The focus of the harness racing world was on East Rutherford, N.J. for the seasonal debuts of many highly-regarded horses during a star-studded Saturday session of qualifiers and a return to action at The Meadowlands Racetrack.
A total of 26 qualifiers were carded during the most active qualifying day in North America, and many pacers and trotters were on display in preparation for the 2020 stakes season. Last active in early March, The Meadowlands had nearly 10 weeks of hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic before a return to action green light this past week from N.J. Governor Phil Murphy, with live spectator-free harness racing set to resume on June 5.
Nancy Takter celebrated the return to action with a six-pack as six Takter trainees hit the wire first during the Saturday session.
Takter's winners included three-year-old trotting colt Panem (1:56.1, Dexter Dunn driving), sophomore pacing colt No Lou Zing (1:53.2, Josert Fonseca up) and four-year-old pacing mare JK American Beauty (1:52 for Yannick Gingras). The most notable performers, however, included Manchego, JK First Lady and Kissin In The Sand.
In the sixth qualifier, Dexter Dunn pointed world champion Manchego to the front and dared anyone to challenge. Through fractions of :28.4, :57.2 and 1:25.2, no rivals came closer than two lengths and that's as close as they'd get as Manchego sprinted home in :27.3 to win by more than six lengths over a North American-debuting Felicityshagwell S (Ake Svanstedt) in 1:53.
A winner of 27 races and more than $2.2. million in purses, Manchego (Muscle Hill - Secret Magic) is owned by Black Horse Racing. Her lifetime mark of 1:49 makes her the second fastest trotter in harness racing history.
Pacing filly JK First Lady may have raced in the shadow of divisional winners Lyons Sentinel and Alicorn last year but showed she's ready to rumble with a sharp 1:51.1 mile in her sophomore debut for Takter and driver Yannick Gingras.
The homebred daughter of Western Ideal and 2014 Horse of the Year JK Shesalady, JK First Lady is owned by 3 Brothers Stable. She banked $372,015 as a two-year-old with a mark of 1:49.2 taken at The Meadowlands -- a track record and the second fastest mile time for a two-year-old pacing filly.
Kissin In The Sand faced 2019 U.S. Horse of the Year Shartin N and 2019 O'Brien Award winner Caviart Ally in the majority of her four-year-old starts, but made a statement in her five-year-old debut by defeating caviart Ally in a wire-to-wire 1:50.4 effort.
Owned by Marvin Katz and Hatfield Stables, Kissin In The Sand (Somebeachsomewhere - Kiss Me Kate) sports a 19-10-6 summary from 46 career starts with more than $1.3 million in earnings.
Trotting talent from the stable of Marcus Melander made impressive seasonal debuts to start the Saturday. Multiple stakes winner Hypnotic AM was the first winner of the day, closing off cover to win by head in 1:54 for driver Brian Sears. Hypnotic AM (Chapter Seven - Daydream AM S) was won seven of nine races for breeder - owner Courant Inc. and never finished worse than third, earning $479,943.
Stablemate Fifty Cent Piece wasn't a stakes star in 2019, but the sophomore filly was a wire-to-wire winner in 1:56.3 for trainer - driver Marcus Melander in her debut effort. The daughter of Muscle Hill - Thatsnotmyname was a $500,000 yearling purchase of SRF Stable, making her the highest price yearling of 2018. She was a 2-1-0 winner in three starts as a rookie.
Two-time Breeders Crown winner Gimpanzee impressed in his four-year-old debut, powering to the front for Sears in advance of a :57.4 half before totally dominating his rivals en route to a 1:52.3 romp by more than eight lengths, the fastest trotting mile of the day. Gimpanzee (Chapter Seven - Steamy Windows) is co-owned by Courant Inc. and SRF Stable, and looks to add to his nearly $1.8 million bankroll this season.
A number of pupils from the Ake Svanstedt stable also debuted impressively during Saturday's qualifying session. Two of those horses were sophomore trotting colts with Hambletonian aspirations: Third Shift and EL Ideal. The 2019 NYSS Final winner Third Shift popped the pocket before the three-quarter marker and pulled away to an open-length win in 1:55. A three-time winner as a rookie, Third Shift (Chapter Seven - Overnight Command) is co-owned by Svanstedt along with Melby Gard Inc.
EL Ideal made every call a winning one in his three-year-old debut, holding off Capricornus to win his qualifier by more than a length in 1:55.2. The Valley Victory and Kindergarten winner banked more than $511,000 last year for Finland's Emp Invest Oy and never finished worse than fourth (4-3-2-1) in 10 freshman outings.
Five-year-old Muscle M Up also impressed in his first outing of the year, closing strongly to win his qualifier in 1:54. A six-time winner last season, Muscle M Up (Muscle Hill - Fashion Athena) captured a leg of the Graduate in 2019 for trainer Svanstedt and owner Knutsson Trotting Inc.
Matching Gimpanzee as the fastest trotter of the Saturday session was Southwind Chrome. With Scott Zeron at the controls, Southwind Chrome made every call a winning one en route to victory over a talented group of older trotters that included the likes of Crystal Fashion, Eurobond, Obrigado and Muscle Diamond. Owned by trainer Jeff Cullipher along with Pollack Racing, Southwind Chrome (Chapter Seven - Counter Pointe) Southwind Chrome won multiple open and preferred events in 2019 and took a mark of 1:50.1 at The Red Mile.
On the pacing side, much of the focus was on U.S. divisional winner Bettors Wish in the 16th qualifier but speedster Hurrikane Emperor was sharp as tack with a sizzling 1:49.4 effort for driver Mark MacDonald and trainer John McDermott. The son of Hurrikane Kingcole - Hurrikane Schmumma was more than five lengths the best over fellow four-year-old Aflame Hanover (Corey Callahan) with fast-closing 2019 Little Brown Jug winner Southwind Ozzi (Brian Sears) and Bettors Wish (Dexter Dunn) noses apart another two lengths back.
An 11-time winner from 19 lifetime starts, Hurrikane Emperor is owned by Jonathan Klee Racing, Kuhen Racing LLC and William Garofalo.
For the full results from the Saturday session of qualifiers at The Meadowlands, click the following link: Saturday Results (Qualifiers) - The Meadowlands.