Zeron: Three NA Cup elims ‘wildly changes’ drivers’ approach

To qualify for the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup final, horses will have to be at or near their best this Saturday.

by Brett Sturman

With a healthy number of 26 3-year-old pacers entered for this year’s Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park, three eliminations will be necessary in order to determine the 10 finalists for next week’s $1 million final. The need for three eliminations where only the top three finishers from each race will be guaranteed a spot in the final is a much-welcomed departure from the established norm of non-competitive eliminations.

The setup for Saturday’s (June 8) races reflects how elimination races were first intended, in that a horse will have to actually race itself into the following week’s final. And to Mohawk’s credit with this race, last year the North America Cup had four(!) elimination races where only the top two were guaranteed spots as finalists, so there’s a clear history in this race of horses needing to be at or near their best just to make the final.

In two of the eliminations Saturday that have nine horses, only the top third will advance to the final. In the one elimination that has eight horses, there is still an element of talent and strategy to finish in the top three. This is in direct contrast to typical elimination races in recent years across the industry where, at best, 50 per cent of the field will make the final and at worst, 90 per cent of an elimination field will pass on through. Saturday’s North America Cup races will take the form of pure elimination races and less of preparation races.

The pedal will be down far more than it would be in a two-elimination scenario and with that the races will be much more competitive, strategic, and honestly run. It also opens up the possibility that some of the better horses may not even make the final if they aren’t on their ‘A’ game or if racing luck isn’t on their side. With that, it forces the drivers to consider changes in approach as well.

Driver Scott Zeron won last year’s 40th edition of this race with It’s My Show and his hopes this time around rests solely with the 2-year-old Governor’s Cup winner, Captain Luke. In Saturday’s race 5, which goes as the second of the three Cup eliminations, Captain Luke will begin from the rail in a race where the competition is stacked. Before Zeron can even think of winning a third North America Cup final (Captain Crunch, 2019), he’ll first need to get there and driver strategy in the elimination will be a major factor.

“For me, having to finish in the top three wildly changes the approach, and last year it was where you had to be top two,” said Zeron. “In an elimination race you want to accomplish a couple of things. You’d love to win, but you’d love to do it without getting every single per cent out of your horse, because seven days later you have to do it again. The goal is always to win, but it’s to win without overexerting to the point of exhaustion.

“In a top three, it makes it where a 2-hole trip sounds good, but sometimes you might never get out. You’re going to see a lot more aggressive drives from drivers, and having to be in the top two last year was even more intimidating. It’s certainly something that you’re conscious of. You also want to win so that you can get a good post, which is a game changer in a final. Last year we had at least eight horses that made the final where you could have realistically said any of those can win and having us draw into the 2-hole last year was huge.”

Captain Luke’s elimination features last year’s 2-year-old O’Brien winner Legendary Hanover, a winner two races back in a time of 1:48.3. It also includes Funtime Bayama, who got the tactical jump on Legendary Hanover in last week’s Somebeachsomewhere and sprung the minor upset in 1:49.1. Not to be overlooked either is Mirage Hanover who shined at this track early in the freshman season last year and most recently comes off a 1:48.4 timed mile at The Meadowlands.

“Legendary Hanover is very good, but Legendary Hanover hasn’t raced against Captain Luke, nor have others, so this is where you kind of shuffle the cards a little bit,” said Zeron. “Having the rail can sometimes be a little disadvantage at Mohawk, but my horse is extremely fast off the car and we’ll be looking to utilize that, but so will [Sylvain Filion with Funtime Bayama] right? So, it’ll be a mad dash to the eighth pole and we’ll see how it goes after that.”

Continuing to add to the talent in the elimination is Number Cruncher, a horse that Zeron drove to an impressive 5-length win at Woodbine Mohawk Park a week ago and one that the driver was obviously less than enthused that both his horses drew into the same elimination.

“He was so good and Erv Miller has managed him very well to keep him away from the top dogs early on in the year and kind of let him come to his speed and be confident heading into a race like that,” said Zeron about Number Cruncher. “It’s unfortunate to have had to book off of him this early.”

It’s a similar story in the first elimination, in that at least one very good horse will not be guaranteed to make the final. That elimination alone includes Clever Cody, Captain Albano, Captains Quarters and Gem Quality. The final elimination does appear to be the softest on paper, but even that race is likely to see its share of early action as Total Stranger starts from the outside against last week’s Somebeachsomewhere winner, the streaking Nijinsky who bested Captains Quarters.