A Moment That Defines A Champion

Michael Russo and Voukefalas
Published: June 15, 2023 01:29 pm EDT

Win or lose, there are performances that help solidify the legacy of champions. The 2023 Pepsi North America Cup elimination effort from Voukefalas might down as that race, given that he had every right to not qualify for the million-dollar final and simply chose not to quit.

Moments like the one in that first turn at Woodbine Mohawk Park on Saturday, June 10 also provide connections with gut-wrenching emotions. Trainer Michael Russo couldn't pull his hair out, but his heart rate definitely increased when his talented pacing colt nearly took a literal nose dive onto the Campbellville, Ont. oval.

"The paddock's in the first turn so I'm on the track basically watching him and not the TV, so everything was right in front of my face," Russo told Trot Insider at the 2023 Pepsi North America Cup post draw on Tuesday, June 13. "Obviously [it was] nerve-wracking...on-off break, get on, and then literally almost went to his nose. And then settled in. 

"For some reason, once he settled, I was not concerned about him. I knew he would be fine. For whatever reason, that feeling came over me."

And Russo was right. Once driver Jordan Stratton was able to collect the colt and find a spot along the pylons, Voukefalas valiantly finished second by a head to Christchurch in the first N.A. Cup elim with his mile timed in 1:48.4. 

"He raced a tremendous race, huge last half. Very few horses have the kind of speed he has...he's got incredible speed, and he proved it against top horses."

He'll have to prove it again this Saturday, June 17 in the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup final. Voukefalas will leave from post six, and he's listed as the 5-1 fourth choice on the morning line with lower odds than the horse that beat him in his elimination. Clearly that recovery and performance didn't go unheralded. As of press time, he's the second choice in the current Standardbred Canada web poll on who fans think will win the 2023 N.A. Cup.

The obvious question for Russo on Tuesday pertained to the colt's equipment, and whether or not there would be any changes to his gear between the elimination and final. 

"[Jordan] said 'put his shadow roll back on him.' He raced with it last year, I didn't train him down with it this year. He's used to everything back home and knows where everything is on the track. He'll look at stuff but I just figured he was pretty much over it."

The shadow roll will join knee boots and a slight hopple adjustment for Voukefalas heading into Saturday as the son of Lazarus-Inittowinafortune looks to provide trainer Russo and owner/breeder Michael Pagonas of Saddle River, New Jersey with their first North America Cup title in their first appearance. The veteran trainer knows he cannot rely on beginner's luck in a race of this stature but enters Saturday's test with the utmost confidence in his stable star despite readily admitting this group has nine legitimate threats to defeat him.

"There's literally 10 horses that can win. You could not knock any horse in this race...I don't study the races as much as I did when I was younger, but I don't remember many races when there was this stacked of a field. All of these horses are good horses."

Few would argue. That said, there are a multitude of factors that go into being connected to one of those 10 good horses fortunate enough to race in Canadian harness racing's preeminent event. The slightest miscue can and often does equal disaster. Russo's honest words and friendly demeanour clearly illustrate his recognition and appreciation for the fact that he was in attendance at the post draw, against the odds, as the trainer of a North America Cup finalist.

"To go in knowing you have no leeway, no margin for error...you have to be right on the wire with these horses to get in. And even then, you're going to be subject to a post draw. If this is my mark on the business, if I can leave this horse winning this race, that would be great for me and I will retire off of that and say 'I did what I could for this business.'

"He's proven things to me from day one...This horse has never been bad."

Find out who Russo thinks is the biggest threat to his colt on Saturday, hear about the respect he has for his fellow trainers and more in this interview from Tuesday.

To view Saturday’s harness racing entries, click one of the following links: Pepsi North America Cup Night -- Saturday Entries || North America Cup Card Program Pages (courtesy TrackIT).

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