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Canadians Click In American Nationals


Published: November 13, 2011 10:21 am ET

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Balmoral Park played host to one of its biggest nights of the year on Saturday as six American National Stakes finals were contested over the Crete oval. With almost $900,000 in purse money up for grabs and a large crowd on hand there were plenty of thrills and great performances despite gusting winds that at times exceeded 35 miles per hour.

Freshman pacing fillies started the action as a full field of 10 was sent postward for a purse of $86,800. This event wound up producing a mild upset as Millers Stables' Princess Cruiser kicked off a big night for driver Yannick Gingras as she paced to a two-length victory in 1:56.1.

Sent to the front after getting away third through an opening quarter in :28.3, Gingras put the daughter of Yankee Cruiser-Princess Justice on the front end as the field raced by the half-mile mark in :56.4.

“My only instructions tonight were to not put her on the lead so I guess I didn’t listen very well,” laughed Gingras. “They weren’t going that much though and things were starting to stack up so I figured I better get her out of there.”

Rolling by the three-quarters in 1:26, Princess Cruiser still had plenty in reserve as she held off Starlana (Robert Taylor) and Podges Lady (Travis Seekman) to win for the third time in 10 starts for trainer Jim Mulinix.

Despite making it look easy, Gingras was quite relieved when his filly finally hit the wire on top.

“Man, this stretch is long especially when you’re facing it straight into a wind that was blowing as hard as it was tonight,” he said. “I looked up for the photo finish light thinking we had to be getting close but I think we were still an eighth of a mile away!”

Next up were two-year-old pacing colts as a field of 10 gathered for a purse of $121,100.

This race provided a boost for the “home team” as Ervin Miller Stable, Omer Miller and Leland Mathias’ Crime Of Passion proved that he can handle open company as he overcame the speed bias caused by the winds, rallying for a half-length triumph in 1:54.3 for driver Marcus Miller.

After getting away near the back of the pack as Peck Blue Chip (Yannick Gingras), Fridaynightflight (Josh Sutton) and Star Recruit (Tyler Smith) waged a war up front through splits of :28.1, :56.3 and 1:25.1, Miller worked his way into a third over position as the field turned for home.

“With everything going on up front like it was I think it really helped us to get away where we did,” said Miller. “Things kept moving pretty well on the outside so once we got into that flow I thought we might have a chance to be a big factor at the finish.”

Sitting in fifth as the field turned for home, Miller continued to follow his cover before finally tipping widest of all in mid-stretch. Gamely wearing down his tiring rivals, the roan son of Armbro Mackintosh rallied in final strides to win for the sixth time in 15 starts. Star Recruit turned in an unbelievable effort to hold on for second while Caviart Key (Dan Noble) was third.

In the winner’s circle, Miller was singing the praises of the gelding, who is conditioned by his father Erv.

“When he’s right he loves to run down horses and tonight he really felt great out there,” said Miller. “He went through a little rough stretch around Super Night, but he’s been getting better again he proved what kind of horse he is out there tonight.”

The $135,000 Three-Year-Old Filly Pace went as expected as William Switala and James Martin’s Swinging Beauty, the 4-5 favourite in the race, rallied in the final strides to win by a head in 1:54.1 for driver Peter Wrenn.

After getting away in mid-pack as Ronettica (Brett Miller) and Ole Miss (Yannick Yingras) battled their way through splits of :28., :55.1 and 1:24, the cagey Wrenn was able to pick up live cover from Ole Miss, who after relinquishing the early lead was out moving again on the final turn.

In perfect striking position through the lane, the winner of one of this year’s Jugette eliminations determinedly worked her way by one rival after another despite pacing into the teeth of a wicked headwind. Finally sticking a head in front nearing the finish line, the Gregg McNair-trained miss showed the type of grit that has propelled her to nearly $370,000 in seasonal earnings as she scored for the fourth time in 20 starts this year. Ole Miss, a 27-1 outsider, turned in a sparkling two-move performance to finish as the bridesmaid while Illinois bred Mystical MJ (Marcus Miller) rallied from far back to finish third.

After the victory, both Wrenn and McNair were more than willing to extol the virtues of their winning filly.

“The easy part was coming here to drive such a nice filly like this after I got the call on Wednesday,” said Wrenn. “She just never stopped digging even though she was going right into the teeth of that wind tonight and she was not going to be denied.”

“It was a long ship down here from Canada for her so I’m ecstatic about the way she performed tonight,” said McNair. “She’s been taking on the best in the country all season long and now she’ll stay up here for another week and go over to Maywood and try to take the Cinderella Stake next week.”

Trotters took center stage in the next event as a compact but very classy and evenly matched field of six diagonally gaited specialists slugged it out for a purse of $143,000.

The big night continued for Gingras in this event and this time it really hit closer to home as Looking Hanover, a six-year-old son of Muscles Yankee who he shares ownership in with Dawn Gannon, found racing room deep in the stretch while rallying for a thrilling nose decision in 1:56.

Given a perfect steer by his co-owner, the high strung gelding grabbed command from post position four as the field trotted through a pedestrian opening quarter in :30.2.

With the action heating up on the backstretch, Gingras confidently elected to let a hard charging Lucky Jim (Marcus Miller) take control of the proceedings as the field trotted by the half-mile mark in :58.1.

