Hochstetler, Harris hope to “Graduate” at The Big M

by Debbie Little

The Graduate Series makes its Meadowlands debut for 2024 tonight (June 14) with two divisions each for 4-year-old pacers and trotters.

Jay Hochstetler, the 2023 U.S. Harness Writers Association Rising Star Award winner, will make his training debut at The Big M with Ponda Jet.

It will also mark The Meadowlands debut for the gelded son of Dover Dan—Ponda’s Lucky Lady.

Ponda Jet has never raced outside of his home state of Indiana, making all but one of his 34 career starts at Hoosier Park. His lone race outside of the confines of Hoosier was as a 2-year-old at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

Hochstetler said that Ponda Jet’s racing schedule has been by design and hopes for good results on his horse’s first trip out east, especially because he’s competing on a mile track.

“Being all the way out here in Indiana, I didn’t want to stake him too heavy and just exhaust him by the end of the season just with trailer miles,” Hochstetler said. “I think this is a spot where he’s definitely going to have to put a serious mile together to get a good piece of it.

“One thing about him is, he’s been on a big track his whole life, so he’s a little bit more accustomed to the big-track style of racing. It’s not going to be an adjustment, like for horses that come from a half or a five-eighths, where it’s a lot of different tactics and style of race.”

This trip to New Jersey is a homecoming of sorts for Hochstetler, whose dad, Homer, spent a few summers stabled on the backstretch at The Meadowlands just prior to the stable area being closed and torn down.

“My dad and I used to spend the whole summer there,” Jay said. “I was a groom then. We stabled right on the backside probably four or five years in a row.

“I really liked it. It was really fun. I spent a lot of summers eating at Redd’s [Restaurant] and sitting in the grandstand on the nights we didn’t race.”

Ponda Jet comes into his division of the Graduate off two-straight victories in opens at Hoosier.

“He’s pretty incredible,” Jay said. “He’s had a lot of ups and downs and he’s just tough as nails and gets through it. He was a project when he was 2 and he was kind of a headcase that wanted to go 1,000 miles [an hour] out of the gate. At the end of his 2-year-old year, we got him down to where he was manageable.

“At 3, he became a classy horse. He still liked to be on the front, but he always minded his manners and he’s gotten even better this year about that. He’s a very large horse and he’s got the lungs to go with it, so, hopefully, that translates to a good race [tonight].”

Ponda Jet will pick up a new pilot, David Miller, for his Meadowlands start. Another change for the 4-year-old who has only had two previous drivers.

“My dad drove him for most of his 2-year-old season until like the last two starts, and then Kyle [Wilfong] picked him up and Kyle’s driven him every time ever since,” Jay said. “David [Miller] drove a lot of horses for us in the past when my dad was training, so I’ve got a pretty good relationship with him. He drove quite a few trotters for us in the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes and on the Grand Circuit.

“[Miller is] experienced and he can get along with a horse, a big trotter like this, that likes to get a little headstrong sometimes. He’s good with those types of horses.”

Owned by Connie Hochstetler, Robert Buddig and Allen Schwartz, Ponda Jet drew post 3 in race 10, the second of two divisions for open trotters, and is the 4-1 third choice on the morning line.

Should Ponda Jet perform well, Jay plans to stay in New Jersey for next week’s third leg of the Graduate (June 22) at The Meadowlands. The $250,000 (est.) final is on Saturday (July 6).

On the pacing side, trainer Andrew Harris sends out a pair who each drew post 2 in their respective divisions.

Seven Colors is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in race 11, while El Rey is the 7-2 third choice in race 9. Both horses will be driven by Dexter Dunn.

Seven Colors, a son of Stay Hungry—Rainbowinthedark, comes in off a win in his last start, the first leg of the Graduate Series at Woodbine Mohawk Park, on June 1.

“I was very happy with Seven Colors, the way he came back,” Harris said of how his horse has transitioned from 3 to 4. “I think he’s come back to be an awesome horse. I think the world of him. I think he’s got all the speed and the lungs to go with the speed. So, I’ve been super, super happy with that horse…

“He didn’t start the year off great when I sent him to Canada [in mid-May for the Juravinski at Flamboro], he made a break in the first start. But other than that, he’s come out of it perfect and he went on to do great since then and I think he’ll continue on to do great things.”

El Rey, a son of Captaintreacherous—Mystery Game, is making his Graduate debut. His previous five starts for the season came on the five-eighths mile track at Kentucky’s Oak Grove.

“I think that he’s just not exploding the way he should be on the smaller track,” Harris said. “So, I’m going to bring him back to the big track and see if I can get that :25 last quarter back into him.”

It’s a particularly busy weekend for Harris with stakes races on both sides of the border.

“I’ll be here in Jersey for [tonight] and go to Canada on Saturday, but I have a great team behind me, so I don’t have to worry about too much,” Harris said. “Yes, I definitely put on some frequent flyer miles. You can’t complain because you get to travel, that’s for sure.”

Racing on Saturday (June 15) at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Harris has Abuckabett Hanover in the $100,000 Mohawk Gold Cup and Miki Ray in the $75,000 North America Cup consolation.

According to Harris, who co-owns both Seven Colors and El Rey with Bill Pollock and Bruce Areman, races specifically for 4-year-olds are important.

“If you want people to keep bringing horses back to the track and have your stars keep coming back, it’s of the utmost importance to have those type of races,” he said. “Nothing keeps these horses on the track if they don’t have places to race.”

According to the conditions for the Graduate Series, “To be guaranteed eligibility for the final(s), a horse must start in no fewer than half (50 per cent) of the preliminary legs in their Series division.”

With that being the case, no matter where they finish tonight, Ponda Jet and El Rey would have to compete next week in leg 3 to even be eligible for the final.

“I’d like to see [Ponda Jet] finish top three and show that come the final, I’d be a player to get a piece of it, that’s the biggest thing,” Jay said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t like racing for fifth place.”

Talking about his competition, Harris said, “They’re all respectable animals and I’m scared of all of them. They don’t put them in because they don’t think they have a shot.

“At the end of the day, it’s a very tough group of 4-year-olds and I give every one of them full respect.”