McNairs Set For Hambletonian Debut

Osceola winning at Woodbine Mohawk Park
Published: August 4, 2023 04:05 pm EDT

In the words of trainer and co-owner Gregg McNair, Osceola has “run over a lot of money in his career,” by going off stride in seven of his 16 lifetime starts. When the colt has stayed committed though, he is a consistent in-the-money performer. In his nine races without making a break, Osceola has hit the board eight times, winning five.

“He’s a beautiful-looking horse,” McNair said. “I’ve trained a lot of horses in my life, and he is a fast horse. He’s a nice horse. I’ve never had one that could really trot like him.

“Last year, I put trotting hopples on him, but they really didn’t seem to help him that much. So, we’ve left them off. He’s still made mistakes, but he’s a far better trotter if we can keep them off. He will give you a little warning (when he is going to make a break) but you can’t talk him out of it. He’s tough that way.”

Osceola and Gregg McNair

Osceola, a son of Muscle Mass-Armbro Exquisite, will start from post three in the 2023 Hambletonian final on Saturday (August 5) at the Meadowlands. He is 12-1 on the morning line and will start with McNair’s son, Doug, in the sulky.

In his elimination last week, Osceola rallied from sixth in the stretch to finish third, just three-quarters of a length behind winner Point Of Perfect.

“He raced good,” McNair said. “I thought he would like this track (at The Meadowlands). He’s only raced at one track (Woodbine Mohawk Park) and it’s a lot different here. They don’t head into the first turn quite as much as they do at home, and he got around it.”

The McNairs are making their first appearances in the Hambletonian. Gregg is a five-time winner of the Johnston Cup as top trainer in the Ontario Sires Stakes, with his most recent title coming in 2021. Doug was Canada’s Driver of the Year in 2017. He set a career high for purses ($7.04 million) in 2022, when his top victory came with Grace Hill in the Breeders Crown Mare Pace.

Gregg owns Osceola with breeder Willow Oak Ranch and Paul Hawman. Osceola has made $298,580 in his career, with his most lucrative score coming in May when he won the SBOA Stakes for Ontario-sired three-year-olds.

Doug McNair is looking forward to driving Osceola on Saturday in the Hambo.

“It will be fun, whether he finishes first or last,” Doug said. “He’s got high speed. He can fly. And he’s got a big set of lungs; it takes him a long time to get tired usually. If he trots, he’s going to get a big chunk of it in the final, I think.”

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Scott Zeron is only 34, but he already has two wins in the $1 million Hambletonian Stakes to his credit. On Saturday at the Meadowlands Racetrack, he will try to add a third.

Zeron, who won the Hambletonian in 2016 with Marion Marauder and 2018 with the filly Atlanta, would join elite company with a third victory in harness racing’s premier event for three-year-old trotters. Ten drivers have won at least three Hambletonians in its 97-year history. All 10 are in the Hall of Fame.

On Saturday, Zeron will drive Tactical Approach in the Hambletonian for trainer Nancy Takter. The colt will start from post 10 and is 15-1 on the morning line. The son of Tactical Landing-Sarcy finished third in his elimination last week behind Celebrity Bambino and French Wine. He raced on the outside for the mile and came home in :27, equaling the fastest last quarter of any Hambletonian finalist.

“I definitely would not have selected the 10 hole, but I have a good horse and we’re in it,” Zeron said. “If he is midpack turning for home, I think I have as good a chance as anybody in there. I really like my horse, he’s very competitive, it’s just going to be a matter of where I’m situated turning for home. Hopefully, it’s in a competitive spot.”

Tactical Approach, who is a half-brother to Grand Circuit winner Double Deceiver out of a family that also includes 2003 Hambletonian Oaks champ Southwind Allaire and, more distantly, 2022 U.S. Trotter of the Year Bella Bellini, has won five of 13 lifetime races. He has finished third in his three most recent races — the Hambo elim and divisions of the Stanley Dancer Memorial and W.N. Reynolds Memorial.

