Age Is Just A Number

Published: October 24, 2019 05:41 pm EDT

In August there were five active Hambletonian winners in training and racing throughout North America and in Europe, probably the first time that has occurred in the 94-year history of the race. It’s an astounding number when you consider the factors involved in just reaching the Hambletonian.

As the stage turns to Saturday’s Breeders Crown finals at Woodbine Mohawk Park, three of those horses have been entered, along with a host of past Dan Patch winners and returning Breeders Crown champions.

The Standardbreds may be going much faster than they once did, but the idea that they have become less durable over time is just not the case. In fact, longevity comes with the breed, and the fact that our horses not only race for many years but they race at a high level is a testament to their resilience.

Trainer Mike Keeling who along with his wife Paula Wellwood have campaigned 2016 Hambletonian winner and Triple Crown champion Marion Marauder speaks with nothing but adulation about the son of Muscle Hill.

“He knows how to take care of himself,” said Keeling giving part of the reason Marion Marauder, now a six-year-old, is still at the top of his game.

“He’s the type of horse that could be going along at (a) 35-second clip and then shift gears and be going 27. His gait doesn’t change.”

While there have been stops and starts along the way after a spectacular three-year-old campaign, Keeling thinks the one constant that has kept Marion Marauder at this level is soundness.

“For a horse to race at this level they’ve got to be sound,” Keeling said. “I think with him it all starts with his gait. He’s easy on himself.”

Marion Marauder was not at his sharpest earlier in the campaign, but after a bout with sickness following the Maple Leaf Trot, Keeling believes he’s reached peak form.
“He’s the kind of horse that you can tell by his demeanour if he’s going to have a good race,” Keeling said about an hour before the $1 million International Trot.

“He felt really good out there warming up today.” Keeling was right on the money as Marion Marauder was a solid closing third in the one and a quarter-mile contest.
Marion Marauder’s longevity also may have something to do with racing style. Unlike so many of today’s premier performers, Marion Marauder is at his best when raced off the lead and not asked to make multiple moves. It’s something that Keeling is acutely aware of.

“He just can’t go those 27 quarters back to back,” said Keeling. “We’ve been thinking about racing him in Europe for a while and we may end up doing it next year. The style of racing may suit him better than in North America.”

Marion Marauder went up against Atlanta in the International and will again be racing against last year’s Hambletonian winner in the Breeders Crown Trot. As a four-year-old, Atlanta has managed to exhibit the brilliance she displayed as a sophomore, once again defeating male competition on her way to a fabulous campaign. Though blessed with flashy speed, it is no accident that driver Yannick Gingras has often said that Atlanta is a much better horse when coming from behind. Perhaps that’s the long-term strategy that could keep Atlanta at the top of this division for a long time.

Just recently, the 2015 Hambletonian winner Pinkman was retired after a splendid career, following a successful sophomore season that ended in divisional honours. Though the son of Explosive Matter would only win three races in the years that followed, he was always raced at the highest level and was generally competitive no matter the circumstances.
Perfect Spirit, the 2017 Hambo winner, is currently campaigning in Europe two years after his greatest victory.

The durability of the breed is not top-weighted just to trotters, as shown most admirably by the defending Horse of the Year McWicked. His trainer, Casie Coleman, is a staunch defender against ‘age’ discrimination and rejects those who even attempt to suggest the eight-year-old has lost a step.

“The mile he went in the mile and an eighth distance race at the Meadowlands against Lather Up was the fastest he’s ever paced,” said Coleman, in reference to the Sam McKee at the Meadowlands on Hambletonian Day where McWicked finished third in a 1:59.2 clocking for the added distance.

“He’s just an extremely smart horse,” Coleman said of McWicked. “You go out there and jog him and he knows when it’s the last lap. He’s a bit lazy, but you don’t want to be easy on him.”

Coleman says that McWicked is, of course, well taken care of, with monthly trips to the vet to keep him healthy. She also suggests McWicked benefits from regular sea salt spa treatments.

“He has no major lameness issues,” Coleman said.

