If it’s too late to catch a flight to New Jersey, jump in your car and point
it toward East Rutherford. Or hop a bus. Or hitchhike.
If you absolutely can’t get to the Meadowlands on Saturday,
have your TV set primed to CBS at 2 p.m. EDT. You don’t want to miss the race of the year.
This year’s Hambletonian has everything that an epic contest should have:
Great stars---equine and human----playing their roles on the sport’s greatest stage. You have riches and untold glory
to be claimed by the winner. You have drama, intrigue, mystery, and---just maybe---a surprise ending.
I cannot remember when a Hambletonian has excited me as much as this one does.
You can easily make a case for half of the ten finalists winning. And lest we get too smug about overlooking the others, just
think back to Saturday night’s Breeders Crowns. The favorites in the four Breeders Crowns for older horses finished
seventh, fifth, ninth, and fourth. Or just think back to last year’s Hambo when longshot Amigo Hall came up the inside
I’m writing this before the post position draw, and surely that will greatly
influence the way the race unfolds. Here are some of my thoughts on the race, with the five top horses listed first. Note,
however, that I have taken the easy way out and listed them alphabetically. I’ll make my foolish picks after the posts
are drawn, but here are some of my thoughts on the Hambo finalists:
CANTAB HALL: Okay, he can be beaten. We know that. Get over it. Even the mighty
Niatross was beaten. After a dozen straight wins, race number 13 was unlucky for Cantab Hall. Race number 14, the Hambletonian
elim, was unlucky for him, too, because he drew post 10. I thought he could still win from out there, but I didn’t know
he was going to get shoved out practically to the Jersey Turnpike as they went into the first turn. After Cantab had stopped
in the Dancer, I suspect Mike Lachance wanted to brave him up a bit and race him off the pace. Post 10 and the action on the
first turn forced Lachance to race from behind, but Cantab was full of trot at the wire and closing fast. Those who have written
him off may regret that.
CASH HALL: I’d sure like to look under his hood because I suspect he has
an awful big engine down there. I don’t think we’ve seen him full extended yet. But the big guy isn’t the
handiest horse in the world and he seems to act green and uncertain at times. Campbell knows the horse by now and I know he
will ask the colt for everything he has in the Hambletonian. If the colt can keep his mind on business and if little ailments
aren’t causing him problems, I don’t think another horse in the field can go as far and as fast as Cash Hall can.
And it’s scary to think how fast he might go later in the season if he stays sound and learns what racing is all about.
EILEAN DONON: Here’s a horse to make you happy. Anyone who ever knew Joe
Taylor liked him. He was a Thoroughbred farm manager who dared tell other Thoroughbred farm managers that the best horse he
ever raised was a Standardbred (Classical Way). Joe was partners with Steve Stewart of Hunterton Farm in Kentucky for many
years and this was one of their colts. Joe died in an auto accident before Eilean Donon raced and now his family has taken
over his interest. Trainer Bobby Stewart has always been high on this colt, but his hopes fell when the colt underwent hernia
surgery a month ago. No one gave him much of a shot of making it back for the Hambletonian, but Eilean Donon didn’t
get the memo and here he is. He’s a real sentimental favorite and one more victory would complete an amazing comeback
TOM RIDGE: I fell in love with Tom Ridge when I saw him humble his Peter Haughton
foes last year with absolute disdain. He’s a colt gifted with rare ability. When it was announced he was racing in a
blind bridle in the Hambo elim, everyone knew that he would be on the choo-choo. Ron Pierce shot Tom Ridge to the front immediately,
but then was able to back him down a bit when no challengers showed up down the backstretch. Tom Ridge had drifted out badly
in the Dancer final, but trainer Jimmy Takter and his team patched his quarter crack and Tom Ridge was much straighter in
the stretch in his elimination. His post makes a big difference. If he draws inside, he could wire the field, but he’ll
have to rebuff some challenges along the way.
WINDSONG’S LEGACY: He looked flawless in the Stanley Dancer, and yet seemed
to lack punch in his Hambo elimination heat. Still, he still qualified for the final. Trainer Trond Smedshammer is a shrewd
horseman. He’s won elimination heats with Bowlin For Dollars in ’97 and last year with Power To Charm. He knows
that the world soon forgets who wins the elimination heats; they never forget who wins the Hambo final. This colt has had
success letting others fight it out on the front end and then sweeping by them in the stretch. If there is a torrid tempo
in the Hambo, look for Windsong’s Legacy to be picking up the pieces---and maybe the Hambo trophy along the way----with
his stretch kick.
I would love to see COVENTRY pull off an upset a la Amigo Hall this year. He was
sure trotting fast at the wire on Saturday. If he’s close when they turn into the lane, don’t overlook him. LANTERN’S
LAW almost got the job done at odds of 28-1 in his elimination heat with Trevor Ritchie in the bike. The gelded son of Pine
Chip is showing improvement and trotting much straighter than in previous races. He might be coming into his own at the right
JUSTICE HALL showed last year what talent he had when he took on Cantab Hall and
Tom Ridge in Lexington after just a few starts. He didn’t beat them, but he wasn’t disgraced and he’s showing
that talent again this year. Watch him. The entry of AMERICAN MIKE and CASTLE OF FORTUNE, owned by Bob Key and trained by
Charlie Norris, earned the last tickets to the final in their elims, so they are sure to be outsiders. It’s a real credit
to both owner and trainer to get a pair of homebred colts to the Hambletonian final. AMERICAN MIKE raced 17 times last year
as a 2-year-old and he’s still going strong.
What makes this Hambletonian so intriguing is not just the wide open nature of
the field, but the fact that the leading contenders all seem a notch or two above Hambletonian horses of recent years. There
is so much depth that no one colt has broken out of the pack and shown that he can dominate. The Hambletonian may be the moment
when that happens.
The Hambletonian on Saturday: Don’t miss it!