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Matt Zuccarello--yes, Zuccarello-- reined the harness racing winner of Monticello Raceway's 16th annual Passover Pace on Tuesday afternoon, April 22. He hustled his charge Winsmith Molly up to collar the pacesetter-- Sam's Fortune and driver Alan Charles-- in the final strides and walked away with the box of matzohs. Zuccarello's mother, the former (Arlene Rosenberg) is Jewish, and because of that Matt was eligible to compete in the race for drivers of Jewish heritage. And for Zuccarello, who's refers to himself as "Pizza- Bagel", this was his first drive in the event and he made it memorable. An amateur driver with a provisional license, Zuccarella has recently been bitten by the harness driving bug. Now in his third year of competitive driving Zuccarello has been competing in the various amateur club races on the East coast as well as in the Billings Series. "I've won a couple of races before but winning the Passover Pace today was more than I could have asked for," said Zuccarello, who by trade is a salesman for heart rate monitoring equipment. "I thought there were a couple of horses in there (the race) that would be hard to beat but my mare raced her best race of the season thus far." Perhaps Zuccarello was referring to Sams Fortune and Christoffer Bliss who was driven by Austin Siegelman. Both were the 6-5 co-favorites in the race. When the man said go, Alan Charles sent Sams Fortune to the lead from the pylon position but he relinquished command to Pascal's Wager and Dave Yarock just before the quarter pole but he wasted no time and re-took the lead as the field headed into the turn. However, when Charles made his quarter pole move Murray Bassen, with Welcome Lover, and Bobby Krivelin with Road Work Ahead, followed suite. "I was seventh at the quarter and with all the action upfront I moved third- up and as the horses in front of me either cleared or found a spot (along the pylons) I just kept my mare going forward," Zuccarello related. Winsmith Molly passed everyone in front of her and then ranged up alongside Sams Fortune at the three quarters. Then, from there to paydirt, a blanket would have covered both pacers right to the finish line. At the wire Winsmith Molly was a head in front of Sams Fortune while Tidewater Moses and driver Alan Schwartz rallied from far back to finish third and pay $36.00 for show. Krivelin's Road Work Ahead finished fourth and fifth place went to 50-1 shot, Five Card Stud driven by Peter Kleinhans. Christoffer Bliss and Siegelman got locked- in from the quarter pole on and they were never a factor and finished sixth. Pascal's Wager was seventh and Welcome Lover brought up the rears. Winsmith Molly is trained by Gary Messenger for owners Brenda Messenger, Dr. Scott Woogen and Phil Shapiro. It was the mare's first win in nine seasonal outings and she returned $15.60, $3.30 and $3.00 across the board. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

It is almost unbelievable that this year another Monticello Raceway -based pacer is again leading the country in harness races won. Last year Tracys Song went on a winning tear and now Diamond Tiara is duplicating her efforts this season and the 7 -year- old daughter of McArdle is wearing her crown confidently. At the Mighty M on the warm and sunny afternoon of April 21, Diamond Tiara won for the 11th time this season and she continues to lead North America in races won this year. And her 1:57.4 triumph was her seventh consecutive. Despite having to start from the eight hole, driver Jimmy Taggart, Jr. hustled Diamond Tiara away from the mobile gate and even passed-up the two-hole opting to be on the front-end. Austin Siegelman had grabbed command with Thunder Seelster as the field charged into the first turn but when Taggart passed up the two-hole Siegelman thought he'd better let Diamond Tiara take the lead rather than hooking up in a speed duel. "My mare has quick speed and I really wanted to be on the front-end," Taggart said in the winner's circle after the race. "She loves to be on the lead and she relaxes once she gets there." Diamond Tiara had command as she came off the first turn and although Taggart eased her off they still passed the quarter in :28.4. Confident on the lead Diamond Tiara coasted through fractions of :59.3 and 1:29 before she had any real challenges. On the final turn Taggart let the mare have her head and she opened daylight on the field and rambled home an easy three length-winner on the strength of a :28.4 final quarter to post a seasons best of 1:57.4. Sent off at odds of 13-10 Diamond Tiara paid $4.40 for win and strangely her place price was $10.00. She's owned by Philip Schultz and trained by Mike Watson and for Taggart it was his second driving victory on the eight-race program. After the completion of the racing program and Taggart was changing into his street clothes in the paddock locker room he took a moment or two to muse about Diamond Tiara's current feat. "She (Diamond Tiara) was really at the top of her game today," Taggart offered. "Last week she was a little sluggish at the end of the mile but today she finished strong. She's such a pleasure to drive." by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

