Southwind Ozzi Dazzles in Adios

Five weeks after surgery he stops the clock in 1:48

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

When you watch sports, you want drama, you want competitiveness.  If you don’t get that, you want to see something special, perhaps extraordinary.  Well, for those in attendance at the Adios Run for the Orchids at The Meadows in Western Pennsylvania, the latter was served.

Southwind Ozzi came into the race as the 4/5 favorite and his winning surprised no one.  But it was the way he performed that turned heads as he blazed home by 8 lengths to win in 1:48, just 1/5 off the track record.  And that time was run on a 5/8 mile track which makes it more impressive.

Bill MacKenzie trains Oz and this was the first time he raced in the Adios.  Not a bad debut, huh?  MacKenzie is a true grinder; he spends most of his time training and racing overnighters at Freehold Raceway, where, prior to this year, the open paces and trots were running for $8,000 purses.  With the win in this $400,000 race, Mackenzie’s cut will be $20,000.

The story doesn’t stop there.  Just five weeks ago, Southwind Ozzi underwent hernia surgery, putting things in doubt.  That seemed to calm when he won his elimination last week in 1:49.3.  The surgery did change things for the horse as he had a testicle removed, thus, he became the first ridgling to win the Adios.

The race set up beautifully for Ozzi who was driven by Brian Sears.  Prince of Tides blasted an opening quarter of 25.3 while Sears kept Oz back in fourth.  Right before the three-quarter mark, Oz took the lead and the race was over.

Before the race MacKenzie wasn’t sure if he had a great horse.  Afterwards, he was starting to believe.

“That’s what great horses do, and after the way he raced today, I’m beginning to think he’s a great horse,” he said. “He’s never raced badly for us. I told Brian that if he had to come first over, I didn’t think it would matter.”

Next week is Hambletonian Day with plenty of stakes races, and Southwind Ozzi will be heading to New Jersey, but it won’t be to The Meadowlands.  Instead, he will return to MacKenzie’s training facility in Cranbury, NJ.  From there, they will ponder their next move.

It’s never great to speculate, but could the Carl Milstein Memorial Pace at Northfield Park be in their thinking?  Like the Adios, a $400,000 purse is offered and the half-mile track has always produced fast times in their big races.

For now, the connections can take delight on what happened at The Meadows.  Five weeks ago, it was an emergency surgery; today, it was an eye popping performance in front of an adoring crowd.  That’s nice to see of course, because The Meadows, like trainer MacKenzie is one of harness racing’s grinders.  It’s open 12 months a year with 195 days of racing.  The Adios, despite being one week prior to the Hambletonian always has a competitive field.  This year, 26 horses entered with three eliminations contested last Saturday to whittle the field to nine.

The field was competitive, but the race was not as Southwind Ozzi left no doubt as to who was best.


An End and a Beginning

Buffalo Raceway concludes season, Batavia Downs opens Wednesday.

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It is over—for 2019.  The season at Buffalo Raceway, which began on Jan. 25 has concluded.  But, fear not.  If you live in Western New York, the same horses, same drivers and same trainers are heading east (about 45 miles) to Batavia Downs for its 2019 season.

I tuned in for the season finale at what the locals call “The Fairgrounds Oval,” and the final race was a good one.  It was a Class D pace—the lowest there—and it ran for what we might call a paltry purse of $4,400, but there they were, eight pacers giving their all.  I’m not sure the pacers know how much money is at stake, but one thing we do know is when the car speeds away, the pacers and trotters come to play.

Lucky Millionaire was shown no love as he was sent off at 16-1, but the 10-year old was feeling good, taking them through the quarter in 28.4 and the half in 58.2, but remember; he was 16-1 for a reason.  By three-quarters, the favored 9-year old Story Book took command and then held off the 7-year old Holla At UrBoy to win in a crisp 1:57.2  In Harness Racing, we divvy the purse as follows:  50 percent for the win and then 25, 12, 8, and 5 percent for places two through five.  For Story Book, it’s another $2,200; for Holla At UrBoy, $1,100 and $528 for the 16-1 Lucky Millionaire.  Also picking up checks were Indy Ingot, $352 and Autobiographical, $220.

