Breeders Crown proves this is the year of the “little guy”

Hope, beyond all else, is the economic driver of the entire game and this year’s Breeders Crown saw a lot of dreams become reality for smaller stables, continuing a year-long trend in major stakes.

by Dave Briggs

The oft-heard lament in harness racing is “the little guy,” whomever that is, cannot compete with the big-money stables fronted by millionaires. Hopefully, this year’s Breeders Crown— heck, this entire stakes season — disproves that.

Of the 12 Breeders Crown finals contested Friday (Oct. 29) and Saturday (Oct. 30) at The Meadowlands, five trainers won their first Crowns and six of the winners were homebreds.

Leading stables operated by Ron Burke, Nancy Takter, Tony Alagna, Erv Miller, Jeff Cullipher, Julie Miller, Brian Brown and many more heavyweights, failed to win a Crown this time around. That’s not necessarily a good thing — those large stables are a critical part of the sport’s economy and provide a strong percentage of the horses to fill fields and drive handle — but it does suggest the big stables don’t win everything and others do have a chance.

Hope, beyond all else, is the driver of the entire game.

The vast majority of people don’t go to horse sales hoping to buy the next fair horse. They’re hoping to land the next Hambletonian winner. People who breed to race aren’t dreaming of the prospect of racing them in overnights. They’re praying to end up with the next Breeders Crown champ, like Jon Erdner did with Jujubee or Sandra Burnett did with Ocean Rock or Velocity Standardbreds did with Monte Miki.

Those that can afford to buy better prospects do so to increase their odds of landing a champion. It’s a decent strategy, for the most part, because paying a premium does often pay off, but as we saw this weekend, it’s no guarantee.

One of the beautiful things about harness racing, unlike most sports, is the possibility that people with limited budgets — and sometimes even amateur status — can take down the big outfits precisely because a great horse can come from anywhere and one never truly knows the size of their heart.

It’s probably why the “little guy” narrative is so popular in a sport where participation is open to all with enough money to buy a horse. Almost none of us will ever suit up for an MLB, NFL, NHL or NBA team — and very few of us will ever have the bankroll to own a pro sports team — but we could end up with a horse that takes us to the very top of this sport.

This year, the first-time Crown-winning trainers were: 28-year-old trainer Lucas Wallin (Rebuff – 2yoct); Mark Evers (Monte Miki – 2yocp); Greg Wright, Jr. (Jujubee — 3YOCT); Christi Noble (Ocean Rock – Open Pace) and Ake Svanstedt (Felicity Shagwell S — Mare Trot; Ecurie D — Open Trot). While Svanstedt certainly isn’t a “little guy,” consider that his win with Felicity Shagwell S snapped an eight-year, 0-for-36 Crown losing streak despite him sending out a plethora of talented horses in recent years.

As for the homebred Crown winners, they were: Bella Bellini (David McDuffee — 3YOFT); Jujubee (Jon Erdner — 3YOCT) Perfect Sting (Brittany Farms LLC and Val D’Or Farms — 3YOCP); Ocean Rock (Sandra Burnett — Open Pace); Monte Miki (Velocity Standardbreds — 2YOCP) and Joviality S (AM Bloodstock Inc., the breeding arm of owner Courant Inc. — 2YOFT).

Look beyond the Breeders Crown and you will see major stakes victories by smaller stables.

Ontario’s Cecchin and Davies families won the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup and the Ontario Sires Stakes Super Final with Desperate Man, who was a $20,000 yearling.

Charlie May, a homebred owned by Pennsylvania’s Don Tiger, won the $300,000 Carl Milstein Memorial, was runner-up to Perfect Sting in the sophomore pacing colt Crown and was first across the wire in the $700,000 Meadowlands Pace before being disqualified for interference (a challenge to that ruling is still working its way through the courts).

American Courage, a homebred owned by Fiddler’s Creek Stables LLC and trained by Travis Alexander, won the $500,000 Messenger.

Hellabalou won the $375,000 Adios for owner Eric Good of Maryland and trainer Eddie Dennis.

Crown winners Monte Miki and Jujubee also won the $650,960 Metro Pace and $561,000 Kentucky Futurity, respectively.

One might also include Meadowlands Pace winner Lawless Shadow on the list. While he is trained by top conditioner Dr. Ian Moore and is owned by a group of Maritimers that have had some success before, they’re not perennial candidates for the Owners of the Year award.

That’s a lot of major stakes victories in one season by not the usual subjects, which has made for an interesting year — not better per se, interesting.

It’s certainly nice to see some different faces.

After all, wouldn’t most of us like to see everyone who has the talent, drive and long-term devotion to this sport luck out to have at least one great horse in their lifetime?

That may be improbable for smaller outfits, but it’s not impossible.

There’s always next year.

That, my friends, is the intoxicating elixir that drives people to horse sales or to breed their mares and keep trying.

Few things could be better than that.