Last fall when Austin Siegelman was presented with the Rising Star Award by the Monticello-Goshen Chapter USHWA at their annual banquet he told the attending crowd that among the things he was looking to accomplish during 2014 was to win Monticello Raceway's Passover Pace. Now on Tuesday, April 22 he will get that chance, and a good one at that, when he jumps up behind the 5-2 favorite Christoffer Bliss. "That's correct, I said one of my goals (in 2014) was to win the Race for the Matzohs," said the 22 year old Siegleman in all seriousness. "I know it has been a fun event and I read about it every season for as long as I can remember. Now not only do I have a chance to win it but I'll be driving the favorite in the race." Last year in his first full season of driving Siegelman reined 90 winners and currently with 47 already he's more than halfway home in equaling last year's numbers. However, since he's now getting calls to catch drive here, and at Saratoga Raceway, look for Siegelman's numbers to vastly increase. However, Siegelman will be going against some veteran Passover Pace drivers in Alan Schwartz, Bobby Krivelin and Alan Charles. Schwartz has been a three-time winner and Charles and Krivelin each have won the Race for the Matzohs twice. Krivelin is the defending champion having won the event last year with Isn't She Lovely. In this year's Passover Pace on Tuesday afternoon, Charles may have the best chance at upsetting Siegelman when he handles Sam's Fortune-- rated 3-1 on the early line-- from the pole position. "I've won this race with outsiders before and being able to start along the pylons is always a positive," said Charles who has won two of the last four Passover Paces. And speaking of outsiders, both Schwartz and Krivelin have them. Neither driver's pacers have won a race yet this year; Schwartz's Tidewater Moses (post five) is 0-for 12 and Krivelin's, Road Work Ahead (post seven) is 0-for 13. "It's all the luck of the draw; both with the horses we'll drive and the post positions we get,'" Schwartz said philosophically. "You never know what will happen in a horse race and it's never official until the judges declare it so." The sleeper in the race is Winsmith Molly, from the hot Gary Messenger barn. Matt Zuccarello -his mother is Jewish-drew the mount behind the 7 year old mare who won six times last year (the fastest in 1:57.3) although she has yet to find her stride this season. They'll start from the six hole. Others who drew mounts in the 16th Annual "Race for the Matzohs" include: Peter Kleinhans(Five Star Stud -- post two), Murray Bassin (Welcome Lover -post 4) and Dave Yarock (Pascal's Wager -post eight). The Passover Pace is slated as race number six on the Mighty M's Tuesday afternoon card of April 22. By John Manzi, for Harnesslink.com

Quietly Jimmy Devaux does his job, and he's good at what he does. On Wednesday afternoon (April 16) Devaux reined four winners on Monticello Raceway's eight race card. The previous day he had three wins. Devaux began the Wednesday afternoon scoring a 2:00.4 victory with Melissa Russo's veteran trotter Tobell and although Tobell paid $38.00 for win it wasn't the biggest payoff of Devaux's four winners. In the seventh race, after getting a two-hole journey with 45-1 shot Waterfront Success, when the field rounded the final turn the pace-setter Aurevoir Balboa went off stride and allowed Devaux's pacer room which enabled them to wind their way through the leaders and be the first to the finish line. Owned by Ruth Ingham and trained by Vernon James Waterfront Success returned a whopping $92.00 win payoff. "When Mike's (Merton with Aurevoir Baboa) horse tipped-off on the last turn I thought I had a shot at winning and my horse was strong because we never go any air," Devaux explained. "The hardest part, though, was finding race room in the deep stretch but when I fed my horse daylight he scooted by the leaders and we won by a length I'd guess." Devaux's other two winners were race favorites. In the second race he won by five lengths in 2:01.3 with the rapidly improving sophomore pacer Chantepleur ($3.10), an American Ideal colt owned by Michael Funke. His other victory came in race five behind Kevin Hough's veteran trotter George's Vacation ($3.20) In 2:00.4. Devaux, like his brother-in-law Bruce Aldrich, Jr. (they're married to sisters) also does double duty racing at both Monticello Raceway in the afternoon and at Saratoga Raceways in the evening. And last night at the Spa City oval Devaux won two races making it a six-win day for the talented reinsman he had eight drives and won Thus far this year Devaux has driven 110 winners which currently ranks him tied for 13th place on the North American leaderboard. Last year the former two-time Mighty M driving champ scored a personal best when he drove 412 winners. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

