Day At The Track

A Hall of Fame climax - the Crown had it all

07:16 PM 01 Nov 2011 NZDT
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San Pail, Rapide Lebel just after the John D. Campbell 2011 Breeder's Crown champion
San Pail, Rapide Lebel just after the - wire
John D. Campbell
2011 Breeder's Crown champion - Betterthancheddar

If we learned one thing from Saturday's great Breeders Crown night it should be to celebrate the great horses. A night that started with trainers and owners scrambling to find replacements for empty sulky seats culminated with champions crowned and horses exhibiting incredible speed and courage in a dozen fantastic races.

While some have argued that the "Pick-Your-Post" bonus after elimination races may compromise the betting handle, it has proved true that post selection was vital to success in the Crown finals. The connections in seven of the eight events that chose their post positions won Breeders Crown finals.

The numbers show that of these: post three won three times, post four won three times and post five was a winner once. Only Drop The Ball, who connections perhaps asked for post two because of a lack of early speed, managed a second place finish off a less than desirable long first-over mile.

In a dozen great races you can expect some great finishes and three stretch drives stuck out as vintage. Certainly leading Horse of the Year contender San Pail had his work cut out in the homestretch following a pre-quarter pole encounter which could have been considered an "International Incident" had cooler heads not prevailed. Going to the quarter Rapide Lebel looked to be pressing on towards the lead while bearing down towards the two-path to do so.

Precisely at this point San Pail's pilot Randy Waples recognized it was time to make a split-second decision. That move was to call on San Pail quickly to fill that hole and force his main rival to press-on going three wide into the opening turn. The move temporarily thwarted Rapide Lebel's progress and at the same time insured that San Pail could get the front before his chief competition.

From that point forward it looked like your typical French vs North America battle with the French conceding the extra distance and the first-over grind to the usually quicker North American rival. In the past such concessions have seen the towering strength of the allegedly "tougher" French horses overcome their more slick and speedy counterparts.

On Saturday all the grit and toughness Rapide Lebel was able to manage, was simply not good enough. The French horse seemed to struggle maintaining a straight course in the stretch and also seemed to be one step from losing it all. Nonetheless Rapid Lebel pressed on, but San Pail, on this night, out-toughed his foreign rivals in a vintage performance.

The three-year-old colt pacers have given us some great and challenging races this year. A collection of the best gathered for Saturday's Crown finale and as expected the race didn't disappoint even if the outcome may not have been to the liking of some. Betterthancheddar's victory was clearly vindication for top conditioner Casie Coleman who had branded the horse early in his career as being one of the best she'd ever trained.

Those expectations were realized only a month ago when he first came to prominence winning the Cane Pace. Yet Betterthancheddar did not contend well with Big Bad John or Roll With Joe in the Jug, leading some to believe he could remain a one-night-wonder.

That's why Betterthancheddar's performance in the Crown was not only important, but impressive. The raced proved to be more than vindication for the horse, but for driver Mark MacDonald as well. MacDonald, who came into Breeders Crown night with but two listed drives (Action Broadway 2nd place finisher in the Mare Trot and Mach Dreamer 6th at 50-1 in the Open Pace) was pressed into service as a last minute replacement on Betterthancheddar.

For MacDonald, who had driven the colt earlier in the season only to lose the mount to George Brennan and Jody Jamieson, this would prove to be his moment of a lifetime.

Betterthancheddar was pushed into play early by MacDonald and he willingly yielded to Roll With Joe. His colt was pushed back into the three hole when Jug winner Big Bad John cleared by the half. On the final turn Pierce, driving Roll With Joe, recognized that Big Bad John was not going to carry him far enough without being an obstacle and vacated his pocket position. This left MacDonald with very few options other than to sit on the rail and hopefully wait for something to open up.

In midstretch Pierce looked to be sending Roll With Joe three high around the game first-over move of Westwardho Hanover, and at that point MacDonald badly wanted off the rail. Before MacDonald could move Pierce dove inside and closed that avenue off, instead sending Roll With Joe to the inside of Westwardho Hanover.

The move looked to be a winning one for Pierce who has made the most of so many of those opportunities along the way. MacDonald waited to get behind Pierce instead and once he had cleared Big Bad John darted to the inside and did something very few drivers would even try much less succeed at.

While "stick-handling" as the Canadian's call a stretch drive with so much movement, MacDonald was not only able to put Betterthancheddar into winning position, he was also able to kick out the ear-plugs with his left leg with just about 100 yards left in the mile.

That move was the inspiration the colt needed to hit a higher gear and press on to pass Roll With Joe right on the wire.

The unexpected drive and victory had to be extra-sweet for MacDonald who spoke openly afterwards what kind of verbal abuse he may have taken had he not found room in the stretch.

The night ended poetically for driver John Campbell. The Hall of Famer has been given limited opportunity to drive many favorites since returning from his latest racing accident. As true a professional as one could find, Campbell has made the most of his limited chances but perhaps Saturday's last race was an indication the betting public needed to recognize how great he was and most notably still is.

Irony is not lost on how quickly in this 24-hour news cycle even a Hall of Famer can be moved off the page. As Ken Middleton called the evening's last race, the Breeders Crown Pace, his voice raised when as the field approached the head of the stretch and he proclaimed race favorite We Will See to have a "bow in his neck" as if ready to pounce past Campbell with Bettor Sweet and win the race.

Perhaps lost on Middleton and other experts of the moment, Campbell had not in fact been suckered into a first over trip with Bettor Sweet to the benefit of both We Will See (2nd over) and second choice Foiled Again (3rd over).

Instead it was Campbell doing what he does best, and that is understand the pace of the race and the position one needs to win. Campbell drove the race as if he knew We Will See would wait for him to pull from the three hole. This gave him more time to sit with his horse and more time to pull Bettor Sweet to the outside without taking too much out of him.

Those seconds Campbell waited allowed pacesetter Alexie Mattosie to stall the middle half to a :56 clip and turned the race into a sprint, with Bettor Sweet and Campbell having a head start on his following rivals.

By the time the horses reached the deep stretch the "bow" had gone out of We Will See's neck and Bettor Sweet had pulled off the biggest upset of the night (8-1) holding off Foiled Again by a swelled head. For the bettor's it was a sweet way to end the night.

For the industry, these Breeders Crown races should serve as a model for the level of competition and drama we need to produce consistently. That is if we hope to inspire a larger fan base to take interest in our great sport.

By Jay BERGMAN

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