This is why I prefer Harness Racing over the thoroughbreds.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like a big thoroughbred race and if you caught the thrilling Haskell last evening, you know how exciting that can be, but the thoroughbreds, for the most part, cannot offer the Story Books and the Lucky Millionaires.   These pacers and trotters will race week in and week out, allowing fans like us an opportunity to develop favorites.

As a case in point, let’s look at the opening card at Batavia Downs.  The final race of the evening is for $4,900 and is open to non-winners of $2,250 in their last four races.  These horses can be claimed for $4,500 each and the eight fillies and mares have combined to make 158 starts this year, an average just under 20.  You’ll never see that in thoroughbred racing and nor should you.  They may share the name Horse Racing, but they are two completely different sports.

The Open I, as it is called runs for $12,500 and features the best that both Buffalo and Batavia offer.  In this race, the eight fillies and mares have combined to make 153 starts.

When people ask me why I prefer “the Harnesses,” that’s my answer.  I cite familiarity, consistency and regularity.  Sarah Cola, unless she is injured or getting a break is going to race at least three times a month at Buffalo or Batavia.  And, this year, in her 19 starts, she has four wins, one second and three thirds and $23,800 in earnings.

The Downs will race from Wednesday, July 25 through Saturday, Dec. 14, offering 65 racing dates.  Combined with Buffalo’s 66 dates, there are 131 racing dates in WNY over the 12 months.

“You can make a living there,” said driver Shawn Gray.  “The tracks are close enough, they race enough and the purses are good enough to make some decent money.”

Gray now races at Saratoga Casino Hotel, moving there to be closer to his family in Maine.

“I moved to Buffalo from Maine back in 2012,” Gray said, “I did well there, but I wanted to move closer to home so I now race at Saratoga and Plainridge (MA).”

It’s a special year for Batavia Downs.  On Saturday, Sept 14, they will host for the first time ever the finals of the New York State Sire Stakes for 2 and 3-year old pacers and trotters.   That’s eight races—four for the fillies and four for the colts and geldings— and each race has a $225,000 purse.

The New York Sire Stakes promotes the breeding, buying and racing of Standardbreds in the Empire State.  New York was the pioneer in creating this program and many states have since followed suit.  In addition to that, on that same Sept. 14, the Kane Memorial Pace for 3-year olds and up will run for a purse of $50,000.

The Downs will run just about every Wednesday evening and will run three or four days per week over the next six months.  They’ll run Sundays in July and August, but once the Buffalo Bills season begins, they’ll move to Saturday evenings.  No use taking on the team that generates TV ratings in the 30s and 40s during the NFL season.

Things are looking up at Batavia Downs (the first harness track I visited back in the day).  Purses are up 10 percent and the track, which almost closed several years ago, seems to be on solid footing.  It kicks off at 6 pm this Wednesday.






The Heat is On In More Ways Than One

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

As Glenn Frey once said, “The heat is on,” and it certainly will be today across much of the country.  Many race tracks have bowed to Mother Nature and have canceled racing for today, but Monmouth Park and the harness tracks are going forward.  Monmouth is relying on its proximity to the ocean, and the fact that it is running its signature race—the $1 million Haskell—as reasons to run.  The race is also scheduled for broadcast on NBC and should the card be canceled, that exposure goes bye-bye.

Most harness tracks are delaying their start times in the hope that as the sun sets, it will cool down enough to make things bearable for horses and patrons alike.  In New York, if the heat index is 105 or higher, there can be no racing.  The index should be under 100 by 7 pm, so officials at Saratoga Casino Hotel (the harness track) are figuring that an 8 pm post time should offer the opportunity to race safely.

Like Monmouth, it’s a big night at SCH.  The signature race of the year takes place with the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace.  It’s one of the best races for older pacers and has attracted a star-studded cast and should no doubt keep things hot at SCH.

PJ Iovino is the race director and he makes the calls, trying to assemble the best eight horse field that he can.  Some years are better than others; in 2015 he lured Wiggle It Jiggleit, at the time the reigning Horse of the Year and he blazed to victory.  Last year, Iovino admitted it wasn’t a stellar, but Evening of Pleasure put on a dazzling display when he broke 1:50 on the half-mile track.