McWicked, in some ways like Marion Marauder, has survived this long by predominantly going against the grain. He’s able to race on the front, but that’s not where he generally races. While winning the Dan Rooney at Yonkers Raceway for the second straight year, McWicked came first up without cover and was put to a decided disadvantage of pace and position by the leader, Jimmy Freight. While appearing to struggle to keep up with the leader heading down the backstretch, McWicked did what he’s done so many times before: found another gear. Brian Sears called on the son of McArdle on the final turn and McWicked took over as if he knew it was time to go. McWicked’s intelligence that Coleman has referred to appears to kick in when the wire nears.

If a replay needs to be shown to illustrate the definition of class in a Standardbred, then rerun the footage from the $440,000 Jim Ewart Memorial at Scioto Downs. That seven of the nine horses finished within a length and a half of the winner can explain how competitive the race was. In reviewing the race, it’s impossible not to notice just how McWicked was having trouble keeping up with cover as the field rolled to the three quarters pole in a remarkably quick 1:20. At that point, the casual viewer may have concluded that it wasn’t going to be McWicked’s night. In the final quarter mile, McWicked not only picked himself up off the canvas, but he managed to squeeze between every horse and put his nose in front of an extremely crowded win photo.
You don’t reach $5 million in career earnings without a desire to win, no matter the journey.

The Breeders Crown brings out the best of the breed and the fact that nine of last year’s Dan Patch year-end award winners will be in the line up this Saturday night is astounding. Perhaps even more incredible is that nearly a year after some great performances, many of the same horses arrive at Woodbine Mohawk Park in peak form.
Dorsoduro Hanover, a four-year-old that captured the Dan Patch for three-year-old male pacers in 2018, enters Saturday Breeders Crown Open event after his best effort of the year, a 1:49.4 first-over victory at Woodbine Mohawk Park last week. With nearly $1.5 million in career earnings, he’s had difficulty making the transition from sophomore to Open class, but appears ready now.

Dan Patch winner Shartin N has obviously gotten better with age and is deservedly the odds-on choice to capture her division title, as well as a strong contender for Horse of the Year. Her consistency and will to win are a rare combination, but durability has been a major attribute.

The four-year-olds Atlanta and Six Pack will meet in the Open Trot, with Six Pack entering the contest off a sparkling 1:49.2 win at the Red Mile. He’s the only trotter with sub-1:50 efforts as a three and four-year-old.

Gimpanzee went undefeated as a Dan Patch and Breeders Crown champion in 2018, and, though somewhat overshadowed by his stablemate Greenshoe, has managed an impressive streak of victories this year, including the Yonkers Trot. Gimpanzee won’t be favoured in Saturday’s Crown finale for three-year-old male trotters, but anyone that watched his elimination effort last Saturday would expect him to be in the hunt once again.

Durability defines many of our top horses, and with many of the two-year-olds that turned three comes maturity. Warrawee Ubeaut has made a name for herself and her sire, Sweet Lou, over the last two months and will be looking for back-to-back Crowns on Saturday. Whether Nancy Johansson’s pair of 2018 Dan Patch winners Captain Crunch and Kissin In The Sand win Crowns this weekend or not, the fact that they have come back and been able to tough out a gruelling campaign is befitting champions whether crowned or un-crowned.

Just the numbers alone that we see in the Breeders Crown this week tell the story. It’s a powerful tale of horses that were meant to race and those surrounding them doing everything possible to see them excel. What we have witnessed is truly incredible and can only happen on a racetrack. The desire to race and win does not only come in human form. It is there for all to see on the hearts of our champion Standardbreds.

Breeders Crown finals for two-year-olds will be contested on Friday at Mohawk. The finals for three-year-olds and older horses will be showcased on Saturday. Racing will begin at 7 p.m. (EDT) on both nights. The Libfeld-Katz Breeding Partnership is the presenting sponsor of this year’s Breeders Crown.

Program Pages (courtesy of TrackIT)

Program Pages (courtesy of TrackIT)

(Breeders Crown)

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