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The 2021 Hambletonian: A Glimpse Of The Future?

Published: August 4, 2021 11:31 am ET

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Both Hambletonian fields are high in quality this year, but from a breeding and pedigree perspective they are very dissimilar. Although nothing significant in itself can be deduced from two fields of 10 trotters, it is interesting to compare and contrast the two fields and ponder the question: Is the breeding of trotters in North America going to continue along the lines of what we see in the Hambletonian Oaks – or will North American breeders be more inspired by what we see in the Hambletonian final?

From a pedigree perspective, the Hambletonian Oaks field is, more or less, as one could have guessed a year ago. Chapter Seven has three finalists (Contested Hanover, Darlene Hanover and Iteration), while seven other stallions (Bar Hopping, Cantab Hall, Donato Hanover, Father Patrick, Muscle Hill, Southwind Frank, Trixton) have one finalist each. One would normally expect Muscle Hill to produce more than one finalist, but three of his sons are also on that list. Muscle Hill is also the broodmare sire of You Ato Dream, and is thus represented in many ways. Even though SJs Photo and Majestic Son are on the list of broodmare sires, the pedigrees of the Hambletonian Oaks finalists are, to simplify slightly, quite typically North American; a mix of Valley Victory and Garland Lobell with the occasional appearance by American Winner, Kadabra, Balanced Image, SJs Photo, Pine Chip and a few others

The field of 10 in the Hambletonian, however, is quite historic from a pedigree perspective. Most of the finalists have a pedigree that can be classified as “typically North American,” but certainly not all. For the first time, you have a French sire, a French broodmare, and pacing blood represented at the same time.

By themselves, none of those elements are new.

French sires have been represented before. If we ignore Market Share, which is “only” one-quarter French, International Moni paved the way for French sires by winning his elimination four years ago. Last year, Ready For Moni duplicated that feat, and then he and Back Of The Neck represented their sire Ready Cash very honourably in the final, finishing second and third, respectively.

French mares have also been represented before, though only on one single occasion. In 1983, Doug Ackerman drove Brittany Bay to a ninth-place finish in the first heat won by Joie de Vie. The son of Speedy Somolli and French mare Bretagne was a nice horse, but no champion, and played no part in the outcome of the 1983 Hambletonian.

Pacing blood has also been represented before. The 1976 heat winner, Zoot Suit, was out of pacing mare Glad Rags, while 1984 finalist Sandy Bowl was out of a trotting, though pacing-bred, mare. In earlier times, it was not uncommon for quite a few horses to have some pacing element relatively close up in their pedigree, though not recently.

This year, for the first time ever, all of those elements are represented.

Love You is the sire of two horses in the eliminations. Rattle My Cage broke in the final stretch and missed out on a spot in the final. Venerate, on the other hand, put in a good race and finished third in his elimination. Love You is a fascinating stallion. Now 22, he is still one of the best stallions around. He combines the characteristics of French super stallion Coktail Jet, the legendary Italian super stallion Sharif di Iesolo and Howard Beissinger’s old star Speedy Somolli in a potent high-quality mix. Ever since his first crop born 2004, he has produced stars. Love You has produced winners of the almost every top race in Europe. Through International Moni, he was not too far away from producing a Hambletonian-winning son. Can Venerate pull it off this year for this aging French stallion? Only a decade ago, the thought seemed ridiculous. Now, however, the idea of a French stallion producing a Hambletonian winner seems a very real possibility.

In France, Love You has been surpassed by Ready Cash. The two lines combine excellently, as illustrated by Bold Eagle and Face Time Bourbon. Both are the result of Ready Cash bred to a Love You daughter. Ready Cash is also present in the pedigrees on Hambletonian day through Cuatro de Julio. The son of Trixton is out of French-born broodmare Clarabelle, a daughter of Ready Cash. Clarabelle was a nice trotter in France, though not good enough to compete with the best in the 2012 crop. After finishing her career on Jan. 5, 2017, Clarabelle was flown to the U.S. and bred to Trixton. The resulting foal, Cuatro de Julio, is an exciting outsider for this year’s Hambletonian trophy. While longshot Brittany Bay’s possibility of winning the 1983 Hambletonian surely was seen as an impossible proposition, the fast Cuatro de Julio has shown that he is a horse to be respected.