Personally, I thought Iovino was being hard on himself, but he did a great job in assembling this, the 2019 field.  It is led by reigning Horse of the Year, McWicked.  Last year, he became the oldest—age 7—to win that award as he won and won often and made over $1.5 million, but this year, he hasn’t been on his game.  Granted he has only made five starts, but I think this is a big race for him.  A win gets him back on track; a disappointing performance may cause his handlers to rethink and map out a different course of action going forward.  He gets the 3 post, so there shouldn’t be any excuses.

The first quarter should be quite a spectacle.  The race is full of leavers and many will want that lead over the first 440 yards.  Could we see a 25 and change fraction?  I doubt it on a half-mile, but it certainly will be under 27.  The first half will be fast, so the question is simple—who can hold on over the final 880 to nab the $130,000 first place check?

The eight horse field has combined to make 95 starts this year.  In addition, they have earned a total of $2,100,227.  Western Fame accounts for 25 percent of that with $526,300 and will certainly be in contention tonight.

You can make a case for all eight, but as we know winning from the seven and eight post requires a herculean effort and both Ideal Jimmy (the 7) and Done Well (the 8) are the least accomplished pacers in the field.  Ideal Jimmy is the warrior with 22 starts, but he has only banked $262,556.  Done Well makes his ninth start with $118,539 in earnings.

Here is the field, the drivers and the odds.

1The Wall/Jim Pantaleano/8-1

2-Western Fame/Daniel Dube/9-5

3-McWicked/Brian Sears/9-2

4-This Is The Plan/Yannick Gingras/Ron Burke/5-1

5-None Bettor A/Joe Bongiorno/5-2

6-Jimmy Freight/Scott Zeron/10-1

7-Ideal Jimmy/Brent Holland/15-1

8-Done Well/Matt Kakaley/25-1

None Bettor A is the mystery horse, having done his work outside North America and the 5 post will not hurt.  I am never one to make picks, but I’m thinking This Is The Plan.  I like Gingras in the big race and this is a big one.  If I’m wrong; you don’t know me.

The 14 race card features New York Sire Stakes action for 2-year old colt/gelding pacers, open handicaps running for $20,000 and $25,000 and $594,500 in total purses.





Meadowlands Pace Plus Eight

13-races, 9 stakes races, $2.6 million in purses highlight Meadowlands Pace night.

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

The big race this week is Saturday’s $682,500 Meadowlands Pace.  Ten of the best 3-year old pacers will vie for the top prize in what is the richest pacing race in the United States.  Captain Crunch, who won the richest race in North America when he captured the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park is your morning-line favorite.   The scheduled post time is 10:06 pm ET.

As good as the Pace will be the rest of the card is spectacular.  There are many things that Harness racing does wrong, but putting together big race cards is not one of them.  This is particularly true at The Meadowlands.  No race card is better than the one on Hambletonian Day, where 10 of the 16 races are stakes, but Pace Night comes close.  There are 13 races carded with nine of them carrying purses of at least $100,000

The Hambletonian Maturity is for 4-year old trotters.  All eyes will be on Atlanta, the superfilly, and 2018 Hambletonian champion.  She looks poised and ready and last week, trotted home in 1:49.1 at The Big M, a track she has taken a liking to. Because there are 11 entered, the race will be contested at 1 1/8, a distance that I love.  We know Atlanta likes to go out hard and it will be interesting to see how both she and driver Yannick Gingras handle the extra furlong.

Six Pack will provide a stiff challenge.  Trained and driven by Ake Svanstedt, it would surprise no one if this one cuts the early fractions.  Svanstedt is an unconventional driver who usually sees that quirkiness pay off in big races at The Big M.

If you like older horses (and I love them), the race that will get the blood going is the William Haughton Memorial.  This one features a $423,000 purse, 12 horses and 1 1/8 miles.  Last year’s Horse of the Year, McWicked, drew post six for driver Brian Sears and trainer Casie Coleman and even though McWicked 1-1-2 in his four starts this year, he hasn’t been as sharp.  This might be his 2019 coming out party.