The beat goes on for Diamond Tiara. On the warm, but windy, Monday afternoon (April 14) Diamond Tiara scored her 10th seasonal triumph and now leads all other standardbreds in races won in North America this year. Once again trainer Mike Watson availed himself of the services of Jimmy Taggart, Jr. and Taggart responded by guiding Diamond Tiara to a 1:58.1 triumph which was the mare's sixth consecutive victory. In the seven times that Taggart has driven her, Diamond Tiara has had six wins and a second place finish. However, according to Taggart, this victory today was a little tougher than the last five. "This was the first time that she had drawn the outside (post seven) and I had to use her harder than usual to get to the front," Taggart said. "She leaves like a runner and we had command on the first turn but that during that first eighth (of the mile) she was smokin'. I was able to get into her a bit as we headed to the (first) quarter but we still were there in :28.3." After they paced by the first stanza Taggart had Diamond Tiara settled and she showed the way past the half in :59 but she had lots of company when three others moved out to take a shot at her. So on the clubhouse turn Taggart allowed his mare to step it up and they opened daylight as they passed the three quarters and they had two lengths on the field as they paced into the final turn. With Temptation Queen and Bruce Aldrich, Jr. keeping the pressure on, both mares dug in as they headed for paydirt and into a strong head-wind. However Diamond Tiara held on to score a length victory over Temptation Queen. "She wasn't as strong finishing today as she had been in her last few starts but that first quarter took a little sting out of her, and the wind in the stretch was strong, too. Still, she's gritty," Taggart added. Owned by Philip Schultz, Diamond Tiara paid $4.20 for win. With her 10th victory she currently has first place all to herself on the North American leaderboard with one more win than Rockin Rambaran, a Canadian pacer who's been winning consistently at Rideau Carleton. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

The Kentucky Derby has its "Run for the Roses"; the Preakness runs for the Black-Eyed Susans; and on Tuesday afternoon, April 22 Monticello Raceway will have its annual "Race for the Matzohs" when the Catskill Mountains oval presents its 16th edition of the Passover Pace, a race strictly for drivers of Jewish heritage. The event will be part of the tracks year-long Heritage Drivers Series which will be followed later this season by other races for different ethnicities. Last year, Bobby Krivelin won the event with Isn't She Lovely in a time of 2:04.1 and it marked the second time in the last three years that Krivelin has been victorious in the Race for The Matzohs. Despite having won again last year still Krivelin trails both Mike Kimelman (1999-2003-2007) and Alan Schwartz (2002-2004-2006) each of whom have won the Passover Pace three times. Alan Charles, who's expected to be among the drivers in this year's race, joins Krivelin as a two- time winner (2012-2010) of the Passover Pace Other recent previous winners include, PJ Lutman III (2009) and Bob Hechkoff (2008). The fastest of all the Passover Paces was a 1:59 mile when Jack Rice won the event with Wildfire King in 2001. "This race may be a little unusual but believe it or not those who compete annually in our Passover Pace have been calling to make sure that we are doing it again this year," said Mighty M general manager, Shawn Wiles. The Passover Pace is open to any licensed harness driver of Jewish heritage who holds a full (A) or a provisional (P) license from the United States Trotting Association. Director of Racing, Eric Warner, is currently seeking drivers who are interested in participating in this year's contest. For further information, or to enter the event, please contact Warner in the racing office at 845-794-4100 x 557; or call the tracks publicity office at extension 455. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

