Sun Stakes: More Questions Than Answers

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

One of the knocks with harness racing is single file racing when one horse gets to the lead, takes the group through a quick opening quarter, slows it down to the half and then has enough to hang on for victory.  The term, “closers,” is not often used in Standardbred racing.  Well, if you watched Saturday evening’s Sun Stakes card from Pocono Downs, all those stereotypes went out the window.

Four races, all of which were won by horses that were either off the pace or rallied in the final stages to win.  There were some fascinating storylines coming into the evening and they all played out in various fashions.  The first was the story of 3-year old pacer Lather Up.  Owned by a Delaware barber, he is trained by Clyde Francis, owned by George Teague and driven by his son, Montrelle.  He was so impressive in his elimination last week that I was preparing to write that we might have a superhorse on our hands.  I thought he would win the Max Hempt Pace and win it easily.

Every time, I watch harness racing, I learn something new.  I always knew—but sometimes forget—that eliminations and finals are two completely different events.  Some go all-out to win eliminations and why not?  Most have decent purses, so as they say, follow the money.  But, for some connections, it’s about securing one’s place in the final.  To be fair, Lather Up hardly had one when he cruised in an easy 1:49 and change in his elimination last Saturday, but in the final, he broke a bit slow and had to work hard over the 5/8 mile Pocono track.  It looked at three-quarters that he would charge ahead, but as soon as he pulled even, he stalled.  You knew right there that he was ripe for an upset and that’s exactly what happened as Springsteen rallied late to win in 1:48.3 at 15-1 odds.

Lather Up got rough gaited and appeared to lose stride and was never a factor in the stretch.  The good thing about harness racing is horses’ race often, so we will see Lather Up sooner than later.  Unfortunately, that won’t be at the $650,000 Meadowlands Pace on July 14, because the colt is not eligible.  Just when you think you have this figured out, you realize you don’t.

The other enigma that played out during the evening occurred in the $500,000 Franklin Free-For-All Pace for older colts and geldings.  The group of older colts and geldings are good, but very unpredictable.  Up one week, down the next; for a handicapper, it has to be an exercise in frustration.

Filibuster Hanover, the 2017 Little Brown Jug winner appeared to be steadiest and best of the group and through three-quarters of the race most agreed. When he went through three-quarters in a “soft for this group,” 1:22.2, I thought he would pull away.  He dropped from first to fifth and the winner, McWicked, rallied from fifth to first, again, to the delight of those who like to see furious action in a one mile horse race.    The seven year old has been impressive and last night’s score pushed his career earnings to a robust $2,646,362 in only 80 career starts.  As good as that is—and it is good—he has been inconsistent, so let’s track him and see how he does in his next start.

Another lament is being parked or racing two-wide.  It doesn’t look bad watching, but we know when you make the horse run wide, they have to run a longer distance and usually tire in the stretch.  The Lynch Pace for 3-year old fillies tested that theory.  Kissin In The Sand was parked wide the entire race.  In the stretch, she looked beaten.  She tried to go inside, that didn’t work, so back to the outside she went and looked like she would settle for second.  Her trainer gave up and driver Scott Zeron probably did, too, but the filly did not, rallying to win in 1:49.3.  After the race, Zeron said the filly surprised him and trainer Nancy Johansson asked openly, “How did she win that race.”

Well, she is the daughter of the late Somebeachsomewhere and it appears that the traits he passed on to his sires are grit, determination and a never-give-up attitude.

The fourth big race was the Earl Beal Memorial Trot for 3-year olds.  The intrigue was that of Manchego, the talented filly taking on the boys.  She was the 3-5 favorite and questions were already being posed to trainer Jimmy Takter about running her in the Hambletonian on August 4.  She didn’t get a great start and when she got stuck in traffic didn’t like it and went off stride.  That opened the door for Indiana bred Crystal Fashion who rallied from third to win in 1:51.4

So, what did we learn from the Sun Stakes?  Truth be told, not a lot unless your answer is confusion.  Coming in, many were looking for Manchego, Filibuster Hanover and Lather Up to establish themselves as the class of their respective divisions.  But that didn’t happen and that’s not a bad thing. Intrigue and mystery are good for the sport.  It makes bettors spread their love and gives everybody a chance to make more money. It’s a far cry from two years ago when Always Be Miki and Wiggle It Jiggleit dominated week in and week out straight through the Breeders Crown.

The one positive I took from the evening was the track.  It’s a good track.  Despite being just 5/8 mile, Saturday showed that you can win on the lead and from the back of the pack and that’s very important because the Breeders Crown (12 championship races) will be contested here on Saturday, October 27.  Many will argue that the Crown should be at the Meadowlands or a 7/8 mile track like Woodbine Mohawk Park or Hoosier Park, but to me, you have to reward all the tracks and spread it around.  After what I saw Saturday, I would not fear racing my horse on the Pocono surface.  It was fast and most importantly; fair.


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