Stakes season ramps up as big names come out to play

by Brett Sturman

Spanning today (May 17) through Sunday, the harness racing landscape is full of returning notables and signature races as stakes season continues to ramp up. Here is a preview of how I see things starting to take form in what promises to be the start of many rivalries throughout the season.

Things get underway this afternoon at The Meadows where two of the best 2-year-old fillies from last year make their return to the races, divisional champion Geocentric and Breeders Crown champion My Girl EJ race in separate splits of the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes (PASS).

Geocentric goes in race 8, the first of three consecutive PASS events on the card and those return qualifiers over at Hoosier look sharp on paper. Qualifying twice for trainer Brian Brown, the most recent one from last week included a :25.3 final quarter in a final time of 1:51.4.

Untouchable for most of last year’s freshman season, she was used hard through an unsustainable half-mile time of :54 flat in the Breeders Crown and gave way in her only defeat of the year; anxious to see how she kicks off her 3-year-old campaign. In the same race, it’ll be interesting to see how hard Geocentric gets pushed by Miraculous Deo, another filly making her first start of the year off two return qualifiers. This one for trainer Noel Daley, overachieved in the Three Diamonds to close out last year and it’s worth noting that she outkicked pocket sitting My Girl EJ in that most recent qualifier at The Meadowlands. Good race coming right out of the gate for these.

Speaking of My Girl EJ, she’s in the race immediately following the one from above and is another that begins what hopes to be a prosperous season. A monstrous 1:49.2 winner from last year’s Breeders Crown, there wasn’t anything wrong with either of her two return qualifiers, the most recent of which came over a track rated ‘good’ at The Meadowlands when she kicked home in :26.2. Sarasota Hanover was another one that showed talent last year prepped three times for her return for the connections of Toscano and Zeron. She may try to protect her post edge a bit over the favorite as a long season for these starts now.

Just as the divisional and Breeders Crown champion fillies return today in Pennsylvania, it’s almost an identical return for the colts on Saturday (May 18). There, both Captain Albano and Gem Quality make their first and second starts of the year, respectively, in PASS competition at Pocono.

Like Geocentric, Captain Albano lost in his Breeders Crown but did enough throughout the rest of his 2-year-old season to win a Dan Patch and now returns off two qualifiers at The Meadowlands. He does draw into a relatively salty PASS division and may be at a slight disadvantage in that all other rivals in this race have had at least one start under their belt this year. That includes Booming Economy who won a PASS race two weeks ago in his first start since last year’s Governor’s Cup final, as well as Ivy Park, who won first-out on the year and paid nearly $20 as a rare Takter overlay. It’s Saturday Night looked like he was well on his way to a win last out in a PASS race at The Meadows when he broke after ripping out of the pocket on a sloppy-rated track, it’s back to Dunn now.

Of course, Dunn is also on Gem Quality a few races later and that duo followed last year’s Breeders Crown upset win with a comfortable return last week in a PA All Stars division. He steps up from that race and could see a test from Number Cruncher who makes his third start back on the year and comes off a lifetime best 1:50.3 win at The Meadowlands. Timeisonmyside tried to take similar competition all the way two back and tired late in the off going; gets another shot at Gem Quality to whom he finished second last out.

Shifting to Canada, though not a stakes race, tonight’s preferred at Woodbine Mohawk Park features older pacing fillies who could be battling it out for divisional supremacy as the year goes on. Freshman and sophomore champion Sylvia Hanover makes her debut as a 4-year-old, having last raced while winning the Breeders Crown in October. She’ll get an early taste for the older mare competition that includes a couple of the best ones from last year, Silver Label and Prohibition Legal, both of whom returned last week and have a start under their belt.

In New Jersey, all eyes will be on races 10 and 11 at The Meadowlands on Saturday evening, as that’s where we’ll see Karl in another leg of the New Jersey Sires Stakes, followed by the Cutler Memorial.

Just wondering as an obvious hypothetical, what if things were switched up a bit and they threw Karl instead in the Cutler – could he win? Karl could potentially race against the Cutler types at the end of the season in the TVG, but I wonder right now at this point in the year if he could win that race. Another question to consider is that if Karl continues to win in the fashion he did in return last week, what impact could that have on the number of Hambletonian starters this year?

There are many familiar names coming together for the $145,150 Cutler, including last year’s older female trotting champion, Jiggy Jog S. One of the three powerful entrants from Svanstedt — any of which could win — she’s well accustomed to racing against male rivals. Having not been worse than second in any race last year, she raced well in that return qualifier to steadily close late from the pocket against Winners Bet with a last quarter sprint in :26.1. Barn mate Southwind Tyrion made a late season push for divisional honors last year and was a little further back in that same qualifier; had no shot to close into the slow pace. Asteroid completes the entries from Svanstedt and maybe didn’t turn out as strong as it was thought he’d be last year, though only had six limited starts.

An intriguing horse in the race is Periculum whose trainer Melander campaigned here as a 2- and 3-year-old, and was a Hambletonian finalist in 2022. Having raced in Sweden last year with limited success, he returned here at The Meadowlands with a fast qualifier in April and then absolutely jogged last out at Pocono; he may be up to the task. Dover In Motion, Hillexotic and Venerate have all been here before but I’d rate as longer chances; same goes for Delayed Hanover.

The signature race for 4-year-old pacers at Flamboro Downs takes place on Sunday (May 19), and the $263,000 Charles Juravinski Memorial Cup has produced some good winners in recent years. This year’s final is full of the top-caliber sophomores from last year, and my pick in a wide-open event would lean towards Seven Colors.

Perhaps an easy pick because he drew the rail, Seven Colors recovered well from an early break in his elimination to even make the final, and credit to driver Henry for not panicking when he was down at least 10 lengths at the start. He was well bet that night having gone off as the slight 3-2 second choice off a 6-1 morning line and I still remember his 1:48 mile over Northfield last year; picks up Dunn to boot.

All Class is one of two Engblom trainees and he was impressive in pushing past Ervin Hanover in their elimination last week in a multiple move effort. Those two horses had the race to themselves late and credit to Ervin Hanover for nearly sustaining through fast fractions after blasting early; post 8 for him now is brutal though. No Control was the winner of the other elimination, having put away a longshot leader while racing first over and not allowing anyone from the back to get within a few lengths at the end. The mid-pack post will give Roy some options. Coach Stefanos couldn’t quicken once he lost the cover of No Control as the 3-5 favorite and had to settle for third. Both Huntinthelastdolar and Dupree Hanover were moving forward late while wide in that same elimination.