It's deja vu all over again at Monticello Raceway with a local pacer, Diamond Tiara, vaulting to the top of the North American leaderboard after she notched her ninth seasonal triumph yesterday (April 7) at the Sullivan County (NY) oval. With Jimmy Taggart, Jr. again at the controls Diamond Tiara wired the field to score in a time of 1:58.1. Last year another Monticello-based pacer, Tracys Song, led the North America in wins at this time, and nearly all season-long, and finished the season with 21 victories-- 18 of them consecutive. Not to say that Diamond Tiara will win 21 races this year but at this time her prowess can be compared to Tracys Song's proficiency last year when she, too, led the continent in races won. On Monday, after starting from the two-hole Diamond Tiara was looped on the first turn by Red Eye Blue Chip (Jimmy Devaux). But no sooner did Devaux and his pacer take command Taggart was out and going with Diamond Tiara and they had the lead at the field passed the first stanza in :28.2 When the field headed to the halfway point, Jason Ryan moved May Night out to challenge Diamond Tiara and the two pacers raced as a team around the clubhouse turn and up the backside. But on the final turn Diamond Tiara put it in another gear and opened daylight on her competition and coasted home an easy two-length winner in a seasonal best of 1:58.1. Red Eye Blue had the benefit of a two hole journey but she couldn't make up any ground on the leader in the lane and finished second. May Night was a close third. It's usually hard to get Jimmy Taggart, Jr. to say much but he did offer; "She (Diamond Tiara) raced good again today. She's got quick speed and likes to be on the front-end." He hesitated for a moment and as he was walking away he added; "She's better than these (her competition)" Owned by Philip Schultz and trained by Mike Watson, Diamond Tiara paid $3.30 for win. With her latest victory--her fifth consecutive-- Diamond Tiara, a 7 year -old daughter of McArdle, is joined at the top of the charts by Rockin Rambaran another pacer who has nine wins in Canada at Rideau Carleton Raceway. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

There are horse's names that are apropos but perhaps none more fittingly than that of Talldarknhandsome, a pacer currently competing at Monticello Raceway. Yesterday (April 3) Talldarknhandsome, a 1:58 winner for driver Jimmy Marohn, Jr., is among the biggest horses on the racetracks today. From the locally powerful Danny Gill barn the 6 year old altered son of Lifetime unbelievably is well over 17 hands; over six feet tall at his withers (front shoulders). "He's a big guy for sure," Gill laughs, "but thankfully he's a gentle giant. I've never seen a (harness) horse as tall as him in my life." by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

After the Monticello Raceway-based pacer, Rusty's Flying scored her seventh seasonal triumph on April 1st she joined another Mighty M pacer, Diamond Tiara, in second place in wins on the current North American leaderboard. Slated to make her 13th start of the year yesterday (April 2) Diamond Tiara did and won for the eighth time and now she's tied - albeit with four others - for the lead in races won thus far this season. A mare of considerable class in her younger years Diamond Tiara, a 7-year-old daughter of McArdle, usually does her talking on the front-end and her mile yesterday was another wire-to-wire triumph, this time in 2:00.1. Jimmy Taggart, Jr. was again in the sulky for trainer Mike Watson which marked the sixth time that Watson had handed Taggart the reins which has resulted in five wins and one second place finish, not to mention that it was the mare's fourth consecutive victory. "She has lots of class and can leave like a runner which usually puts her in contention in every race," Taggart said after the race. "She's real handy, too, and certainly a pleasure to drive." Diamond Tiara, a career winner of over $156,000 , owns a lifetime mark of 1:50.4 as a 5 year-old and even last year the gritty mare won in 1:53.3. Both of the aforementioned victories were taken over the five-eighths mile oval at Harrah's Philadelphia. This year, in spite of the brutal weather during this past winter racing season, her fastest triumph was a 1:58.3 clocking. Now with 13 seasonal starts Diamond Tiara is yet to be off the board. Her card now sports eight wins, two seconds, and three thirds and despite racing for paltry purses she was won of over $10,500. Owned by Philip Schultz, Diamond Tiara paid just $2.70 for win. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