Lather Up is the horse to watch.  Last week, he tied the world record for the fastest mile ever run by a Standardbred when he stopped the clock in 1:46 in the Graduate Series final at the Meadowlands. This week, the question is simple—did he empty his tank last week or was that the just the start of what could be a special season for the Clyde Francis trained colt?

Ron Burke has three horses—Filibuster Hanover, Dorsoduro Hanover and This Is The Plan–none of which can be overlooked.  Of the three, This Is The Plan seems to be firing best and will certainly not be afraid to trade punches with the aforementioned Lather Up and McWicked.

Another race going 1 1/8 miles is the $179,550 Golden Girls, an open mare pace.  Shartin N might be the best horse in training right now.  She takes no prisoners, loves the Big M and might decide to put on a show Saturday night. Caviart Ally is formidable, but I’m expecting Shartin N to grab the headlines in this one.

The $207,700 Mistletoe Shalee for 3-year old pacers drew a field of 11 for 1 1/8 miles with Warrawee Ubeat the tepid 3-1 favorite.  Stonebridge Soul comes in as the leading money winner with $230,476 in earnings.  This is race that bettors will love, because there is no clear-cut favorite, which could result in a handsome payoff.

It will be interesting to see how the track plays.  The first race is a $22,500 pace for non-winners of $20,000 in their last five starts with some also eligible conditions as well.  There are some good, tough horses in the field with Trump Nation, Wheels On Fire, Heyden Hanover, Miso Fast, and Ocean Colony.

Why am I bringing this up on a night filled with all-star races?  Because it’s the first race and last week, Heyden Hanover, in a race of similar conditions blazed home in 1:47 3/5 to set the stage for what would turn out to be an historical night of racing.

Seven of the 10 horses in race 1 have broken 1:50 for the mile and if the winner of this race clocks 1:48 or faster, it could once again be game on when the better horses step onto the track.  Like last week, the first race could set the tone for the remainder of the night.

The 43rd renewal of the Meadowlands Pace should be a great one.  Post time is 7:15 pm ET.  You might want to take an afternoon nap if you plan on watching all 13 races.  Race 13 is scheduled for 11:15 pm ET, but in the land of post-drags, it might be much later. A nap between 4 and 6 pm could certainly help.

What a Warm-Up Act

It was two days after Independence Day, but on July 6, there were plenty of fireworks at The Meadowlands

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

If you were able to catch Saturday night’s racing (July 6) at The Meadowlands, it proved one thing; that no matter how good the other tracks are, when The Big M is primed with good horses, there is no better racetrack in North America.  Simply, the big mile is at its best when the best horses come to play on a Saturday night in North Jersey.

All it took was one race to know that it was going to be a special night.  In the Saturday lidlifter, a $21,000 race for non-winners of $17,500 in their last five, Heyden Hanover stopped the clock in 1:47 3/5.  The second race was the Preferred Handicap and that went in 1:49 1/5 to Joe Bongiorno and None Bettor A.  This was just the warm-up act; but as I watched, I knew something big might be in store in the muggy North Jersey air.

The card featured two Graduate finals—one for pacers, one for trotters—as well as two Meadowlands Pace eliminations, three divisions of the Reynolds for trotters and the fourth leg of the Mr. Muscleman trot.  In all, the 11-race card featured $805,499 in total purses.

The marquee races were the two Graduate Finals for 4-year old trotters and pacers.  In the trot, 2019 Hambletonian champion Atlanta struggled early, sitting in sixth at the half and then fifth at three-quarters.  Not surprisingly, Ake Svanstedt had Six Pack on the lead heading home, but the superfilly, Atlanta, was able to go wide and win by the tip of the nose in 1:49.1, the fastest trotting mile in Meadowlands history.  Her last quarter of 26 3/5 was something to be seen.

The Graduate Pacing Final saw Lather Up make history when he took command late and won in 1:46. That equals the fastest mile in harness racing history, tying Always B Miki who also ran 1:46 at The Red Mile in October, 2016. One day, we will see a pacer run 1:45-something and as Cosmo Castorini said In Moonstruck, “that will be one crazy day.”

