by Debbie Little
Prior to his Hall of Fame induction in July 2021, Meadowlands’ president and chief executive officer Jeff Gural told HRU that at 78, he still had things he wanted to accomplish. One was winning a Hambletonian and the other was winning a Breeders Crown.
Thanks to the magnificent pacing mare Rocknificent, it’s one down, one to go.
“I’ve come close but this is the first one I’ve ever won,” said Gural. “And it’s funny, because I told Sarah Svanstedt that I was going to bring the Breeders Crown to The Meadowlands so they could win one, because they’ve never won one at all these other tracks and they were so excited and they’re doing great. And I haven’t gotten a check with a horse I own with them. I’m glad I got the job done with a pacer, a pacing filly.”
Gural didn’t remember the specifics on how he came to own part of Rocknificent, but knew it had something to do with his friendship with co-owner Dan Baer of South Mountain Stables.
“We bought Rocknificent at the Lexington sale and Jeff has been buying into horses with me for some time and I called Jeff up and said, ‘Jeff, what do you think?’ and I remember this, he said, ‘She really is well-bred. Okay, I’ll take a quarter,’” said Baer. “Jeff and I buy several horses together. He is a good friend and he’s very supportive. I’m very supportive of Jeff and what he’s done for racing and I’m so happy for Jeff today because this is his first Breeders Crown. I’m just so happy for him. It’s my first Breeders Crown as well, but he’s been in racing so long and he is an icon and I’m just so happy for him.”
Baer also acknowledged co-owners Enviro Stables that could not make it to The Meadowlands for the Crown races.
“That’s Marc Hanover and Gordon Banks and they partner with me on a number of horses and I’m so thankful for them sticking with me as well,” said Baer. “It was Gordon who made the last bid on the horse when we got her. This is the ultimate and it was really wonderful. She is the best horse I’ve ever owned. I’ve owned a lot of horses and she’s the best horse I’ve ever owned. She gives me a heart attack every time she races. I love her and I love all of the people who are part of her. It’s a great family that we have. We have a lot of fun. I’m happy for Linda, and Scotty Zeron drove her magnificently. Her breeder is a wonderful guy, too.”
It was also a first win in the Crown for Rocknificent’s caretaker, Jessica Fluet.
“I started working for Linda [Toscano] three years ago,” said Fluet. “Somebody had left and I ended up getting their horses and she was one of them and I fell in love with her.”
Fluet’s 19-month-old son Aiden has also formed a bond with Rocknificent.
“They are best friends,” said Fluet. “They love each other and he gives her kisses. She was my first child.”
Even though this was Toscano’s eighth Crown victory, winning a race like this will never be old hat to her.
“Not when you know that you have to keep them going all year long and this is one of the last races of the year, if not the last race of the year for some of them,” said Toscano, a Hall of Famer. “It’s a very hard race to win and it’s also one of those Holy Grail races, you know, ‘It all comes down to the Breeders Crown’ and they mean that. That mare, Lyons Sentinel, has been no slouch this year and a very difficult horse to beat and I’m just thrilled that it was our day today.”
Toscano also acknowledged what a great job Fluet and all of her caretakers do.
“They love them,” said Toscano. “That’s the backbone of the business. It’s getting more and more difficult to get good help. They are certainly few and far between. These horses are everything to them. These horses are their friends. I’m the work master, but she’s the one that gives her the love and the attention she needs and keeps her happy.”
By virtue of this win with Rocknificent, Zeron now has five Crown victories. He knew this one wouldn’t be easy to get since he’s been knocking heads with Lyons Sentinel all year.
“We’ve been the bridesmaid every time (to Lyons Sentinel),” said Zeron. “It’s been slightly frustrating because I’ve tried different tactics to try to beat Lyons Sentinel, and I just couldn’t. It didn’t matter what I did. She could come first up and wear me down. I could get a perfect two-hole trip. Lyons Sentinel is a phenomenal, phenomenal animal. Today, we just capitalized on probably a really good trip in the elimination that gave her some momentum, not to mention the Kentucky race when she won in 1:48 flat. She was just on a really good roll right now. I hadn’t put her on the front in a while, so when I did, it panned out.
“For her, I don’t know how she never lost confidence because we’ve been the bridesmaid every time. You’d think it was a little demoralizing. But week in, week out, you can’t hurt her feelings. She always comes back.”
Mike Gulotta’s Deo Volente Farms LLC bred Rocknificent with T L P Stable.
“I’m absolutely thrilled for Jeff, his first Breeders Crown,” said Gulotta. “I’m thrilled for Dan Baer and Enviro and Linda Toscano, the whole crew. [Rocknificent] was special right from the beginning. She’s a Captaintreacherous and we have a full sister to her, a weanling this year, and we have a Lazarus sister to her that’s going to be selling at Harrisburg this year. Rockclamation is just a wonderful mare. She just produces and she’s special. We love her and I’m just thrilled for the owners.”
This was Gulotta’s fourth Crown victory. He now has two as an owner and two as a breeder.