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A Look At Top Open Crown Contenders

Published: September 22, 2010 8:04 pm ET

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All records are made to be broken. There maybe no record more at risk than the one for olders pacers on a five-eighths mile track. Given the overwhelming talent pool heading into the October 9 $500,000 Breeders Crown Open event at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, it’s certainly conceivable it will take a world mark to win the race.

The likelihood for elimination races seems genuine with nearly half of the 40 eligibles currently racing at peak level. The presence of red-hot defending Crown champion Won The West would normally be enough to scare off the competition, but that shouldn’t be the case with so many sub-1:50 performers in this year’s class.

Despite a second place finish in Monday’s Quillen final at Harrington, Won The West appears the clear horse to beat when the big boys arrive at Pocono Downs. The six-year-old Pennsylvania-sired son of Western Hanover came from well off the pace to capture the $748,800 Canadian Pacing Derby at Mohawk a few weeks back. Trainer Ron Burke’s charge is well over the $3 million mark in lifetime earnings and appears to be at career peak. What makes Won The West so special in these ranks is his battle-tested approach to the races. Whether he needs to be near the lead or off the pace Won The West is always fighting until the end. Such was the case in the Quillen where he may have gone the best trip an aged pacer has ever gone on a four turn oval. Parked every step of the way, Won The West actually took the lead into the stretch, and proved a courageous second to Crown eligible and stablemate Foiled Again in a record-setting 1:50.1 mile. To think he paced in 1:50.2 given the added distance is mind-boggling.

Although he traditionally tends to race from off the pace, Won The West should be quite comfortable over Pocono’s five-eighths track. Owned by Strollin Stable, William Robinson and James Koehler, Won The West is the only older pacer in the field to go over the $1 million mark in 2010.

It will be a homecoming of sorts when Shark Gesture returns to the Wilkes Barre-five-eighths oval. The seven-year-old by Cams Card Shark began his pari-mutuel career in an overnight in August 2005 with a third place finish at the Downs. Five years and some $2.8 million in earnings later for owners Norman and Gerald Smiley and the TLP Stables, Shark Gesture will be looking for his second Crown title. The Larry and Ray Remmen-trained stallion has nearly matched his incredible 29-start campaign of a year ago with just 11 starts to date this year. First or second in 10 of 11 starts in 2010, Shark Gesture’s only blemish was a uncharacteristic break in stride at headstretch of the Canadian Pacing Derby. The track at Mohawk that night was changing from race to race and it’s conceivable the war horse just didn’t handle one particular spot on the surface.

Driver George Brennan has been along for a great ride during Shark Gesture’s storied career. Though losing in the Crown a year ago, Shark Gesture did capture major victories in the William Haughton and Canadian Pacing Derby in 2009. This year he came back with an authoritative performance to win his second Haughton in 1:48.2.

Shark Gesture hasn’t raced very often over five-eighths mile tracks but he did capture an elimination to the Ben Franklin at Chester in 1:49.1 and then was parked from the start in the $500,000 final securing the lead in early stretch only to be outkicked late by a well-rated Vintage Master. Shark Gesture has captured the Dan Patch (Hoosier Park), Bettors Delight (Tioga Downs) and Graduate final (Meadowlands) this year.

While Won The West and Shark Gesture have the age and experience, perhaps no performance this year was as impressive for quick speed than Hypnotic Blue Chip’s display in the U.S. Pacing championship on Hambletonian Day. With Jody Jamieson in the bike, the son of Art Major literally cut a hole in the wind with a breathtaking speed move. Hypnotic Blue Chip quickly circled heavy favourite Shark Gesture at headstretch and paced home with a :25.4 final quarter finishing his mile in 1:47.2, the fastest mile of 2010.

It’s always a gamble when you pay $325,000 for a racehorse at a mixed sale. Fran Azur took that risk back in January at the Meadowlands sale and then put the four-year-old in the hands of trainer Kevin McDermott. Early in the season there was certainly some question whether Hypnotic Blue Chip would be able to break into the top echelon. It wasn’t until the Battle of Lake Erie at Northfield Park that the stallion caught everyone’s attention. Facing a solid field that included Won The West, Hypnotic Blue Chip exhibited that extreme speed, blasting to the lead on the backstretch and drawing clear to win by five lengths in an astonishing 1:49.4 mile. A year earlier the colt exhibited much difficulty getting around a half-mile oval, let alone winning.

A Post 8 draw in the Franklin final gave the stone-closing horse little chance at Chester. Driver Jamieson conceded that he may not have given “Hypnotic” the best drive in a prep leading up to the U.S. Championship but he more than made up for it in the final.

Hypnotic Blue Chip has shown that he belongs with second place finishes in the year’s richest events (Haughton and Canadian Pacing Derby) and with $728,685 in earnings this year has rewarded both his owners and trainers judgment last January. The horse will enter the Crown off a disappointment in the Quillen, but again, post and racing luck took its toll.

Perhaps there is no pacer in the world who has benefited as much from racing over the half-mile oval as Foiled Again has over the last two seasons. Trainer Ron Burke’s charge has won back-to-back George Morton Levy finals at Yonkers and most recently took down the top prize in the $354,000 Bobby Quillen at Harrington in a 1:50.1 performance.

Owned by Burke Racing Stable LLC, Weaver-Bruscemi LLC and JJK Stables LLC, the five-year-old has earned about $1.5 million since being purchased in mid-2008 for his current connections. With Foiled Again’s quick early foot, regular pilot Yannick Gingras has been able to work out favourable trips in nearly every start the son of Dragon Again has had to date. Foiled Again has been unable to gain a major victory on the bigger ovals. That of course could change with some racing luck on October 9.

There are plenty of outsiders who could make noise in the Crown Pace. Bettor Sweet, fourth in last year’s Crown at the Meadowlands, finished a strong third in the Canadian Pacing Derby and has shown positive signs including a sub-1:50 mile performance last week at Chester. Blueridge Western, a stablemate of Hypnotic Blue Chip, finished fourth after cutting a solid pace in the Quillen. Lisagain finished fourth in the Canadian Pacing Derby then regained winning form last week at Chester. Andy Miller guided the Erv Miller-trained blueblood to a 1:49.1 effort.

Bigtime Ball, perhaps the best older pacer based at Mohawk and Woodbine could make the trip as well as the extremely fast Steve Elliott-trained Schoolkids. Bigtime Ball was scratched from the 2008 Crown with sickness and is still looking for his Crown debut.

The standardbred's speed and courage will be displayed in a major way on October 9 when the Open Pacers go at it in the $500,000 Breeders Crown Open Pace at Mohegan Sun Pocono.

That you can bet on.

(Breeders Crown)

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