The race was blistering from the get-go. When you see a 25 3/5 –a time that Thoroughbreds sometimes run—opening quarter, it was clear that it was game on.  Always a Prince was the leader and he followed that up with a no-breather 26 2/5 second quarter.  When they hit three-quarters in 1:19 1/5, you knew there was a chance that the record could be equaled, or at the very least, a final time under 1:47.  Always a Prince hung in gamely, but settled for fourth, with This Is The Plan and Backstreet Shadow finishing behind the Clyde Francis trained, Montrell Teague driven son of I’m Gorgeous.

The Meadowlands Pace drew 15 entrants for 2019 and two eliminations were held to determine the field for next Saturday’s $650,000 final.  In heat one, Captain Crunch seized control early to win in a “ho-hum” 1:48 3/5, while Bettor’s Wish took the second heat in 1:49 1/5. The field for next Saturday with the post positions.

  1. Captain Crunch
  2. Escapetothebeach
  3. Captain Ahab
  4. Bettors Wish
  5. Hurrikane Emperor
  6. Reigning Deo
  7. Best in Show
  8. US Captain
  9. Working ona Mystery
  10. Captain Trevor

As good as the July 6 racing was, I have a feeling the next act—Meadowlands Pace Night—might have something even more special in store.

The Heat Is On

Stakes races and fast times highlight the weekend

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Summer is here and with July approaching, things are really beginning to heat up with stakes races aplenty and blazing fast times.

On Friday, Always a Prince stopped the clock in 1:47.3 at The Meadowlands en route to victory in the fourth leg of $50,000 Graduate Series.  In the $60,000 Rainbow Blue for mares, Caviart Ally blazed a 25.3 final quarter to win in 1:48.  Then, the Downtown Bus got into the act in his leg of the Graduate Series when he used a 25.3 last quarter to get by Courtly Choice in 1:48.  The $250,000 Graduate Series final is set for Saturday, July 6.

On Saturday, the focus was on two tracks—Northfield Park and its hosting of the $175,000 Cleveland Trotting Classic and Pocono Downs, which hosted four races on what is dubbed Sun Stakes Saturday.

The Trotting Classic saw a who’s who in harness racing square off at the place that calls itself “The Home of the Flying Turns.”  The race featured the 2015 Hambletonian winner, Pinkman; the 2016 Trotting Triple Crown winner, Marion Marauder; as well as the accomplished Weslynn Dancer, Plunge Blue Chip, Dayson, Emoticon Hanover, Guardian Angel As, and Musical Rhythm.  Unlike many finals that require eliminations, the Classic is an invitational; the race director makes the calls and when eight except, it is game on.  When the smoke cleared, Guardian Angel As stopped the clock in 1:52, a track record for trotters on the half-mile oval and collected $87,500 for the effort. Musical Rhythm battled hard in the stretch to finish second with Emoticon Hanover third.

The Sun Stakes produced some drama of its own over its four races.  First was Stonebridge using the inside lane to win the $300,000 James Lynch Memorial pace for 3-year old fillies in 1:49.3 over the 5/8 mile surface.  The top four all broke 1:50.

In the $500,000 Max Hempt, an open pace for 3-year olds, Shake That House sizzled down the stretch with Brian Sears in the bike to win in 1:49.2. Sent off at 8-1 odds, he paid $19.40.  Brassy Hanover and Captain Victorious garnered place and show honors.

Race 3 of the Sun Stakes was the $500,000 Ben Franklin Free-For-All which featured reigning Horse of the Year, McWicked.  The 8-year old just started his racing season and was looking to find his stride.  While McWicked lingered midway in the pack, This Is The Plan overtook Western Fame and appeared to be cruising to victory, when McWicked woke up and began charging down the stretch.  In the end, This Is The Plan held on for the win, stopping the clock in 1:48.2 and paying his supporters $26.40 for a $2 bet.

The final Sun Stake was the $500,000 Earl Beal Memorial for 3-year old trotters.  The heavy betting choice  was Greenshoe, a horse that many expect to be the favorite for the August 3 Hambletonian at The Meadowlands.