At the beginning of last season Monticello Raceway had two pacers that were on a tear winning indiscriminately. Both Tracy's Song and Haroun Hanover were consistent winners and were at, or near, the top of the North American leaderboard in races won then and all season long. And both finished the season with over 20 wins. Although the same may not materialize this year for two pacers, Rusty's Flying and Diamond Tiara, but each are making themselves known by consistent trips to the winners circle. Both pacers have won seven times this year and both are tied for second in victories this year, just one win off the leaders. Yesterday, (March 31) Rusty's Flying notched her third consecutive victory, and seventh of the season when Jimmy Marohn, Jr. guided the 6-year-old daughter of Artiscape to a wire to wire triumph in a 2:00.2 clocking for trainer Danny Gill and owner Ed Hall. Last year Gill was the conditioner of Haroun Hanover, known locally as the horse that didn't stop after a race and one who needed the wings of the starting gate opened on the backstretch after the mile so driver Jimmy Marohn, Jr. (Gill's driver of choice) could aim him behind the wings and get the pacer stopped and into the race paddock. Thankfully for the driver and trainer, Gill's charge this year, Rusty's Flying,does not resemble the characteristics of Haroun Hanover other than she wins the majority of her races. This year she has seven wins and two seconds in 10 starts and last year she had 12 wins and 10 seconds and five thirds in 42 starts. Joining Rusty's Flying in second place races won this year in North America is Diamond Tiara who'll be looking for her eighth seasonal triumph here today (April 1). Owned by Philip Schultz and trained by Mike Watson, the 7 year old daughter of McArdle has strung together three consecutive wins and is understandably rated as the early line favorite in today's contest. Jimmy Taggart, Jr. will again be at the controls behind Diamond Tiara today when they leave from the four hole in the first race. A mare of considerable class, Diamond Tiara has a lifetime mark of 1:50.3 taken two years ago and last season she won in 1:53.3. Both of her win records were notched at Harrah's Philadelphia. This season from 12 trips to post all at the Mighty M, Diamond Tiara has seven wins, two seconds and three thirds. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

Last year the name of Bruce Aldrich Jr. forged its way into racing hierarchy. Sure, he had won many driving titles at Monticello Raceway over the first decade of the new century and had over 4000 wins in his career, but last season he became more known nationally when he reined 645 winners and finished tied for second in races won on the continent. And again this year Aldrich is a player. Just yesterday(March 27) he won four more races on Monticello Raceway's afternoon card where he's atop of the driver's standings, and then added two more victories to his seasonal totals last night at Saratoga Raceway. With 111 wins already in his pocket in 2014 Aldrich currently ranks seventh in driving victories and is moving up on the North American leaderboard. "Now that Saratoga is open and I can drive at two tracks there's a good chance I can win more races, especially since I'm lucky enough to be driving some live mounts for so top local trainers," Aldrich admitted. On Thursday (March 27) on Monticello Raceway's eight- race afternoon card Aldrich won four of them. He had two wins for top trainer Bob Lounsbury; Vincent Fra in 1:57.4 ($3.50) and Machin Music ($2.90) in 1:56.4. He also scored with Paul Moore's Livinwell Hanover ($3.60) in 2:00.3 and then hustled trainer Anthony Regina's Best Of Times ($24.80) to a wire to wire triumph in 2:00.2. His two wins that evening at Saratoga Raceway--where's he's second in races won- were with trainer Lindley Blackler's Hawaiian Sweetie ($2.80) in 1:59.3 and with the Bert Belanger-trained trotter, Southern Strength ($8.70) in 2:01.4. "I hope to be able to repeat some of last year's magic but in order for me to do that I'll have to stay strong," Aldrich said. "Oh, I don't mean physically, I mean mentally, because I'll have to spend countless hours in the car traveling back and forth to Monticello and Saratoga. And let me tell you, all those hours on the road can wear you out." by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

