Harness Racing Road Trip: Tales from the Turnpike

06:00 AM 29 Apr 2014 NZST
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Harness racing Frank Drucker, harness racing The Manager, harness racing Sebastian K, harness racing Father Patrick, harness racing Harness racing Shake It Cerry, harness racing Western Vintage, harness racing
Noel has been cleaning and giving out saddle pads for 20 years at Yonkers
Photo by Chris Tully
Yonkers PR maven, Frank Drucker with Foiled Again
Photo by Chris Tully
The Manager is quite a character at Yonkers Raceway
Photo by Chris Tully
Sebastian K looking good at the Meadowlands
Photo by Chris Tully
Father Patrick going behind the starting gate
Photo by Chris Tully
Maven and Market Share coming to the wire
Photo by Chris Tully
Shake It Cerry and Ron Pierce
Photo by Chris Tully
Western Vintage looked good in Meadowlands qualifying race
Photo by Chris Tully
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Rock Hill, NY – With so many harness racing Dan Patch champions and Grand Circuit hopefuls in-to-go at the Meadowlands for Saturday (April 26) morning qualifiers, East Rutherford, New Jersey was the place to be.  

As I left for my nearly 300-mile journey, police were preparing to close the roads all around my local hamlet of Rock Hill for the Empire State Performance Rally, the only car racing Tarmac event in the United States. 

Traveling down the Wurtsboro mountain on the Route 17 “Quickway”, I passed several dozen street-legal speedsters who seemed very eager to test the limits of the law and machine en route to the start—which is just a stone’s throw from my house.  I could not help but thinking that my Harness Racing road rally—Meadowlands to Freehold to Yonkers­—would be similar in style and substance.

Upon my arrival to the M1 paddock, I delivered an Energy Vitamin Water to the ever-vigilant Shelly Grieco, who was checking-up Market Share for Linda Toscano to go out for his warm-up.  Team Toscano brought eleven horses to the big track Saturday.  Out by the draw gate I ran into “Markie’s” co-owner/manager, Richard Gutnick, and followed his black Porsche over to the front side to watch the first race.  For a guy who is semi-retired, he moves pretty quickly!

On the apron, the USTA’s Ken Weingartner had already set-up shop on a portable teller station, and was preparing his laptop and camera for rapid-fire uploads to Nick Salvi who was upstairs in the super box with Myron Bell.  “On the Road with” Nick Salvi wrote the color commentary and utilized Ken’s great shots for seamless, up-to-the minute internet blasts of the action.

As it turns out, I was not alone in my sojourn.  Although we took separate cars, Hall of Fame driver Ron Pierce also chewed much of the same highway, as he was driving horses at all three venues.  Mountain Man Ron’s first win at The Meadowlands came aboard Dan Patch champion Shake It Cerry, who looked solid during her first qualifier.  Her 1:58 effort into a strong headwind was one of fourteen starters from the always-powerful Jimmy Takter stable.

International Trotting stars Sebastian K and Åke Svanstedt made their Meadowlands debut.  The Swedish icon has moved his entire operation to the U.S. and has his star 8-year-old and US$2.2 million earner looking as fit as a fiddle.  A big, strapping horse, Sebastian K is another top older trotter that we will be keeping an eye on this season.  He is by Korean, a sire with predominantly French lineage, but whose second dam is by Super Bowl; from the Probe mare Gabriella K.

Another Dan Patch champion coming of age and making his first appearance since winning the Breeders Crown was Father Patrick.  Leaving from post 7, the anointed-one charged into the first turn surrounded by a strong group of Hambo disciples.  Content to sit third, His eminence let a hot-under-the-collar Odds On Amethyst do the heavy lifting to a 1:24.3 third panel.  Yannick Gingras let Takter’s star pupil trot home strongly over the last eighth.

During the break, I ran into the lively Michelle and Al Crawford who were on a whirlwind tour of their own.  Having just arrived in town from down South, they had several of their own horses to watch, and an Alagna party to attend that night.  Then it was back to their farm near Vernon Downs to put the finishing touches on a new 30-stall barn.  They bought me a coffee and we chatted at length about the sales and New York racing.  Both passionate about harness racing, their commitment to the industry is strong and their modern ideas are refreshing—evidenced by the farm’s attractive new sponsorship of the starting car at Vernon.

The likelihood of Derick Giwner from the Daily Racing Form being at M1 Qualifiers is as sure as the sun coming up tomorrow morning.  Despite 20 mph gusts during low-50 degree temps, Mr. DRF was shooting photos in a T-shirt.  He must stay warm by perpetual motion.  Not only did he hook me up with program proofs, but he also told me that Horse of the Year, Bee A Magician, may be qualifying next Saturday, Derby Day at The Meadowlands.  I guess there will be a sequel to today’s story!

Following the break, Maven and Market Share hooked up for a date that is sure to be more than just a one night stand.  We can only speculate when and where these two 5-year-olds will be spotted hanging out together the next time, but rest assured that it will be EPIC!  Tim Tetrick had ‘Markie’ acting like a perfect gentleman and let the lady lead for this dress rehearsal dance.  Who knows what will happen when they “up the tempo” on the Roarin’ Grand.

Perry Soderberg seems to have, or to have picked-out, a top horse every year.  This season is no exception.  Western Vintage appears to be a force to be reckoned with in the glamour boys division.  Yannick Gingras had the Western Ideal colt out and rolling and posted a :26.1 fastest last quarter of the day, into a brutal headwind.  Trained by Nancy Johansson, this colt is the real deal and is razor sharp, just like his co-owner.

