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Ruggeri Hopes 'Joe' A Winner

Published: April 19, 2021 10:53 am ET

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Although he’s raced at the stakes level for much of his career, Western Joe has never before tackled the MGM Borgata Pacing Series, or the George Morton Levy Pacing Series as it was formerly known. In fact, of the seven-year-old’s 101 starts heading into the Borgata Series first leg, only seven of them had come at Yonkers Raceway, the latest being an open handicap pace in Nov. 2019. The decision to nominate and race in the grueling six-week Borgata Series was a change of tactics by Western Joe’s connections in an effort to bring out the gelding’s best.

Western Joe’s biggest season to date came in 2018 when he won the $260,100 Sam McKee Memorial Pace on Hambletonian Day and the $100,000 Great Northeast Open Series Final at Pocono Downs in Sept. 2018. Western Joe raced through the winter leading up to that campaign, but had time off before his 2019 and 2020 seasons, which did not see Western Joe replicate his 2018 successes. Although he banked just under $100,000 in each of the last two years, Western Joe hadn’t found the Grand Circuit winner’s circle again.

“We’ve done some stakes the last few years and honestly, it seemed like he was maybe a step behind,” said breeder and co-owner Anthony Ruggeri. “Toward the end of 2020, he had been racing well at the Meadowlands, he was pretty sharp. We decided to try the Borgata.

“We’ve been doing all the regular stakes races at the Meadowlands and all these big tracks and we figured we would try something different. Especially since in 2018, we raced him through the winter that year and we decided that’s what we were going to do this year. He loves to race every week; he actually doesn’t like time off. He gets a little moody when he gets time off, he gets a little pouty. It’s tough and there are five legs, but we thought maybe he would like it.”

Western Joe was thrown to the wolves in the Borgata Series first leg, drawing into the first division with preseason favorite Let It Ride and 2020 MGM Borgata Invitational Pace champion This Is The Plan. Dismissed at odds of 12-1, Western Joe followed along in third from post 2 and despite pacing home in :27.4, lost a position in the stretch to finish fourth.

“Right out of the gate, it was a tough draw,” Ruggeri said. “We did get a nice post, which is not regular for us. I knew it would be tough, but I thought we had a shot. He raced pretty well that first leg. I think it took a little bit of time to get used to the half-mile. He ran in a little bit that first week. He’s been pretty straight since then and as the legs went on, I think he got more comfortable.”

Western Joe improved in the second leg, leaving from post 6 to set the pace through fractions of :26.2, :55.3, and 1:23.2. Western Joe kicked home in :27.3, pacing the mile in 1:51.1, but was caught in the stretch by pocket-riding Rockapelo for a nose loss. In the third leg, Western Joe had a breakthrough win over Backstreet Shadow, circling three wide into the stretch to cruise two lengths clear as driver Dexter Dunn put away the whip and leaned back in the final sixteenth. For Ruggeri though, Western Joe’s most impressive Borgata Series performance came in the fourth leg.

Forced to deal with post 7, Dunn tried to leave with Western Joe, but took back into sixth as None Bettor A blitzed an opening quarter of :26.3 and a half of :55.1 on a clear lead. With the field single file and strung out behind None Bettor, Western Joe needed to make up 13 lengths in the final lap.

Entering the final turn, None Bettor A weakened as the fractions took their toll. Sheriff pulled the pocket. Rockapelo vacated the pylons in third. Pat Stanley and Macs Jackpot got in gear from the backfield. Only Ideal Jimmy and Western Joe stuck to the inside, but turning into the stretch, Brent Holland guided Ideal Jimmy off the pegs in search of a clear run at None Bettor. The move proved costly for Ideal Jimmy as the inside opened up and Dunn saw a path through with Western Joe. He shifted in, went to a strong right-handed whip, and Western Joe accelerated through the narrow opening for a neck victory.

“I know that everyone thinks that was all a matter of luck, but you have to be able to take advantage of that,” Ruggeri said. “The rail opened up for him, but I thought that was a great race. He loves to come the inside route, so when I saw the inside open up, I knew he was going to take off. We just took advantage of that little opening and came on and won.

“He’s been closing well. You can never give up on ‘Joe,’ ” Ruggeri continued. “Sometimes it can look like he’s gapping or he’s being a little lazy, he’ll always come back and he always gives you that great last quarter. If the driver knows him, then he’s going to be OK. I think Dexter knows him really well now.”

