08/02/2012 9:38PM

Checking out Check Me Out


She has exotic eyes and Veronica Lake hair.  Her boyfriend’s called Sinatra.  She's eye-catching in the mornings, strutting in dressage horse-fashion.  And in her races?  She wins.  She dominates.  She sets world records.

She’s the champion filly Check Me Out and, this Saturday, in the Hambletonian Oaks, the magnificent 3-year-old trotter will be odds-on to add another win to her imposing resumé (20 wins in 23 starts, champion 2-year-old, Breeders’ Crown winner, world-record setter at ages 2 and 3).

Above:  Denelle with Check Me Out.

For those who are Thoroughbred-egocentric, try to think outside the box.  There are plenty of reasons to become a harness racing fan - not the least of which is that Standardbred stars are more likely to hang around for a while. 

Thoroughbreds race, on average, just over 6 times a year.  Standardbreds?  17!   Some race 100 times, or even 200, or - imagine this - 300+ times, in a career.   And Standardbreds rarely suffer serious injuries on the track - states such as Kentucky, Delaware and Illinois have no reported breakdowns in the past 3 years.

So, anyway, back to Check Me Out.  She’s rated #1 in the Hambletonian Society/Breeders' Crown poll - a rating that includes all Standardbreds who have raced in 2012 - of any age and either gender or gait.

I visited Check Me Out at her Goshen, NY base the morning of July 13, where Denelle Stratton, her groom and travel companion, told me some fun things.  The champion filly sucks on her stall guard to pass the time - not cribs, mind you, but simply sucks.  In the stall next to Check Me Out's is Sinatra Hall - nickname Frank - and Frank and Check Me Out pass the days standing nose to nose - or as close as possible - obviously enjoying the companionship.

When Check Me Out is being tacked up?  She gets antsy, her ears back as she strains in her crossties and waits to get to work.  While training, she’s eager, strong, proud. 

When she’s getting her bath after training?  Well, she doesn’t really seem to love that, either, as she can look unimpressed.  That is, until the drying towel comes out.  Then?  She loves, loves, loves being rubbed all over - under her belly, up her neck, on her face.  Nice and vigorously, thank you very much.  And when she’s placed back in her stall after her bath?  She quickly dips to her knees, down onto her side, and then rolls a time or two - before getting up to mosey over toward Frank.

She’s not only entertaining to watch in action, but she’s a beauty in repose as well.  The unmarked bay has a willowy look and an unusually expressive, long face.  Her richly toned coat carries abundant dapples in summer and she has an unusually thick, poofy mane and tail.  When Denelle stood her for photos, Check Me Out’s long foretop obscured her right eye, in TCM movie star fashion. 

She's a diva.  I was smitten.

Above:  Trainer Ray Schnittker takes Check Me Out for a jog.  On this morning, they took five spins around the historic Goshen, NY, oval.

The night after my Goshen visit, Check Me Out lured me to the Meadowlands - a track I’d only visited, many years ago, for Alysheba and Gander’s Meadowlands Cups.  Nowadays, Standardbreds are the only horses to race around the mile oval, and what a show they - and the Meadowlands - put on.

There was a fantastically enthusiastic crowd, good food, lots of entertainment (who wouldn't enjoy the Springsteen tribute band called the B Street Band, for instance?) - and world-class harness racing.  It seemed nearly every race had a marquee horse.  The tempo was upbeat and fast-paced.

Above:  A Meadowlands' race, early in the evening.  Note the towering Manhattan skyline in the background.

While the $600,000 Meadowlands Pace was the night’s marquee event - A Rocknroll Dance won for delightfully happy connections - that race wasn’t what I was waiting for.  That was the Del Miller Memorial, in which Check Me Out, driven by Tim Tetrick, went off as the 1-20 favorite.   And my new equine love with the long mane and exotic eyes performed just as I knew she would.  She powered home - trot, trot, trot, trot, trot, trot, in goosebump-raising staccato rhythm - in 1:51.3.  When the time was announced as a new world record, it brought tears to my eyes.

If you are anywhere near the Meadowlands this Saturday afternoon, go there and have a great time.  Root Check Me Out on.   And, heck, stick around to watch one of the sport's most important, and classic, races, too - the Hambletonian.

Below:  additional photographs related to Check Me Out, taken either at Goshen, NY, on July 13 or the Meadowlands the following night.  

Above:  Denelle braids Check Me Out's thick forelock even though, as she realizes, the filly races with blinkers.

Above:  Ray Schnittker, Check Me Out's trainer.  Ray often takes Check Me Out back to his farm for a few days after her races.  He's also been known to toss a saddle on his horses' backs, and climb aboard, to offer a change to their routines.

Above: Goshen's Historic Track is the oldest operating trotting track in the world, having first opened in 1838.  Among the horses to compete or appear here are such titans as Messenger, Hambletonian, Greyhound and Star's Pride.  And, now, Check Me Out's name has been added to the historical roster.

Above and below:  There's the spot!  Check Me Out loves being towel-dried....

...and she loves a good roll after her bath....

..and she enjoys some quiet time with her boyfriend 'Frank,' Sinatra Hall.

Above:  Check Me Out winning the Del Miller Memorial in a new world record 1:51.3.  Tim Tetrick was the driver.  (Since then, Check Me Out raced again - and won - in her elimination heat for the Hambletonian Oaks. This race was July 14, she raced again since then, and she's running Saturday afternoon in the Oaks).

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A heartfelt thank you to Ray Schnittker and Denelle Stratton, the United States Trotting Association's Ellen Harvey for her boundless energy and assistance, and the very helpful staff at the Meadowlands. 

Check Me Out's Del Miller Memorial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pcbGjQTO9I

For more information about the Meadowlands: http://www.thebigm.com/

For more information about the Hambletonian: http://www.meadowlandsracetrack.com/hambletonian/

For more information about harness racing: http://www.ustrotting.com/