Last December Monticello Raceway's leading driver, Bruce Aldrich, Jr. locked horns with Northfield Park's top gun, Ronnie Wrenn, in a 'drive-off' here where both men drove in every trace on the card and at days end Aldrich, the home-towner, reined six winners while Wrenn, the visitor, had four. And when the curtain came down on the 2013 national racing season both gentlemen finished one-two in driving victories in North America, Wrenn with 714 and Aldrich with 645. Yesterday at Monticello Raceway Aldrich, who tops the standings here, reined three winners on the eight-race card. The previous day, Sunday (March 23) Aldrich had a five bagger at Saratoga. Since Friday (March 20) he has reined 12 winners. Wrenn, too, is driving daily, at Northfield Park, Buffalo Raceway and The Meadows, and has had 15 wins since last Friday. And with opportunities to drive every day of the week the wins will add up. Since both drivers have been heating-up, each has been moving up on the North American leaderboard in wins again this year. Wrenn's 128 winners ranks him fourth while Aldrich's 102 ties him for seventh, both chasing leader, Corey Callahan's 147 victories. Since neither trains stable of horses and concentrate mainly on driving, they are more free to travel to various race tracks to ply their trade. "I'm constantly on the go and I cover plenty of miles in my car," Aldrich admits. "Let me tell you that constantly going up and down the highways takes its toll, especially when Monticello and Saratoga are 140 miles apart. "Oh, I'm not complaining because I'm lucky enough to get live drives at both tracks." The same could be said by Wrenn who covers plenty of ground on the highways, too. And that he's currently fourth in wins on the continent speaks volumns for his talents, especially since he had an operation on his wrist early this season and didn't get started driving in earnest until February. And with their modus opporendi (MO), and barring any unforeseen problems, both figure to garner plenty of winners again this year. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway

It was just a few years ago when a youngster by the name of Jordan Stratton displayed an innate talent for driving harness racing horses at a very tender age and Monticello Raceway fans watched the emergence of "the Kid", who became the youngest driver to win a Mighty M driving title. He has moved on and now competes, and very successfully, against the best drivers at Yonkers Raceway. Shades of Stratton have again come to mind here as fans watch another developing young talent in Austin Siegelman who just turned 22 years of age late last month. Although he has yet to reach the heights that Stratton did during his tenure here still Siegelman appears to have the talent to do so. And that he has great aspirations he may not stay here long enough to produce similar numbers. On the Wednesday afternoon (March 12) card the youngster again won three races but this time it was on an eight-race card. It also happened to be his second hat trick in the past two weeks. Now with 27 wins at the current meet, Siegelman is in sixth place on the local leaderboard. His initial triumph yesterday (Wednesday) came behind Woody Hoblitzell's trotter Samawinner ($17.60) in 2:01.3 in the first race and he followed that with a 1:59 victory with PB Racing Stables, Wheelchair Wendy ($8.70) in race four. Win number three came when he guided Julie Working's Wild Request ($4.20 ) to a come-from-behind victory in a 2:01.2 clocking. "I had seven drives yesterday and long for the days when I have a drive on every race on the card," Siegelman said. A quiet kid who does his talking on the racetrack previously stated that he wants to compete regularly on his hometown track, Pocono Downs. And that's a great possibility even though he has recently had success competing at Yonkers Raceway, the Meadowlands and even at Saratoga Raceway. Last fall the Monticello Goshen Chapter USHWA presented Siegelman with their Rising Star Award and honor also won recently by Jordan Stratton and Joe Bongiorno. And Jimmy Marohn, Jr. was also cited with a Rising Star Award a few years ago. "I'm in good company and I look forward to bigger and better things," Siegelman said. "I love driving horses and I plan on being in this business for a long time. Hopefully this is just the beginning of some great things to come." By John Manzi  

In the northern United States folks who go south in the winter and return north for the good weather days are referred to as snowbirds. These gals who climbed the snow piles to get an up close view of the races at Monticello Raceway could give new meaning to term snowbirds. This photograph was taken by Monticello Raceway's award winning photographer, Geri Schwartz. by John Manzi, for Monticello Raceway  