“I knew the place to be on this night was up near the front, but I didn’t want to be cutting the mile out because that’s not how he races his best,” explained Gingras. “Lucky Jim seemed to be good and sound tonight even on the turns so I was pretty happy to be sitting in there right behind him.”

Content to save ground while sitting in the pocket, Gingras managed to get the Ed Gannon Jr. trainee to relax while Lucky Jim continued to show the way through middle splits of :58.1 and 1:26.2.

With the 2009 Dan Patch winner continuing to show the way through the lane Gingras began searching for racing room with Looking Hanover. Hot Shot Blue Chip (John Campbell) was also gaining ground in a hurry on the outside of horses leaving Looking Hanover to seek a seam to get through.

“At that point I was starting to get a little worried, but that wind was blowing horses every which way so I figured in the back of my mind that we would be able to find some room when we needed it,” said a relieved Gingras. “As it turned out it worked out perfectly because we stayed covered up until the last minute and then my horse just seemed to find another gear and managed to get by Lucky Jim which isn’t an easy thing to do.”

With less than a length separating the top three, Looking Hanover managed to poke a nose in front in the final strides to notch his seventh win in 25 starts this year. Lucky Jim wound up second while Hot Shot Blue Chip settled for third. Enjoying another big year while toiling on the east coast against some of the top trotters in the game week after week Saturday’s win pushed Looking Hanover’s career earnings over the $775,000 mark.

The older pacing stars of the sport were highlighted in the next event of the night with a field of nine pacers getting things started as they battled for a purse of $175,000. The combined career earnings of this field total a whopping $12,265,476 (U.S.).

Reversing the outcome of their Breeders Crown showdown from two weeks ago, Burke Racing Stable, JJK Stable and Weaver Bruscemi’s Foiled Again rolled to a 2-3/4 length victory over Bettor Sweet in 1:51.3, giving Gingras his third American National title of the night.

After getting away third as local hero St Elmo Hero (Brett Miller) led the field through a rather slow :28.4 opening quarter, Gingras then pointed Foiled Again for the top and the seven-year-old son of Dragon Again proceeded to lead the field through a half-mile in :55.1.

“I really wasn’t planning on sending my horse to the front that early, but I knew I wanted to move before Bettor Sweet [and driver John Campbell] could and keep him behind us for as long as I could,” Gingras explained. “With the way things were going and the wind the way it was I thought that was the most important move I could make with him tonight. Having to come first over for a long period of time was like death sentence because of the conditions.”

Comfortably in front as the field rolled by the three-quarter mile mark in 1:24, the Ronnie Burke trainee then sealed the deal with a :27.4 final quarter into the stiff wind, showing both the class, grit and determination that has netted him over $3.4 million in career earnings while winning for the 58th time in his storied career. Bettor Sweet was a clear cut second while another Burke trainee, Atochia (George Brennan), rallied for the show dough.

Once again the performance that Foiled Again turned in left Gingras in awe of the great pacers durability, strength and will to win.

“If he doesn’t win the Dan Patch Award as the older pacer of the year that’s just an injustice,” said Gingras. “He’s the oldest horse in history to win over $1 million in a season, which he’s done this year [earning $1.4 million[, he’s as sharp as he’s been all season long and he’s danced all the big dances with the best in country. He’s won on all size race tracks and I’m telling you he’s the toughest race horse I’ve ever driven in my life. He’s just a little guy when you look at him but he’s all heart. I’m telling you he’s one amazing animal!”

Perhaps the best and biggest effort of the night was saved for last as a field of 10 three-year-old pacing colts closed out the action with a purse of $225,000 on the line.

Fresh off a thrilling victory in the Breeders Crown, Steve Calhoun and West Wins Stables' Betterthancheddar lived up to his 3-5 odds as he cruised to his fourth straight victory, scoring by a widening 1-3/4 lengths in 1:50.3 while in hand to driver George Brennan.

Using the inside starting spot and the experience of North America’s second leading dash winning driver to full advantage, the Bettors Delight colt rocketed away from the gate before releasing a hard leaving Hugadragon (Yannick Gingras) to the front after an opening quarter of :27.1. Using the give and go to perfection, Brennan then sent Betterthancheddar back to the front where he led the field through middle splits of :54 and 1:21.3, which were the fastest of the night by far.

“Warming up I scored him down pretty hard into the wind so I would have an idea of how he was going to react when we turned for home and it didn’t look or feel like he was having any problems with it so that’s when I decided that I wanted him to be on the front turning for the money,” said Brennan.

While not usually in the position of being the one to catch, the Casie Coleman trainee had the skill of his experienced pilot and he did not disappoint Brennan or the confidence that the betting public showed in him as he emphatically delivered the knock-out blow to put away his rivals while making his case for divisional honours among the sophomore set. Hugadragon (Yannick Gingras), a $20,000 supplement to the race, finished second while Mystic Desire, last year’s two-year-old colt pace American National winner, settled for third in his repeat bid.

In the winner’s circle, Brennan announced that he and Betterthancheddar will be back in the Chicagoland area next week as they look for a fifth straight victory and the colt’s 10th win of the year in 18 starts.

“He’s so good right now that’s he just an absolute pleasure to drive,” said Brennan. “He’s making his case for divisional honours and I hope I can continue to get him to that goal next week at Maywood in the Windy City Pace.”

On a gambling note, almost $1.3 million was pumped through the betting windows on Saturday’s card of harness racing.

(Balmoral Park)

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