Dismissed at 57-1 was Marseille driven by Ake Svanstedt.  Those that know harness racing know that the Swede is not afraid to get to the lead and cut fast fractions and that’s what happened when the opening quarter was a sharp 26.2.  When the opening quarter is that fast, the strategy is simple—to see if the driver of the leader can slow things down in the second quarter and get that proverbial breather.  That’s exactly what happened when Svanstedt slowed to a pedestrian 30.3

At ¾, Greenshoe looked cooked sitting in sixth, but then he unleashed a furious final quarter only to come up short by a few noise hairs.  Marseille hung on and paid an impressive $116 for the win and the $250,000 in earnings.  Despite the win, Greenshoe will still be heavily supported come Hambletonian time.  He’s simply too good of a horse and being able to stretch those legs on the Big M’s mile oval will only help him.

There will fireworks this Thursday as America celebrates birthday number 243.  In harness racing, the fireworks have already started and they won’t be stopping anytime soon.


The Stars Are Beginning To Shine

Summer time means the big names are out and running

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

On Saturday, June 15, Captain Crunch took the Pepsi North America Cup, a $1 million race for 3-year old pacers and did so in an impressive time of 1:47.2 for one mile over the inviting 7/8 mile racing surface at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

I never accuse anybody of doping or drugging horses even though we all know that it takes place in harness racing.  That said, I don’t accuse; I wait to see when there are positive drug tests before I make conclusions.  There are many that think all trainers drug their horses and I don’t want to be one of those guys.

I will say that it is important to keep our eyes on a pacer like Captain Crunch.  We have seen performances like this in the past and then for some reason, that performance is never duplicated.  Dr, J Hanover blazed a big performance at WMP in 2017, and has never been the same since.  Those that are suspicious will point to this and say, “drugs,” and while that comes off as cruel and unfair, it might not be wrong.

Captain Crunch looks like the real deal and with all the big races still to come, let’s watch him and see if he can sustain the greatness he showed last Saturday.

Shartin N may be as good a horse in training that there is.  The 6-year old mare dominated the $330,000 Roses are Red in 1:49.  She could have run faster, but there was no need to do so.  She beat a good field, too, with Tequlia Monday, Caviart Ally and Better Joy finishing second through fourth.  Like all the great ones, Shartin went to the lead, cut a 25.4 quarter and then rated a 29 second second quarter, before buzzing a 27.3 third stanza to take total command.  That’s what the great ones do and that’s what Shartin N is.

Last year’s Hambletonian winner, Atlanta took to the track in the Ambro Flight Final and didn’t disappoint.  The 4-year old with Yannick Gingras in the bike nipped Weslynn Dancer in 1:50.1 to win the $256,000 race. After a tumultuous winter where she was sold  the mare looks ready for a big 2019.

McWicked came into the Mohawk Gold Cup as the reigning Horse of the Year, but only managed a third.  We don’t like to make excuses, but he hasn’t raced much this year and there is reason to believe that McWicked will get in going as the season progresses.  Jimmy Freight won the race, but Jimmy has raced a lot this year so he came in a bit more race ready.  On paper, McWicked is twice the horse that Jimmy is and that is no knock on him.  Onion was a nice horse; he beat Secretariat, but Onion was no Secretariat.

The premier event for 3-year old fillies was the $454,000 Fan Hanover Pace and Treacherous Regin overtook Warrawee Ubeaut in the stretch, stopping the clock in 1:48.3.

Once June comes, the stakes races are fast and furious and before we blink, the first Saturday in August will be here and for harness racing fans, that means the Hambletonian with its 10 stakes races.  Many who you just read about will be gearing for the big day at the Big M.

Pocono Downs gets into the stakes action act this Saturday with its Sun Stakes.  On Saturday, eliminations will be contested in the Ben Franklin Free-for-All Pace; the Earl Beal for 3-year old trotters; the Max Hempt for 3-year old pacers and the James Lynch for 3-year old filly pacers. The finals will be held on Saturday, June 29.

The great thing about harness racing is once the stars are out, they stay out. As long as the stars stay healthy, they’ll race from now through the Breeders Crown at the end of October.  It can be tough to keep track of, but oh, is it fun to see.