Freehold, NJ --- Fire And Smoke is the best horse Lindsey Blackler never bought. The pacer was heading for life as a pleasure horse last year when Blackler’s friend called to ask if she wanted to look at him. Fire And Smoke was winless in seven career races, but Blackler liked the horse’s breeding and decided to take a shot with him. Blackler was given the horse with the proviso that she had to find him a good home when his days on the racetrack were completed. That day might not come soon. The now 4-year-old gelding has won six of 15 races since joining Blackler’s stable last September and has finished worse than third only twice. On Tuesday night, Fire And Smoke races in one of eight $12,500 divisions in the first round of the Sagamore Hill Series at Yonkers Raceway. Fire And Smoke will start from post three in the fifth division with regular driver Greg Merton and is 4-1 on the morning line. The Sagamore Hill Series, which has three preliminary rounds prior to the $50,000 estimated final on April 1, is for male pacers ages 3 or 4 who were non-winners of four races and/or $40,000 through Dec. 1. “It’s kind of like a Cinderella story,” said Blackler, who is the wife of trainer Scott Blackler and owns three horses herself. “We didn’t know what to expect. It was kind of like a trial for a couple months. It’s turned out really good. The horse has a heart of gold and he just gets better and better each week.” Fire And Smoke is a son of Western Ideal out of the stakes-winning mare Art’s Temptress and was purchased as a yearling for $4,000 at the 2011 Lexington Selected Sale. He is a three-quarter brother to stakes-winner Winds Of Change and his mother is a half-sister to Wake Up Peter. The family also includes two-time Dan Patch Award-winning female pacer Worldly Beauty and Worldly Treasure, who is the dam of two-time Pacer of the Year Captaintreacherous. After acquiring Fire And Smoke, Blackler had her blacksmith work to improve issues with his feet and the horse returned from a six-week layoff with a 2:01 victory at Monticello Raceway in late September. He spent the remainder of the season at Monticello and also began this year there before heading to Yonkers at the end of January. He lost his first start at Yonkers by a neck from post six and has won two subsequent starts at the Hilltop. “One of my goals was to bring him to Yonkers and see how he did there,” said Blackler, who with her husband is a regular instructor at the annual U.S. Trotting Association Driving School in upstate New York. “He was so green with racing when he started out, but he’s so brave now. He wants to do it. He’s still learning, but he’s all game and heart. “He takes very good care of himself,” the trainer added. “He’s a happy horse.” Merton is the only driver to race Fire And Smoke and has played a vital role in the horse’s success. “Greg has a lot of faith in him,” Blackler said. “He’s kind of funny gaited, but Greg knows him and just goes. I think that’s huge for his confidence.” Blackler doesn’t know what to expect in the Sagamore Hill Series, but she hasn’t known what to expect from Fire And Smoke all along. “He’s up against better horses, but I think he’ll be OK,” Blackler said. “I don’t know what I’ve got (in him). We’ll see how he performs and go from there.” So far, it’s been a pleasure. by Ken Weingartner for Harness Racing Communications