“He was a very big colt and very immature last year, so we took our time with him,” trainer Takter said about Tactical Approach, who won two of five races in 2022. “He just wasn’t strong enough for his body, really. I’m happy with him. He’s the type of horse we could probably see race at (age) four, too.

“I thought he raced really well (in his elimination). He never saw the rail in the entire race, so I was happy with his effort. He finished really well.”

Zeron’s two previous Hambletonian victories both were special. His win with Marion Marauder was the first step on the way to the Trotting Triple Crown for Canadian connections Mike Keeling, Devin Keeling, Paula Wellwood, and Jean Wellwood. Atlanta’s triumph two years later gave Zeron a win with his father, Rick, and made Atlanta the first filly since Continentalvictory in 1996 to beat the boys in the Hambo.

“The first one was really cool, winning for the Canadian connections,” said Zeron, a native of Canada who moved to the U.S. a decade ago. “The next one with Atlanta, I was just so confident that she was such a great horse, especially at that time in her career. Her winning was a great, great feeling. This is a generational business when you’re inside of it, and I think it would be everybody’s dream to win for their father.”

One other driver will enter Saturday with the chance to secure a third Hambletonian victory, Ake Svanstedt. Already a Hall of Famer in his native Sweden, Svanstedt drove and trained 2017 winner Perfect Spirit and 2021 champ Captain Corey. He also trains his 2023 finalist, Up Your Deo. A dozen trainers have won at least three Hambos, with five winning at least three as trainer-driver.

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Team Miller, the wife-husband team of trainer Julie Miller and driver Andy Miller, has come close to winning the Hambletonian several times in recent years. French Wine will give the Millers another chance to accomplish the feat on Saturday.

French Wine will start the Hambletonian final from post eight and is 12-1 on the morning line. The colt finished second behind Celebrity Bambino in his elimination last week. Celebrity Bambino is the 2-1 favourite heading into the final.

“He’s been racing really good,” Andy Miller said. “He’s had kind of a light schedule, we were pointing toward this, and now he’s in the final. Anything can happen. I think he’s a contender in there.”

French Wine has hit the board in 13 of 16 races, winning five and earning $505,068 for owners Andy Miller Stable, Daniel Plouffe, Jean Christophe Plouffe, and One Legend Stable. His victories last year included the Kentucky Championship Series final at Lexington’s Red Mile, where his winning time of 1:53 tied for the season’s third-fastest mile among two-year-old male trotters in North America.

This year, the colt has a win in the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes to go with two seconds and two thirds.

French Wine is a son of Bar Hopping-Creamy Mimi. Andy Miller won the 2008 Hambletonian Oaks with Creamy Mimi, driving the filly for trainer Trond Smedshammer. French Wine is a half-brother to Grand Circuit winner French Laundry. His family also includes Dan Patch Award-winner Pizza Dolce, the grandam of 2022 U.S. Trotter of the Year Bella Bellini.

“He’s a handy little guy and he always puts out a good effort,” Miller said. “He’s always around the money. I think as the year progresses, he’ll keep progressing. He’s just gotten stronger and smarter. He’s been really nice to work with and he’s got a lot of speed.

“Last year, he made over $350,000 and this year he’s made over $125,000 now. Hopefully, we just keep adding to that, and get a big one along the way.”

Miller would certainly enjoy if the “big one” happens Saturday. Team Miller had three consecutive top-three finishes in Hambletonian finals, 2016 through 2018. Mets Hall was second in 2018, Devious Man was third-placed-second in 2017 and Sutton was third, beaten only a neck, in 2016.

“We’ve come pretty close,” Miller said. “It could happen any time.”

Racing begins at noon (EDT) Saturday at The Meadowlands. The $1 million Hambletonian is Race 12, with a 4:45 p.m. (EDT) post time, and will air live on Fox Sports. For a free TrackMaster program for The Meadowlands, click here.

(USTA)

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