Western Joe finished second a half-length behind Backstreet Shadow in the final preliminary leg April 12 to boost his record to 33-for-106 with $791,858 earned and 283 points toward the Borgata Series Final, putting him second in the standings behind Leonidas and earning a spot behind the gate in the $514,000 Series Final Monday night (April 19).

“It’s been fun. I think he’s done pretty well. We had a couple of nice wins and a couple of good seconds. He was close enough to win four legs, he’s been sharp as of late,” Ruggeri said. “I was never 100 percent sure about racing on a half-mile with him. It’s been a nice surprise.”

No matter the performance in the preliminaries, the open post position draw in the final can be the undoing of many horses. This Is The Plan won his division of the Borgata fourth leg and finished second in the other four legs for Ron Burke and Yannick Gingras, but drew post 8 in the final, the same unlucky position he drew ahead of his victory is last fall’s Borgata Invitational.

Leonidas A won all four preliminary legs he entered for Sheena McElhiney and Austin Siegelman, but will need to overcome post 7 in the final. Backstreet Shadow had two wins and two seconds in the preliminaries and drew post 6 for Ron Burke and Tim Tetrick. Western Joe drew just to the inside of those rivals in post 5.

The field also includes Rockapelo, the third member of the Burke Brigade and winner of two preliminary legs who will be driven by George Brennan from post 1. Hesa Kingslayer N captured three Borgata legs and was third in another for Mike Deters and Jim Marohn, Jr. and drew post 2. Mach N Cheese and Lyons Steel complete the lineup.

“The post position is what I was originally worried about,” Ruggeri said. “No matter where he goes, he seems to be on the outside. But the five is a decent spot here because the big stakes horses are on the outside of us, which is a bonus. It’s better than the six, seven, or eight, so we’ll take it.

“We’re excited and we feel we have a good shot,” Ruggeri continued. “He’s sharp and we got a great driver. Everything seems to be falling into place here. I’m hoping he wins, but I’d be happy with second or third. He’s a great horse and he’s always been a notch underneath where I think he could be. Hopefully this series will boost him up a little bit.”

For Ruggeri, a win in the MGM Borgata Series Final would mean more than the check that comes along with it. Western Joe is the only homebred in the field. Ruggeri claimed Western Joe’s dam, Ante Fay, for $20,000 at the Meadowlands in June 2004 and kept her as a broodmare. He bred her to Western Ideal in 2014 and she produced Western Joe, who Ruggeri partners in ownership with Richard Tosies and sent to Chris Choate to train. Western Joe is currently the only horse in Ruggeri’s stable.

“I really liked (Ante Fay), she was a tough mare, so I kept her and bred her. I’ve had ‘Joe’ since he was a baby. It feels like it’s your own kid. He’s been by far the best horse I’ve ever had,” Ruggeri said. “Hopefully he’ll continue to race and do great things. It’s a very personal experience for me, it’s not just a business. I don’t have many horses, the most I have is two or three at a time. He’s a labor of love.

“I could have never got ‘Joe’ through any other way,” Ruggeri continued. “It’s much more risky to breed than to claim one that’s been racing, but it’s high risk, high reward. You’ll never get a champion through the claiming game.”

Ruggeri visited Western Joe in Choate’s stable Saturday morning and was pleased with what he saw.

“He looks dynamite. He has a great attitude. He’s frisky, he’s sharp, he really looks good,” Ruggeri said. “I’m cautiously optimistic. You’re still racing against Yannick and Tetrick and you have George Brennan on the rail. You can’t be too confident. This is not going to be an easy race. It’s going to be a lot of luck and position and you just hope you get a good trip. Leonidas won four legs and he has the seven hole. Everyone can’t leave, so we’ll see what happens.

“The money is great, but it would mean a lot emotionally,” Ruggeri continued. “He’s been such a great horse for a long time. We won one or two big races along the way, but if you don’t consistently win them, you’re not considered a champion so to speak. I think ‘Joe’ needs that, he needs another big race or two on his resume to really cement him as a great horse. I’d like to see him get that.”

Monday night’s 10-race card also features the $232,800 Blue Chip Matchmaker Series Final, the $100,000 MGM Borgata Pacing Series Consolation, the $60,000 Blue Chip Matchmaker Series Consolation, a $40,000 race for MGM Borgata Series eligibles, and a $35,000 open handicap pace. First-race post time is 7:15 p.m. (EDT).

(SOA of NY)

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