by James Platz
In the first three starts of his sophomore campaign, Ponda Jet has shown himself to be a much different trotter than the freshman that lined up behind the gate in 2022. The Dover Dan—Ponda’s Lucky Lady gelding has tallied three victories for trainer Jay Hochstetler, the latest an impressive 1:52 effort Friday night (May 19) in the $22,000 final of The Expression. Ponda Jet’s 2023 form is markedly improved over last season when he was plagued with breaks.
“He’s matured so much this year. I always thought he was the fastest colt, but he could not mentally put it together,” said Hochstetler. “He’s such a different horse this year. We made some changes, a lot of them we made in the last start last year. We found the ticket to it too late last year, but so far it’s been the ticket this year, too. He’s got a hell of an engine, I know that.”
Maturity is one component to the gelding’s newfound success. Equipment changes account for another. Late in the 2022 season, Hochstetler added a homemade cord behind the trotter’s bit. It was first implemented in a schooling session with favorable results. The trainer used it in the last start of the season, the $270,000 Indiana Sires Stakes Super Final, with good results. In that event, driver Kyle Wilfong started from the outside post as the longest shot on the board with triple-digit odds. He ducked Ponda Jet early, then the pair turned in the fastest last quarter of the field to finish fourth.
“He’s a completely different animal when that cord is in his mouth. It’s unbelievable,” Hochstetler said. “Kyle had the nine hole and took him all the way to last. He said, ‘I couldn’t have even thought of doing that before we put this on.’”
In January, Hochstetler added an open bridle, and Ponda Jet took to that change as well as the homemade cord. Prior to the changes, the gelding collected a pair of wins at 2, but immaturity produced two likely outcomes each time he lined up behind the gate. The young trotter would either jump it off before the gate folded or soon thereafter, or he would fire straight to the front. In either scenario, Ponda Jet often took himself out of contention. At one point last year he finished out of the money in five of six starts.
“He was just so high strung. He was either trying to run away or he was shutting his air off. He wouldn’t let you drive him. You had to leave with him, otherwise he was running behind the gate. Then, you had to go fast because if you grabbed into him too much, he was going to run then too,” Hochstetler said. “He was wearing himself out early because he was so out of control. He’s not that way this year. He’s really developing into a horse that you can rate and control. He’s receptive to being told what to do.”
Although the trotter struggled to earn checks consistently, Hochstetler credits his father, Homer, for his efforts last year managing and teaching Ponda Jet in a majority of his freshman starts. He was also in the bike this winter at Pinehurst when the gelding began to make improvements.
“He drove him most of last year to try to keep his head on straight, and he’s done a lot of the work with him this winter to keep him calm and relaxed on the racetrack,” Jay said.
Wilfong was handed the lines late last season and has become Ponda Jet’s regular driver. The reinsman and Hochstetler grew up together as their families competed on the Chicago circuit. The trainer enlisted Wilfong to drive his pupil after success with a similarly-difficult horse.
“He actually drove a horse very similar to this horse back in Chicago for us named Anthonyskywalker. He was kind of a lunatic. Really tough to hold in the post parade and behind the gate. That’s kind of why we picked Kyle in the first place. He did so good with that horse,” Jay said.
The pairing has worked well. After the fourth-place performance to close out 2022, Wilfong and Ponda Jet are perfect in 2023. Sent off as the second choice in the opening leg of The Expression, held May 3, the gelding won by two lengths with a 1:53.1 clocking. In the $11,000 second leg the two wired the field as the favorites in a time of 1:53.2.
Lining up fourth in a field of seven Friday evening (May 19), Wilfong settled into the pocket behind early leader Just Show Up through a :27.4 opening panel. Moving to the front on the way to the half (:55.4) the duo built a margin of three and one-half lengths. They would go on to win handily by two and one-half lengths and complete the series sweep.
“These are huge. It’s really a good time for trial and error. I wanted to see if all the changes we made were going to make sense in a race,” the conditioner said of the value of the early series leading into sires stakes. “If I didn’t have a series like this, I’d be going in a qualifier, but it’s not the same. We need to make sure he’s handy and able to race, and race the way we want him to.”
The winning time is significant as it ranks among the fastest this season for sophomore trotters. At the time of writing, only Air Show (1:51) and Walner Payton (1:51.4) have recorded faster winning miles. Owned by a partnership that includes Hochstetler’s mother, Connie, Robert Buddig and Allen Schwartz, the Pond-A-Acres-bred trotter is peaking at just the right time with Indiana Sires Stakes slated to begin May 29.
“There’s a lot of good colts, so he’s going to have to do that about every sires stakes leg,” Jay said shortly after the latest victory. “It didn’t seem like it was overly taxing for him. He’s going to have his plate full. Tonight, there were a couple good ones. In sires stakes, there are nine other good ones along with you.”
Jay’s charge appears to be on the right trajectory thanks in part to equipment changes and time to mature. The sky, as they say, is the limit.
PONDA WARRIOR ON THE MEND
While Ponda Jet is off to a fast start, the 4-year-old debut of ISS Super Final winner and Breeders Crown starter Ponda Warrior is delayed. Jay said the goal was to compete in the Graduate Series with the pacer, but a chip was found in his front ankle after qualifying at Pinehurst in April.
“I’m very fortunate to have a wife that is a vet. I told her to x-ray him head to toe before we started racing. He didn’t show me any signs of it, but we found it on an x-ray. The surgery went incredibly well. If all things go well, he should be back August 1,” Jay said.
Owned by Jay Hochstetler, Finkelberg Racing LLC and South Of The Tracks Rac Inc, Ponda Warrior underwent surgery to remove the chip a little over two weeks ago. The son of Rockin Image—Sweetnsinful won six times last season, banking $360,275 of the $476,475 on his card. While disappointed his pacing star is sidelined, the trainer believes the extended rest may play to his advantage as the year wears on.
“It might work out for the best,” Jay said. “For one, we rectified a problem that we didn’t really know was there. And two, he’s not going to gut himself early on and maybe we’ll have the freshest legs when the big money is on the line at the end.”