Fourteen years ago, Lucas Wallin watched in wonderment at The Meadowlands as Ray Schnittker’s Deweycheatumnhowe won the Hambletonian.
“That was the first Hambo I saw here,” the Swede said. “After that, I said that one day I would move here and try to be in it. So, it’s pretty cool.”
Cool because at age 29, “one day” has arrived for the trainer, whose colt Rebuff is the 9-5 morning line favourite in Saturday’s $1 million Hambletonian, the sport’s premier event for three-year-old trotters, at The Big M. Tim Tetrick drove Rebuff to victory in his Hambletonian elimination last week by 1-1/4 lengths over Fast As The Wind in 1:52.2.
“I’m very happy with him,” Wallin said. “He came out of the race good, too. As we’ve been through all these races, we have been very confident, and it feels like he just gets better and better. I think he showed that [in his elim] as well. I cannot be happier with him than I am right now. That’s a great feeling this week.”
Rebuff is owned by Kjell Magne Andersen, Pieter Delis and Wallin. He won last year’s Breeders Crown for two-year-old male trotters, has seven victories in 14 lifetime starts and $573,670 in purses. He brings a six-race win streak, dating back to last October, into Saturday’s final. Tetrick won the 2012 Hambletonian with Market Share.
Wallin has attachments to several folks at this year’s race, either directly or through the sands of time.
He and wife Mikaela are expecting their first child in November and Mikaela takes care of Joviality S, a filly who is the race’s second choice behind Rebuff, for her brother Marcus Melander. Joviality S is one of three Melander horses in the final. Ironically, Schnittker returns to the Hambletonian final (with Dan Patch Award-winner King Of The North) for just the second time since 2008, when a 15-year-old Lucas watched him win it all and started fantasizing about the first Saturday of August in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
This is not Wallin’s first participating role in the Hambletonian, as last year he drove Cuatro De Julio to a seventh-place finish. But it is the first horse he has trained that has made it to the final of the classic race.
“It means everything,” Wallin said. “It’s the first horse we tried to qualify for the Hambo, so of course it was good to make it to the final. Whatever happens, happens. We just have to work even harder if we don’t work it out on Saturday. But it’s a dream come true.”
Wallin began driving ponies at age eight in Sweden and soon began helping at his uncle Joakim Wallin’s barn. After moving to America, he worked at Ake Svanstedt’s stable from 2014 to 2016. Svanstedt, who won the Hambletonian last year with Captain Corey and in 2017 with Perfect Spirit, has filly Jiggy Jog S in this year’s final. She won the other elimination last week and is 4-1.
“I had a really good time [working for Svanstedt],” Wallan said. “I had a lot of responsibility and he let me drive a lot of horses. Working beside Ake is a huge thing. If you’re interested and willing to learn, he’s the right guy to be beside. You couldn’t have a better trainer to work for.”
But Wallin couldn’t resist working for himself. He opened his own stable at age 23 and since then has won 148 races and $3.5 million. He set a career high for purses last year with $1.06 million.
“I wasn’t too sure when I was going to be a trainer,” Lucas said. “I just had a feeling I wanted to be on my own and try it out. I started with one horse that I bought at the mixed sale at The Meadowlands. Then I got one more and one more. Then I had four horses and we did OK. Each year, we just got better and better.”
Wallin is quick to acknowledge that much of his success comes from being entrusted with talented animals.
“Without good horses, you are nothing,” he said. “I have really good owners. That’s the whole thing. You can work your [butt] off, but if you don’t get the chance with good horses, you will not do good. I’m very thankful. It’s probably tough to let a young guy from Sweden start on his own in another country. I’m very thankful for the guys that started with me.”
After a six-year climb, Wallin is just enjoying the atmosphere of Hambo week.
“It’s nice,” he said. “A lot of people ask if I’m nervous and if there is pressure. On Saturday, of course I’ll be more nervous, but right now it’s just a normal week. I feel very confident in the horse, and [Tim Tetrick] and myself and the whole team around me. We have done whatever we can do, and he is going into the race in top shape. So, we’re going to try to have some fun.
“Tim has done a tremendous job with him. We usually don’t talk about tactics; I leave it up to him and then we can chit-chat a little bit. Before the Stanley Dancer, we said that if we had a chance, we would like to try him on the lead, so we tried that before the Hambo elimination. Otherwise, he does whatever he wants.”
It is only the fourth start of the year for Rebuff and while some observers have been surprised by the small sample size, Wallin said it’s all according to plan.
“I heard a lot of questions about what we did with him,” he said. “He raced plenty of times as a two-year-old, and he’s a nice-sized horse and pretty light and good gaited. We figured he probably didn’t need so many starts to get him in shape. So far, the plan has been working out pretty perfect.
“It’s different from horse to horse. But we’ve been very confident about it. It’s one thing if we raced only three or four times last year, but he raced 11 times. We’ve been very confident since day one and it just gets higher and higher. We set up training for him to get better and better for each race.”
Although he is a rookie trainer when it comes to the Hambletonian, Wallin is bringing a horse to the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks final for the fourth time with Manon, who is 8-1. He is one of five trainers this year with at least one horse in both the Hambletonian and Oaks.
Racing begins at noon (EDT) Saturday for the stakes-filled Hambletonian Day card. Watch from 12:30-5 p.m. on Fox Sports 2 (FS2) with coverage including the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks at 4:48 p.m. Watch from 6-7 p.m. on Fox Sports 1 (FS1) with coverage including the $1 million Hambletonian at 6:35 p.m. For free TrackMaster programs of every Meadowlands card, visit the track’s website.
Wendy Ross, the USTA’s social media coordinator, caught up with Wallin this week. Watch their conversation below.