A special Saturday night in Harness Racing at Yonkers and Woodbine Mohawk Park
by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
Saturday, August 31 should go down as one of the best nights the sport of harness racing has ever seen. There were four major stakes races—two at Yonkers Raceway and two north of the border at Woodbine Mohawk Park—that more than lived up to their respective purses of $500,000, $500,000, $600,000 and $525,000—and there were two smaller races that captivated as well.
At Yonkers, the $500,000 Yonkers Trot was the one-sided affair. The race featured the Hambletonian winner, Forbidden Trade, who was seeking to add the second leg of the Trotting Triple Crown to his resume. Despite his presence, the big favorite was the 1/5 New York-bred, Gimpanzee, who has really exceled on half-mile tracks. And, that excellence continued. He was pushed by 99 to 1 longshot Sheena’s Boy for about ¾ of the race until he, in the words of track announcer John Hernan, fled the scene to win in 1:53.3.
Hambo winner Forbidden Trade did not have the best of trips, but showed his class by rallying to grab the place sport. Soul Strong broke at the start, but showed his colors by getting back on stride to finish third.
In 16 starts this year, Gimpanzee is an impressive 14-0-1 and now has $1.1 million in earnings. Trainer Marcus Melander was not afraid to tout his talents.
“Since day one when I brought him here, he lays down and turns over like a motorcycle,” Melander said. “This is an amazing race to win and I don’t think there’s a better 3-year old on a half-mile track.”
The $500,000 Messenger Stakes followed that and delivered a pulsating performance. Half-mile track racing is much different than racing on the bigger surfaces. In order for racing on the smaller oval to excite, you need action in the form of pace pushers. Too often, a horse gets to the lead with the trailers following in single file fashion, allowing that leader to dictate the tempo, the rules and the action.
That was not the case in the Messenger. Bettor’s Wish was the 1/9 favorite and he got to the lead and set the fractions, but kudos have to go to 26-1 longshot US Captain. He came first over and pressed the pace and the big favorite. It would have been easy for driver Jason Bartlett to tuck in and finish an easy third, but driver and colt were looking for upset glory. His pushing allowed American Mercury to get into contention and despite no passing lane at Old Hilltop, Tyler Buter was able to slither through on the pylons to nip Bettor’s Wish by a nose. The game US Captain held on for third in a scintillating race, scintillating enough to get me out of my recliner in the final quarter mile.
“I knew if I found room he would go forward,” driver Buter said, “he’s gone forward on the wire all year.”
The win was the seventh in 10 starts this year for the Chris Oakes trained gelding, who has adjusted well to the anatomy change.
“He’s been more focused this year (since being gelded),” Oakes said, “Hopefully, we’ll be moving on to the Little Brown Jug.”
And, just when you thought things were over at Yonkers, late in the card was a $30,000 pace for non-winners of 30k in their last five and all Theartofconfusion did was set the all-time track record at Yonkers when he romped home in 1:49.3.
Racing is different at each track and despite Yonkers having the best purses and best “overnighters,” the track usually produces slower winning times than tracks that offer lower purses. To see a horse break 1:50 was something to be seen.
In Canada, all eyes were on Lather Up in the $525,000 Canadian Pacing Derby. The colt has been tearing things up this year, winning race after race in record times, but once again, there’s a reason why they race and the Pacing Derby proved just that.
Lather Up did what he wanted to do; he got to the front and led through a half-mile in 54.1, but like the Messenger, a long shot decided to challenge. At 89-1, Done Well did just that, forcing Lather Up to stay on the gas pedal. That allowed 34-1 shot Courtly Choice to come out of nowhere to get the win in a thrilling finish. And, if we think Lather Up may have peaked for 2019, please note that Courtly Choice had to run a 25.3 last quarter to beat the talented colt.
The $600,000 Maple Leaf Trot featured 10 very talented horses. The field featured last year’s Hambletonian winner, the filly Atlanta; the 2016 Trotting Triple Crown winner, Marion Marauder, Guardian Angel As and another superfilly, Manchego.
Manchego took it out hard, but by three-quarters, Guardian Angel As took over and it looked like he would cruise to victory. But Atlanta had other ideas and closed with a flourish, but “The Angel,” at 9-5 was able to dig in and hold on. The time of 1:50.4 was a stakes, track and Canadian record.
The $173,503 Simcoe Stakes was on the undercard at WMP, but it featured three of the best pacing colts, led by Meadowlands Pace winner, Best in Show, Cane Pace winner Captain Crunch and the under-the-radar, Century Farroh. As expected those three battled and it looked like Captain Crunch had the win but once again, the rail was open and Century Farroh, the 7-1 choice used it to get by for the 1:49.3 win.
It was quite a night for harness racing. Six great races, two tracks, two countries with upsets to boot. That’s what you want to see in sport and that’s what we saw on Saturday night.