By Bill Liblick, re-printed with permission by www.sullivancountypost.com As EPR Properties and Empire Resorts prepares to present their resort destination plans next Thursday evening at a private presentation at Bethel Woods, and not at Empire’s operational facility, the harness racing horsemen at Monticello Raceway have declared war. The horsemen feel they have been betrayed and used as a pawn by Empire Resorts, the owner of Monticello Raceway, and are fearful that the Standardbred racetrack and the industry that has employed thousands of residents over the years in Sullivan County will be gone if the company receives a license to operate a full-fledged gaming hall. When racino’s were permitted in New York State it saved the horse racing industry from dying. The introduction of video slot terminals has seen racetracks such as Monticello, Tioga Downs, Saratoga, and Yonkers flourish thanks to a percentage of the take going into racing purses. Although attendance and actual pool totals from Monticello Raceway attendees is minimal, the racetrack has become a cash cow for Empire Resorts thanks to simulcasting and off-track betting wagering.  Monticello Raceway has in essence become a huge television studio. Under proposals from EPR and Empire Resorts they say they are going to construct a new harness track at the Concord no matter what happens – with or without table games – but will they? Horsemen claim Empire Resorts is capping purses at 2013 levels and if they are granted a table gaming license there will be no increases. They also say there are no guarantees the harness track will even remain open. The Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association has declared a war against Empire Resorts. They argue track owners slammed the door on them once the resort destination amendment was approved in November and that they refuse to negotiate. Things are so bad, the horsemen have exercised their right to stop Monticello’s simulcast signal from being broadcast, preventing Empire Resorts and New York State from receiving millions in revenue. Empire has since slashed purses and cut back the number of races in a card. They have even shut down the horsemen’s lunch room. According to Alan Schwartz, President of Monticello’s Harness Association The dispute between management and the horsemen at Monticello Raceway is very easy to understand. “The parent company of the racetrack seeks to obtain a lucrative license to construct a Las Vegas style casino, complete with slot machines and table games. They would be one of just two, and possibly the only casino permitted in the Catskills. Despite the tremendous windfall such a license would bring to the parent company, it flatly refuses to allow the horsemen or breeders to share in any portion of the huge anticipated profits.” Schwartz claims that “in order to get the casino amendment passed, management both figuratively and literally called the horsemen their “partners.” The logo of their lobbying group prominently contains a horse. Their radio commercials ballyhooed their support for racing. Of course, once the amendment passed, management’s idea of “partnership” quickly degenerated.” Under the present video lottery gaming law, horsemen and breeders get a fixed percentage of the track’s net win. When a racino underperforms, the purse money generated is less, even though it isn’t the horsemen’s fault. When the racino does well, purses go up modestly – In essence a true economic partnership. Schwartz maintains Empire Resorts wants a firm cap on purses and breeding contributions at 2013 levels. He says if that happens, harness racing will become a near-zero or zero growth industry. “Nobody is going to buy or breed horses in this state when places like Ohio, Massachusetts, Delaware and Pennsylvania offer significantly more industry support.” Schwartz acknowledges that harness racing won’t die in the next several years, but “consider, however, that the price of feed, diesel fuel, veterinary services; literally anything you can think of, will be significantly higher in just a few years. Once you can’t pay to maintain racehorses, the sport will evaporate from sheer economics – And that’s exactly what our racetrack management “partners” would love to see happen.” Although Empire Resorts blames Albany for the horsemen’s plight, Schwartz asserts the law speaks only about minimum contributions. “No government can interfere with the private right of contract. Racetrack management hides behind Albany when, in reality, their own lobbyists pushed for and signed off on the legislation.” Schwartz says “The horsemen and breeders at Monticello and elsewhere refuse to be “silent” former partners. If management wishes to embrace us as economic partners, as mandated under the video lottery gaming law, gaming can move forward in a meaningful way in the Catskills, and the renaissance created by Albany through the VLT program can continue to flourish, for not only the six harness tracks owners but also for the state, education and the agriculture and racing industries. If that doesn’t occur, we really have nothing else to lose.” Schwartz professes he is trying to negotiate in good faith, but Empire Resorts is not, so with “few weapons in this fight” they had to pull the simulcasting signal. “We are also acutely aware of the loss of revenue to the track, the horsemen and the industry. Yet, we have pondered just how much money these track operators strive for while they jeopardize an entire industry for their own profit; a racing industry that worked hard to spawn the birth of VLTs at tracks in this and other states. We cannot just sit by and watch an industry get swallowed up by a handful of track operators professing to be concerned about our sport, whose ultimate goal is to kill it.” The right to withhold the export of signal from Monticello is a right granted to horsemen by Federal law. Schwartz explained, “That 1978 law very wisely recognizes that the horsemen at a host track are the real guardians of this sport. It armed the horsemen with the important tool to use only when they perceived a crisis threatening the very existence of the game. It has been used very sparingly and with the utmost of caution.” A mediator has been appointed by the New York State Gaming Commission in an attempt to resolve the situation. Charles Degliomini, executive vice president of Empire Resorts/Monticello Raceway issued the following statement in response the suspension of simulcasting. “Monticello Casino & Raceway (“MC&R”) continues to support the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act (“Gaming Act”). When they authored the Gaming Act, the Senate, Assembly and the Executive protected the Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association (“MHHA”), and the entire racing industry. As New York State moves toward approving four casinos in upstate New York, future revenue for the horsemen is governed by the Gaming Act, and current revenue is governed by the New York State Lottery for Education Law. Degliomini added, “It is sad and unfortunate that we are being attacked for legislation that actually protects harness horsemen’s interests. While MC&R continues in good faith, through negotiation and mediation, to attempt to secure an agreement with MHHA, the MHHA is now attempting to amend a law that they don’t like by unfairly punishing our business, our employees, our loyal customers and even their own members. We are simply track owners, not elected officials. The MHHA should stop this destructive behavior and turn the simulcasting signal back on.” With all the new resort destination proposals coming out of the woodwork this dispute is something Sullivan County does not need. Schwartz does raise many valid concerns that must be addressed if a racino operator is granted a full gaming license, Monticello Raceway, the horsemen, and the industry must be protected.  

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