On my way out of the paddock, I ran into the Lomangino clan, partners on Lindy’s Pride.   Great guys--father and sons who have been in the business FOREVER!  I remember selling horses to, and for Frank, Sr. at the Old Glory Sale during the 1970s.  They have owned and bred hundreds of horses over the last 4 decades, and always stop me to say hello.

For the second leg of my journey down the NJ Turnpike to Freehold, I picked up an unlikely hitchhiker via Bluetooth.  Hollywood Heyden always regales me with colorful accounts of race days gone by.  He noted that only two Horses of the Year have come back to race in the last decade:  San Pail (2011) and Rainbow Blue (2004).  Google Glass has nothing on Holly!  Our lively and informative conversation got me from Elizabeth to Mom’s Peppermill on Route 33.

There were two reasons for me to go to Freehold, not only to watch the Dexter eliminations, but also to meet up with Ellen Harvey, the director of Harness Racing Communications.  Her highly-anticipated forth-coming book, Standardbred Old Friends is at the printer and we are reviewing marketing tools for the big book signing event at the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame on Friday, July 4. 

She and co-author, multiple eclipse-winning photographer Barbara Livingston, have created a breathtaking tribute to 43 horses of distinction.  This is a volume that will make the entire industry proud.  I was especially grateful to get a sneak-peek at the printer’s proof, and mark my words, you will want to own a copy!

While watching the undercard on the new benches by the winners circle, Moira Fanning, publicity director for the Hambletonian Society joined us.  Her husband, Tom Fanning had Sumatra in the $38,460 Dexter precursor.  Christina Takter was also on the Freehold apron, watching the trotting action, and rooting for her stable’s Dave Briggs.  The Ray Schnittker stable had three in.

Only one horse was to be eliminated from advancing to the $130,000 Dexter final.  A costly break by betting favorite Well Built caused half the field to be scattered just past the quarter pole.  The judges placed the Chris Ryder-trained, John Campbell-driven colt back to ninth due to interference.  Ultimately the race was won by Sarcastic Man from post 7.  Driven by fellow road warrior, Ron Pierce and trained by Gail Wrubel for breeder/owner Robert J. Key of Leechburg, Pennsylvania, the Tom Ridge colt paid a whopping $26.40 to win.

Karen Fagliarone, racing secretary at the Afternoon Delight, noted that the USTA’s new online entry system has helped her race office, however, not all of her horsemen have embraced the digital age as of yet.  We shall see, but this may be just the catalyst that is necessary to turn phone calls into uploads.

From here the trip got a little dicey as it rained up the Garden State Parkway, the NJ Turnpike, and on to the George Washington Bridge.  By the time I hit ‘Martha’ it was a downpour, coupled with a bottleneck at the entrance.  The Cross Bronx to the Major Deegan could be one of the least pleasant paths horseman take.  Nonetheless, if you stable in New Jersey and race at the Empire, this is your route.  And it wouldn’t feel like the hilltop if I didn’t get scolded by at least two Yonkers Raceway policemen while finding a parking spot by the paddock.

From the trailer parking area to the apron is a quick jaunt, and while double-stepping I ran into "The Manager".  Anyone who has been to Empire City in the last year or so has seen him, dressed in all white, chasing Brian Sears down the stretch during each race.  He is part showman, part street hustler, part groupie...and he is obsessed with The White Knight.  Overall he seems pretty harmless, and now he has his own twitter feed...so at the very least, he is progressive.

Speaking of social media, I was on my way up to Pinch, the groovy 2nd floor eatery over the casino, to meet with Jane Quigley and her team from Converseon.  Rob Key has assembled a dynamic group of tech savvy entrepreneurial wunderkinds.  Each of the eight specialists I met has amassed well over 10,000 fans on their respective social media platforms.  The “Ambassadors” were at the Levy to learn more about Harness Racing and help promote the sport through social media this race season.  Following a fun and delicious dinner, complete with a wagering overview from Alex Dadoyan and Joe Faraldo, the entire group went to the paddock to check out the horses and take some pictures. 

Some of the professional photographers got to ride in the starting car, I went to find Foiled Again.  I ran into PR man Frank Drucker and took his picture with the six million dollar horse.  Then I showed another photographer the colorful numbers washing area, and introduced him to Noel, who has been washing bikes and handing out numbers at Yonkers for the last 20 years.  He always smiles and has something positive to say.

From there it was a mad dash back to the winners circle to get ready for the big event, the Levy.  Ran into The Manager again, and he performed a little singing and dancing for the Converseon crew.  They snapped lots of pictures and video.  The White Knight’s self-appointed fan club president may not be Harness Racing’s best public relations persona, but what he lacks in talent, he makes up for with enthusiasm.

Mike Lizzi, the primary track photographer was on hand for all the key moments, and he let me shadow him out on the racetrack for the Levy final.  It never gets old being out on the edge of the track shooting pictures of top horses.  As the field approached the leisurely half, it appeared as if Foiled Again had things his own way, but that is not how the race unfolded.  The road warrior hung on tough for third, beaten less than a length at the wire.

Jason Bartlett drove a masterful race, seemingly boxed in and buried on the rail fifth at the three-quarter pole.  When PH Supercam did see daylight, squeezing up the inside passing lane, he responded admirably.  Jody Jamieson was absolutely flying up on the outside with Apprentice Hanover to be second.

With that event in the record books, it was time to call it a night and head up the NY State Thruway back to the Catskills.  276 miles, 3 tracks, 37 races.

by Chris Tully, for Harnesslink.com

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