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What A Difference A Year Makes

Published: July 29, 2021 3:29 pm ET

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After each going winless in 2020, colt Johan Palema and fillies Bella Bellini and Piper Hanover have totalled 14 victories this season and are three of the four morning line favourites in Saturday’s (July 31) Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks eliminations for three-year-old trotters.

Johan Palema, who earlier this month won the Yonkers Trot, is 5-2 on the morning line in the second of Saturday’s two $50,000 Hambletonian eliminations for the boys at The Meadowlands, while Bella Bellini is 5-2 and Piper Hanover is 3-1 in the two $35,000 Hambletonian Oaks elims for the ladies.

Last year, the trio combined to go 0-for-20 with nine top-three finishes. This season, the three are 14-for-20 with no off-the-board finishes.

For trainer Richard “Nifty” Norman, who conditions Bella Bellini, the change in his filly has been remarkable. Bella Bellini has won six of nine races this year and finished second in all three defeats.

“It’s the biggest shock to me,” Norman said. “I’ve never had a horse improve so much from (age) two to three. She’s a good horse, but you couldn’t tell that last year. Normally, you can tell something. She had speed, but that was it. She just struggled the whole time. But she matured, is sound, and is good now.”

Bella Bellini is owned by David McDuffee, who also bred the filly. She is by Bar Hopping out of Bella Dolce. Last year, Bella Bellini had a second-place finish in seven starts.

“If she hadn’t been a homebred, Dave probably would have sold her,” Norman said. “There was no clue she was going to turn out like she has.”

Bella Bellini heads to her Hambletonian Oaks elimination off a second-place finish behind Johan Palema in which she was timed in 1:50.4. Her final quarter mile was :26.2 as she missed by a half length despite a three-wide move around traffic on the last turn.

“She’s got a fantastic attitude and high speed,” Norman said. “She can catch them in three steps. When she makes her move, it’s a pretty undeniable move. She can go to from fourth to first like that.

“We’ll see (how good she can be). The next couple weeks are going to tell us. It’s easy to be confident now, but you’ve still got to get there. You’ve got to show up two weeks in a row and be really good two weeks in a row.”

The top five finishers from each of the two Hambletonian Oaks eliminations advance to the $500,000 final on Aug. 7 at The Meadowlands. Norman won back-to-back Oaks with Personal Style in 2012 and Bee A Magician in 2013. McDuffee was part of the ownership group of Bee A Magician.

Over the past 40 years, only two fillies have won the Hambletonian Oaks after going winless at age two: Jalopy in 2005 and Worldly Woman in 1992.

Piper Hanover, trained by Tony Alagna, was winless in seven races last year but hit the board four times, including in a division of the International Stallion Stakes and two legs of the Kentucky Sire Stakes. This season, she has four victories in six starts.

“She was a filly that had a lot of talent last year, but she was just immature,” Alagna said. “A lot of it was just her mental focus. She’s got that (focus) this year. We brought her back at three because we thought she would transition well from two to three. She’s progressed even more than we anticipated. She’s been great.”

Piper Hanover, by Father Patrick out of Norman’s aforementioned Oaks winner Personal Style, won a division of the W.N. Reynolds Memorial on July 10 at The Meadowlands. Last week, she finished third in a division of the Arthur Tompkins Memorial at the Big M.

“The other day she was flat,” Alagna said. “We scoped her, and she had some mucous. We treated her, cleaned her up, and she scoped back good (Wednesday), so I hope she fires right back to where she had been up until then. She had no fight in her the other day, and that’s not her at all.”

Piper Hanover was bred by Brittany Farms and Mel Hartman. She is owned by Brittany Farms, Marvin and Lynn Katz, and Al Libfeld.

Alagna also has a starter, Beltassima, in the other Oaks elimination. She is the 3-1 second choice behind Bella Bellini. She has won three of six races this year, including the New Jersey Sire Stakes championship. The Trixton-Beltane Hanover filly raced for Jan Johnson last season but was purchased in April by Crawford Farms Racing.

“One of the reasons we bought her was because she was second in the (International Stallion) race when Piper was third in Lexington,” Alagna said. “I thought, if I like Piper enough to come back at three, this filly is worth buying as well. She’s been very solid.

“She never raced anywhere but the Red Mile last year, so when she first came out of Florida (this spring), it took her a little while to transition to the limestone, but after that she’s been lights out.”

As for Hambletonian contender Johan Palema, he was winless in six races last year. He is 4-for-5 this season, with the first jewel in the Trotting Triple Crown, the Yonkers Trot, among his victories. The Hambletonian is the second jewel followed by October’s Kentucky Futurity.

“Last year, he was pulling all the time,” trainer Ake Svanstedt said. “When the gate opened, you couldn’t do anything else than leave fast with him. Now, he’s nice. We have trained him behind horses and raced him from behind. We couldn’t do that before because he was pulling so hard, he was so grabby. He’s a totally different horse this year.”

Johan Palema, owned by Bender Sweden Inc., is by Bar Hopping out of Sobti Hanover, who is a half-sister to near-millionaire Spellbound Hanover, the dam of 2016 Trotting Triple Crown winner Marion Marauder.

The colt is one of four Svanstedt horses in the Hambletonian elims. Captain Corey (5-1) is in the same elimination as Johan Palema while Ambassador Hanover (9-2) and Delayed Hanover (5-1) are in the other.

Dancinginthedark M, trained by Marcus Melander, is the remaining Hambletonian elimination favourite, at 2-1. The top five finishers from each elim advance to the $1 million final on Aug. 7 at The Meadowlands.

The last Hambletonian winner who was winless at two was Tagliabue in 1995. He qualified once as a two-year-old, but never started a race.

Racing begins at 6:20 p.m. Saturday at The Meadowlands.


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