Shock & Awe III

Pepsi North America Cup night is always a favourite, for me and thousands of others, on the annual racing calendar. Hell, I’ve been to 40 of the 41 editions of the race in-person. (Thanks Gerry, for letting your daughter get married on NA Cup day, 2004. I would have snuck out of the wedding, as I did two other times - for Jate Lobell and Gallo Blue Chip - but Kingston was too far a drive from Woodbine anyway. Ugh).

In a recent chat with Woodbine’s Bill McLinchey, we were actually trying to figure out if I’ve been to more Cups than anyone else in history, but that’s neither here nor there.

What is relevant, is that this year’s big night at Woodbine Mohawk Park failed to disappoint. The weather was perfect, the big race was contested on a track rated ‘Fast’ for the 41st straight year, and the drama was unmistakable in most of the night’s big events.

The biggest winner of the night, in my opinion, had to be trainer Tony Beaton, who captured his first North America Cup, only a short time after living through months of adversity. Our business is one of being able to stay mentally tough, and the Cape Bretoner came through with flying colours.

Speaking of Cape Bretoners, another one, Herb Holland, was second to Beaton in the $1 million classic, with his Metro Pace champion, Captains Quarters. The estimated population of Cape Breton Island is 93,341, so the fact its natives placed 1-2 in Canada’s premier harness race is a magnificent feat.

There were plenty of other storylines on the night, and we do have features here on both Tony (page 24) and Herb (page 36), but there was definitely one moment in the evening’s races that actually shocked me - and ask my son, I don’t shock easily. He’s been standing around corners in our house for years, looking for an opportunity where a well-timed ‘Boo’ might make me jump. Sorry - doesn’t usually happen.

The ‘shock’ I’m talking about however, from this past June 15th at Mohawk, came when I saw the teletimer flash up as the winner of the 7th race hit the wire. It was a feeling that I’ve had just two other times in my life. Now, make it three, and I remember them all vividly - even though I’ve literally watched tens-of-thousands of races.

The first time was a little self-serving, but it was on July 7, 1994, when my own Chris Seelster, who had a mark of 1:57.4 when I purchased him a month earlier, easily stopped the timer, under wraps, for Paul MacDonell, in 1:53.1 at Woodbine, in his second start under my care. Shock & Awe.

The second was as I stood at the fence on the tarmac at Mohawk on September 8, 2007, and watched Paul MacDonell once again. My guess is that Paul remembers this one a wee bit more (haha) because in this instance he was driving Somebeachsomewhere.

It was in Beach’s fifth career start, a week after he won the Metro in 1:49.3, so he was already known to the world as a superstar. This was in the Champlain Stakes however, and he ‘only’ stopped the timer in 1:51. But when he went by me, Paul was practically strangling him - I can still picture it. Beach’s ears were perked, and it was more than obvious that he had PLENTY left in the tank.

The 1:51 mile was a second-and-a-half slower than his Metro triumph a week prior, but his last quarter on this night was an incredible :26 seconds flat - under a death-grip! To this day I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a horse pace a :26 second final quarter with less effort. It still gives me chills. Shock & Awe II.     

The 7th race on NA Cup night, that I referred to earlier, was the $225,000 final of the Goodtimes. At odds of 2/5, Highland Thoroughbred Farm and Mark Etsell’s Highland Kismet was my most probable winner of the night - mine and that of many others no doubt. So when he won by 3 ¼ lengths, under wraps, for driver Bob McClure, it was no surprise. But it was the way that he did it.

To me, it was the same feeling I got, in that last quarter mile, while watching Beach, 17 years earlier. In the latter part of the stretch, as the duo passed me, Bob looked to be absolutely swinging on his trotter. After a three-quarter mile clocking of a modest 1:24.4, and how effortlessly ‘Kismet’ was trotting home, I truly expected a much slower mile than 1:51.3. But when I glanced at the timer and saw just that - trotting home in :26.4 with what looked like very little effort… Shock & Awe III.

In 2023 we had the privilege to witness two rookie trotters each earn over $1 million, in Karl and TCI. At press time the pair are a perfect five-for-five, combined, in 2024.

I’m not anointing only these three with a shot at the 2024 Hambletonian trophy, but I know that I’m now even more excited than usual to watch ‘America’s Greatest Trotting Race’ this August 3rd at The Meadowlands.

In the best call of the year thus far, on Cup Night at Mohawk, track announcer Kenny Middleton said it best: “North America, meet Highland Kismet… Home in :26.4. Under a death grip. With the plugs in!”

Meet Highland Kismet indeed.

Dan Fisher [email protected]

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