James Whelan, Jr. calls Varsity Hanover the best paint job he ever did. The Maryland harness racing horseman took ownership of the 2-year-old who's now won six in a row after some old fashioned bartering with fellow trainer George Teague, Jr. This spring Whelan did $3,000 worth of painting for Teague, who gave him three horses to choose from for his payment.
"He was just the best looking one out of the bunch," Whelan said of Varsity Hanover. The brown gelding, a half brother to Northern Sun p,1:50.1 ($571,206) and Voelz Hanover p,1:50s ($1,092,106) now boasts seven wins from 12 starts this year and a record of 1:56.4f.
Whelan added the son of-Vassar Hanover to his small stable in May. He said Teague had trained the youngster down to 2:18 but when Whelan moved him to Maryland he had a gravel pop so he was given some time off. Whelan finished training him down in time to qualify at Ocean Downs in late July. Under the guidance of driver Justin Vincent, Varsity Hanover was timed in 2:04 in his first official mile on a 95 degree day.
He finished fifth in his pari-mutuel debut at the Ocean oval, timed in 2:02.2. From there he got a little bit faster every week, winning his third start at the half-mile track in 2:01 after leading the field through middle fractions of 1:00 and 1:30.2.
He next went to Freehold Raceway where he dropped three seconds off his race time, pacing in 1:58 and finishing second for driver Montrell Teague. He finished fourth and fifth in his next two starts at the New Jersey track, pacing sub-2:00 miles both times before returning to his home state with the reopening of Rosecroft Raceway.
Aside from racing Varsity Hanover no more frequently than every other week to take it easy on him, Whelan says the pacer, who wears no boots, had no problems all summer.
He proved he was in top form the first time he went to the gate at Rosecroft, winning by an easy five lengths in 1:58.4 for regular driver Vincent on Oct. 21. He hasn't missed a chance to visit the winner's circle since. He dropped his lifetime mark to 1:57.4 with a nearly four length win on Oct. 28 and followed that with another victory in 1:58.3 the next week. On Nov. 12 he left impressively from post seven to hit fractions of :28.3, 1:00.2 and 1:29.4 before coming home in :28.4 to win by a length.
"He shows a lot of interest when he's out there with other horses," Whelan said.
After a 6-1/2 length win on Nov. 19, last Saturday (Nov. 26) marked the first time in more than a month that Varsity Hanover went to post without being the bettors' choice. In spite of his slightly higher odds, the pacer won yet again, this time in a new lifetime mark of 1:56.4.
"He hasn't missed a check yet," Whelan said.
He said that although Varsity Hanover has been on the front end in all of his recent races, he is manageable on the track and can be raced from the back of the pack or on the front.
"He's just a good horse," Whelan said. "He's got a lot of sense."
Whelan plans to finish out the meet at Rosecroft with Varsity Hanover and then look at the possibility of entering some early closers at the Meadowlands.
He is more than pleased with the success he's had so far with the youngster and says he's even been congratulated by Teague, an old friend of his father's, on Varsity Hanover's accomplishments.
"George is happy for me," Whelan said. "He knew I'd take my time with him and get him to the races."
by Charlene Sharpe, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent