

In addition to the divisional honor that Party Girl Hill has locked up, Ryder should have another one with Bettor’s Wish.

The two marquee races of the 4-year-old pacing horse’s season were at The Meadowlands in the Sam McKee and the TVG.

“The McKee was huge because the horse got slaughtered,” said Ryder. “Parked out in :25, :52, 1:19 and he got a gap on the field and he was done, he was exhausted and he held on. It was [1:]47.3 and it was the Sam McKee. And who doesn’t want to win the Sam McKee as much as we all loved Sam. It was a great win.

“The TVG was his final start and he won by open lengths and it’s nice to dominate when you’re going to stud. You like to race well at The Meadowlands. I told them [the night of the TVG], I complimented them on what a good job they did with the whole night. Because it’s a mile track the racing is better and fairer.”

As COVID-19 eventually fades in the rear-view mirror, one thing is certain, The Meadowlands will continue to play host to the sport’s rising and top stars, especially this year, with the return of the Breeders Crown. But that’s for another column.