Favourite Bella Bellini stormed home off stalled cover to deliver a winning performance in the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks for three-year-old trotting fillies during Saturday’s Hambletonian Day card at The Meadowlands.
Driver Dexter Dunn was aboard David Mc Duffee's homebred Bar Hopping-Bella Dolce filly, who has blossomed into a Grand Circuit stakes champion after a winless freshman campaign under the care of trainer Richard 'Nifty' Norman.
After staying "out of trouble and out of the early speed" getting away sixth, Dunn followed the cover of elimination winner Lady Chaos (David Miller) down the backside before launching Bella Bellini three-wide and hauling down the leading Iteration (Brian Sears) in the stretch for a 2-1/2-length victory in 1:52.1, equalling her lifetime mark. Iteration stayed for second while Contested Hanover (Tim Tetrick) closed from the backfield for third ahead of Darlene Hanover (Todd McCarthy).
Leaving from the outside 10-hole, Iteration left out strong and tucked into fourth behind post seven starter Hot As Hill (Yannick Gingras) with insiders Darlene Hanover and Flawless Country (Ake Svandstedt) in play early. Flawless Country overtook Darlene Hanover for the lead through a :26.4 first quarter.
Iteration then advanced to command by the :56.4 half-mile mark, leaving Lady Chaos first-up with Bella Bellini poised to strike when she tired approaching three-quarters in 1:24.4.
Iteration continued to lead into the stretch, but Bella Bellini came flying home on the outside to prevail.
"She's so fast, this filly, I just didn't want to do too much with her early," said Dunn after the race. "I knew that being third-over, she's got so much speed, I was confident that she could pick them up. There was a bit of shuffling in that first quarter. I followed Lady Chaos everywhere and it worked out.
"She felt great. Coming around that last turn, I was just telling myself to be patient, don't go yet. But then near the three-quarters, Lady Chaos started to get tired so we made our move and she picked them up within a furlong and the rest was hers."
Sent postward as the 3-5 favourite after missing by just a head to Lady Chaos in the eliminations, Bella Bellini paid $3 to win.
After going winless in seven starts last year, Bella Bellini has turned into a model of consistency recording seven wins and four seconds from 11 seasonal starts to boost her lifetime earnings to $386,983.
Only two other fillies -- Worldly Woman (1992) and Jalopy (2005) -- over the past 40 years have won the Hambletonian Oaks after having gone winless at age two.
"Wow, what a special day!" said Mc Duffee, who was also co-owner of 2013 Oaks champion Bee A Magician. "You know what, we were blessed when we drew a decent starting point. You don't want to be way, way out, but the race set up good for her."
Now a three-time Oaks-winning trainer, Norman also campaigned Bee A Magician and won the race for the first time the year prior with Personal Style.
“It doesn’t get old, I’ll tell you that,” said Norman. “Hopefully, we win many more. It’s great fun. I love it. I love this race.”
The Hambletonian Oaks is part of a stakes-packed card of harness racing on Hambletonian Day. Be sure to check out the 2021 Hambletonian Day News Centre for recaps and replays of all the action.