Leonidas brings a newfound dimension into Borgata final

Breaking down Monday’s $549,000 final at Yonkers.

by Brett Sturman

Heading into Monday’s $549,000 Borgata Pacing Series final, free-for-all pacer Leonidas A must have a sense of déjà vu.

Owned by Jesmeral Stable and trained by Sheena Cohen, the 7-year-old Mach Three gelding has seen this story before. Leonidas enters the Borgata final having won all four preliminary legs of the series, exactly as he did last year. In fact, Leonidas has never lost a preliminary leg ever since the renaming of the FFA series to the Borgata. And, just like last year, Leonidas has the misfortune of landing an outward post in the series final.

There is a key difference this time around, though. Leonidas is no longer a one-run closer like he was regarded as such this time last year.

Of Leonidas’ seven wins this year, all at Yonkers, four of them have come on the front end. It’s a turnaround from nearly all his time since coming to North America in 2020 when he had been raced almost exclusively off the pace, including his signature win when he came from last to beat Bettor’s Wish in the 2020 Potomac Pace. In winning his first three open handicap’s this year, he led at every call in every race. That third consecutive win was a wire-to-wire job from post 8, and he nearly lasted again from post 8 in the open handicap start after that one. In the second of his four Borgata preliminary wins this year, he two-moved from the starting post 5 to the lead past an opening quarter in :26.2 and ended up winning the race comfortably.

Describing the evolution of Leonidas, Cohen said, “We’re off to a little better of a start this year, and we continue to know him a little better. Last year everybody kind of knew him as a closer. He mostly raced off the pace and that was his thing. As we’ve been able to experiment with him more this year, starting with the opens earlier in the year, he’s raced off the gate, he’s raced on the front, he’s raced from behind, so we’ve seen that he can be more versatile than we first thought. He’s definitely gotten used to the style of racing here, and he’s been here now long enough that we have a better feel.”

In last year’s Borgata final, Leonidas had post 7 and there was little doubt that he was going to be relegated to racing from last. This year, from a slightly improved post 6, but more so his form, things are different.

“Last year drawing the seven-hole was a huge bummer for us, and we had This Is The Plan on our outside and we knew he could leave, so we figured that we would take back and hope that the fractions worked out for us,” said Cohen. “Being able to race off the pace the way that he does, we thought we’d still have a shot if things had gone right, but the fractions just didn’t work out. This year now even though he still has the six-hole, maybe we can try a different approach with him and not have to rely solely on him racing off the pace. Maybe we can try to leave with him a little bit, but Austin (Siegelman) knows him really well and I trust his opinion to see what he thinks he’ll do. Tattoo Artist has the rail so that’s going to be tough (to make the front), but we’re going to hope to get away in a better spot than last year.”

In sharp form, Leonidas follows others from Cohen’s barn that is in the midst of a good streak. Just this week, Cohen has won three of four starts at Yonkers, including winners at 19-1 and at 20-1.

“We were thinking of possibly leaving Leonidas out for his last leg since he already had enough points, but he’s just so good right now and we wanted to keep him fresh for the final,” said Cohen.

“He’s definitely feeling a lot better than this time last year. Last year he did pop a gravel shortly before the final, so that was a little bit of bad luck and so he wasn’t at the top of his game that night, so hopefully the next couple of days go well and he’ll be in good shape.”

After having gone off at odds of 1.00, 0.40, 0.30, 0.10 in his Borgata preliminary legs (all as the race favorite, obviously), Leonidas is listed at programmed odds of 9-2 for Monday’s final. I’d have to think he’ll get bet down somewhat from that number, but there’s no question that race favoritism will belong to Tattoo Artist.

Tattoo Artist (7-5) was the one I pegged before the series as the favorite to win it all, and he’s found his better gear after having not won a leg until two weeks ago. That he’s trained by Chris Ryder and driven by Dexter Dunn, his status as the one to beat was solidified when he drew the rail. A 1:47.1 winner at the Meadowlands last year, he crushed weaker Borgata foes last week in a statement win.

Perhaps the biggest wild card in the race is the defending Borgata champion, This Is The Plan (5-1). He surprised last year with a masterful drive by Gingras from post 8, but he’s been tough to get a read on this time around. He’s won twice in the series but was beaten by a big longshot a few back and then last week it didn’t look like he ever had any intention of getting close; I think I’d be surprised if he won now.

Jack’s Legend (7-2) has also won twice in the series and two back gave super-game chase to Leonidas in a fast 1:50.4 mile. Semi Tough (20-1) got the worst of a ridiculous speed duel last week. He’s a longshot though he did beat Leonidas here back in February. Funatthebeach (12-1) has made a good account for himself in the series and can rally for a share. Nandolo (15-1) hasn’t been worse than second throughout the series, and those losses came by a neck and a nose. He’s capable of leaving, but I’m sure Leonidas will be protecting position immediately to his inside. Pat Stanley (20-1) is in an improbable spot though he does get Todd McCarthy for a return call.

Picks: Leonidas, Jack’s Legend, Tattoo Artist