There could so easily have been another Ready Cash representative, but Dancinginthedark M broke in the last turn in his elimination and thus missed out a spot in the final. Dancinginthedark M is a son of Readly Express, the blue-blooded Swedish-born winner of the 2018 Prix d’Amerique. Readly Express’ maternal pedigree goes back to Matina Hanover, dam of Mack Lobell, and features European elite stallions Viking Kronos and Sugarcane Hanover. Had Dancinginthedark M qualified to the final, he would have been a candidate to become the third winner in only four years to have a pedigree completely void of Valley Victory (Forbidden Trade and Perfect Spirit are the other two).

As mentioned above, in earlier times it was not uncommon for trotters to have some pacing element relatively close up in their pedigree. One curious example is the legendary Greyhound, whose both paternal and maternal grandmother were pacers (and oddly enough, both with a p2:04 ¼ record).

In the last 50 years, few North American breeders have been willing to experiment by crossing the two gaits. Norman Woolworth had no qualms about experimenting, and the 1976 heat winner Zoot Suit was one such trotter. In recent years, Richard Hans in Maryland has bred numerous mares to his pacing stallion Cams Rocket. The best one to emerge from these experiments, the world champion Googoo Gaagaa, was a spectacular trotter when he was sound. The now 12-year-old Googoo Gaagaa was exported to Sweden two years ago, but not before producing Captain Corey. The three-year-old colt won his elimination heat in impressive fashion, and will be one of the favourites in the final. He could be the first Hambletonian winner to trace his paternal pedigree to Meadow Skipper.

Though North American breeders are skeptical, European breeders are not scared of mixing pacers and trotters. In Europe, Zoot Suit was tremendously popular, and had close to 1,500 foals. In Sweden, Googoo Gaagaa’s book is full and closed, while Hayden Hanover – a pure-bred pacing son of Somebeachsomewhere – has been a relatively popular stallion in his first year at stud. Several breeders have also imported pacing mares and bred them to trotting stallions. This year’s winner of the Elitlopp, Don Fanucci Zet, is a son of Hard Livin and pacing mare Kissed By The West – a daughter of Western Terror out of a Jennas Beach Boy mare.

Many of the best European trotters are Franco-American pedigree crosses, and many European breeders focus on finding optimal such crosses. For many years, it made absolutely no sense for North American breeders to even considering mixing French and North American bloodlines, since the North American trotters had a lot more speed than their French counterparts. Today’s French trotter, however, is nothing like the big, bulky and considerably slower French trotter so typical in earlier times.

A few breeders have dared to think outside the box in the last decade or two, and used European stallions like Revenue S, Love You and Ready Cash – or even Infinitif, Daguet Rapide or Kaisy Dream. As the results with Revenue S clearly show, when you use outcross stallions, things are a bit more hit and miss. But, when it’s a hit, it can pay off spectacularly. To illustrate: Ready Cash had six North American foals born 2017 – and two made it to the 2020 Hambletonian, where both finished in the top three. What are the odds?

In short, the 10 starters in the Hambletonian Oaks, where the bloodlines are dominated by Valley Victory and Garland Lobell, with a few other bloodlines making cameo appearances here and there, can easily be seen to represent the status quo. The 10 starters in the Hambletonian are much of the same, but include examples of pacing bloodlines and French bloodlines on both the paternal and maternal sides. The interesting question from a pedigree perspective is if this is a sign of things to come in North American breeding, or if this is an anomaly?

In Europe, these diverse kinds of pedigrees are much more common, but will North American breeders follow suit, or will they stick to the same old formula?

(Hambletonian Society)

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