by Brett Sturman
This Monday (March 20) kicks off the 2023 edition of the MGM Borgata Pacing Series at Yonkers Raceway. Of the 37 free-for-all pacers nominated to the stakes series, 32 of them will be in action in the opening leg.
In what looks to be an amazingly competitive group, I’d say that for about a dozen or so horses, being able to earn strong checks based on $50,000 races a week for five weeks is going to be good enough. For others though, there are even higher expectations.
Counting down from the top 20 contenders, here’s my best estimate of how those horses could all shake out:
20. Funatthebeach N/Burnham Boy N: Split the final slot as to not dismiss mention on either of these two. Giving respect to last year’s surprise winner, Funatthebeach N leaves a bit to be desired from his last couple of races but we’ll see if he can step it up. Was the sports number one ranked horse at one point early last year; trainer Gillis has been strong at Yonkers. Burnham Boy N was all the rage after his debut at The Meadowlands at the end of January; Ryder trainee steps up.
19. Bee Two Bee: Most likely on the outside looking in but he was consistent in this series last year, taking home a trio of third-place finishes, a second and a fourth. One of those types that will be in the mix with an inside post, like how it usually goes for him in the Yonkers open handicaps.
18. Im Sir Blake A: Consolation winner last year, he finished third in every leg last year except for the opening leg in which he was fourth. He had a strong year overall earning $200k, finishing up that season with wins in the Hoosier Park opens. Toured the track last week on return at The Meadowlands in first start since September.
17. Belmont Royale N: A newcomer to the series, he raced at a high level all winter long at The Meadowlands for trainer Nifty Norman and set it up last week first over in the open 1 for eventual winner Backstreet Shadow. His lone race at Yonkers came in early February and he was right there in a race that featured other Borgata entrants, a race he was favored in.
16. Semi Tough: Rallied belatedly to secure a nice check when finishing third in last year’s series final, he went over the $1-million mark in career earnings with a second-place finish from post 8 two weeks ago at Yonkers. He’s routinely a threat in the Yonkers opens against all the usual suspects regardless of the post and figures to make another good account for himself this time around.
15. None Bettor A: Now 10-years-old, he’s one of the most accomplished Yonkers horses from the past couple of years. Last year’s series didn’t go as planned for him, but he made up for it with a win here in the Aria Invitational which sent him over the $1-million career-earnings mark. Qualified easily enough a few days ago at Pocono as one of four Travis Alexander horses in the series.
14. American Courage: Another Alexander trainee in the series, he returns to the scene of his 2021 Messenger Stakes win. A 1:47.4 winner last year, he was third in October’s Aria Invitational and is another that does his better work on this track. Qualified almost identically to his stablemate, listed above.
13. Covered Bridge: Started off well in this series last year when trained by Burke and gave it a pretty good try two back when he tried to stave off Lochinvar Art late. Coasted last out in an easy race leading into this series, could be formidable.
12. Jack’s Legend N: Forced the pace battle in last year’s final when trained by Josh Green and would have been higher rated in years past than he is now. Never really tried to get into the race last out when making his first start since December, let’s see how last year’s 1:47.2 winner comes back at age 9.
11. Nandolo N: One of three Shane Tritton horses in the series and all of them rate an overall chance. This one is currently the fastest horse still early in the 2023 season, taking a 1:48.3 mark on one of the Sunday afternoon cards at The Meadowlands in January. A 2022 series finalist, he won two legs last year and was second in two others.
10. Backstreet Shadow: Missed this series last year but was a presence two years ago in 2021. A top horse when at his best, he makes his third start on the barn move from King to Alexander and delivered last out on a golden trip to take The Meadowlands open. Could easily have more to offer than he did in that one start at Yonkers in February, which wasn’t bad to start with.
9. Hemsworth N: This is a big step up for a horse that towards the end of last year was dominating in the non-winners of 8 condition, but he’s proved it so far at Pocono and that win last out from post eight against Nicholas Beach (conspicuously not nominated in this series) was a real eye opener. Trainer Bako is Yonkers fourth-leading trainer this year with 22 wins from 94 starts at time of print.
8. Soaring Now: The lone 4-year-old, he beat Mad Max Hanover towards the end of last year in the Jenna’s Beach Boy and could be a threat now racing for Noel Daley this year. Swept powerfully by overmatched rivals when making his first start of the year two back at The Meadowlands and took a ton of action last out at Yonkers despite an outside post; seems like he’ll be respected.
7. Hellabalou: Two years removed from his magical run in the Adios elimination and final, he returns for the Borgata series after proving too good for rivals in the Northfield and Meadow’s opens. Perhaps somewhat of an adjustment year as a 4-year-old last season, this series could be the start of a strong campaign and Burke figures to have him ready.
6. Jimmy Freight: A world of credit due to this horse that no matter the circumstances, has been able to keep coming back for more. A gutsy horse for sure going for Brett Pelling and Scott Zeron who won here in 1:50.3 as a 3-year-old, there hasn’t been anything wrong with his first two races coming back since September at The Meadowlands. Still a small question mark heading into the series, his best would be good enough to give it a go to win it all.
5. Anothrmastrpiece: Perhaps ranked a bit higher than conventional wisdom would say, I think this horse is a legitimate contender. Another Tritton trainee, he battled it out with some of the best going at Yonkers towards the end of September before being put on the shelf and then gave it a great late charge against Leonidas A two weeks ago when making his first start back. He didn’t draw well in his opening leg, but I’d be surprised if he’s not heard from throughout the series.
4. This Is The Plan: Closing in on $3 million lifetime, he’s been one of the sports best free-for-allers over the years. He won this series in 2021 and won multiple legs last year too before getting the worst of it unfortunately in last year’s final. Having last raced in TVG Open last November, he hasn’t gotten any favors either by landing post eight for his first leg; a race it seems will certainly be used to re-acclimate.
3. Leonidas A: His record in this series the past two years is impeccable and last year he won half of his 22 starts, good for over $400,000 on the season. A former closer-turned-versatile horse, he actually got the trip in last year’s final but was outkicked in the end by Funatthebeach N and had to settle for second. There’s nothing wrong with his three starts thus far in the Yonkers open handicaps this year and he figures to be in line for another strong showing.
2. Lochinvar Art A: The former Australian champion is yet to disappoint in North America. Well-trained, he’s been brilliant thus far and Lauren Tritton has driven him flawlessly. It is too bad he had to scratch along with the other Tritton horses a few weeks ago due to a winter storm as that race would have really given a better read on him from post eight, but so far, he’s lived up to the hype. Would make for quite a story if he can continue to keep it going; I think he will.
1. Tattoo Artist: If there’s one drive that Dexter Dunn would like to have back from last year, I’m guessing that the Borgata Pacing Series final with this horse would be right up there. Things didn’t work out from the rail as the race favorite, but he of course went on to have an extremely successful season going up against the sport’s very best all year and ended up with almost $1 million on the season to show for it. Qualified powerfully most recently at The Meadowlands. Could be the start of another fruitful campaign.