08/01/2013 5:03PM

Hambletonian Day Thoughts

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The calendar may say otherwise, but Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands is a holiday as far as I’m concerned. It is one of the few racing dates when you know anything can happen. It is a day when the pools are double and triple their normal amounts and wagering opportunity is all around. It is the one day when even casual fans from across the country and globe gather to celebrate the sport.

On multiple levels, this Hambletonian Day will be special.

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Of course the grandstand which has served the sport so well for over 35 years will give way following the Hambo Day card to a smaller state-of-the-art and more present-day appropriate facility. I have pleasant memories of my first time in the winner’s circle back in 2001 when Varenne won the Breeders Crown in 1:51 1/5. I can also recall the countless nights I spent on the track apron and in the press box. It will certainly be a new experience viewing the races from the current backstretch.

Heat racing returns to the Hambletonian for the first time since 1996. As a fan of the sport, I love watching horses compete and return less than two hours later for a second go-around. Past performances are nice, but there is something to be said for having the last race fresh in your head and watching the horses come on the track for the second heat and evaluating their appearance and demeanor.

With the simulcasting and technological developments over the last 20 years, heat racing truly has an opportunity to prosper. Maybe those advances could help bring back the glory days and show off the durability of the standardbred.

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Speaking of glory days, if I may have an aside, Andrew Hughes from the marketing department at Hanover Raceway (Hanover, Ontario) sent me an email about a match race they are carding on the night of the Hambletonian at his track. The “Dream of Glory” card is going to pit world record-holding trotter Summer Indian (1:51 1/5 at Pocono, 4-year-old gelding) from the Ron Burke barn against Dover and Harrington track record-holder Traverse Seelster. It turns out that those two were the most recent winners of their top race (Dream of Glory) and they thought it would be a nice marketing promotion to get fans out to the track.

“This match race is a way for us to showcase that Grassroots racing and that small tracks have an important role to play in developing stars of the sport,” said Hughes in an email. I have to applaud his determination in marketing the race, carded as the sixth on a 12-race program that starts at 6:30 p.m., and there is certainly something special about a match race.

Back to the Hambletonian . . . what a great bunch of elimination races we have to watch and handicap this year. Twenty-three horses are split into three divisions and quite frankly, I do not see any standouts in the fields.

The first elimination (race 7) is headlined by Royalty For Life, a fast yet somewhat erratic colt has yet to prove he can handle adversity. And it is very likely that E L Rocket, starting in post seven just to his inside, will be leaving off the gate and that will certainly put Royalty For Life to the test.

My selection in the first elim is Smilin Eli. Just five weeks ago everyone was singing his praises and then the fiasco as to who was really training the horse along with sickness issues sidetracked the son of Muscles Yankee from stardom to possible mediocrity. New trainer David M. Smith, who took over for listed trainer Deshawn Minor, said that Smilin Eli only started showing signs of feeling better on Tuesday, July 23, and yet the colt still finished a solid third despite racing uncovered on July 27 in a 3-year-old Open race.

I’m going with Smilin Eli, High Bridge and Royalty For Life to make the final from this race.

I can make a case for up to five horses in the second elimination (race 8). However, I’m married to Wheeling N Dealin as my clear-cut top choice. From my perspective this colt has been purposely brought along slowly by trainer Dusty Jones and has yet to be unleashed. Last week we finally saw a bit of what Wheeling N Dealin has to offer when he closed nicely for second. I truly believe that we will see driver Sylvain Filion push away from the gate and then make a quick quarter move to the front. Yes, the first aggressive drive for this horse this year.

My second elimination finalists are: Wheeling N Dealin, Dontyouforgetit and Aperfectyankee.

On paper most people will key in on Corky and Spider Blue Chip in the third elimination. Either could win, but they have both been relatively one dimensional this year. Their victories have come on or near the lead (Corky did win first over one week). With both logically flashing early speed in their ninth race elim, and Possessed Fashion likely to at least push away from the inside, this race could set up for a fast pace.

For all the reasons above, I’m going to go outside the box a bit and pick All Laid Out to score the upset for trainer Noel Daley. He needs to pick up his game a bit, but I expect there to be a live flow and with this being the shortest field (only seven horses), there shouldn’t be much traffic to worry about.

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Third elimination finalists: All Laid Out, Spider Blue Chip, Possessed Fashion, Corky (fourth-place finisher with highest earnings).

Before I put a wrap on my Hambo Day thoughts, I thought it was worth a mention that on the biggest day, despite not being in the stakes limelight on a consistent basis this year, driver Brian Sears somehow found his way onto the prohibitive favorite (Bee A Magician) in the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks and a logical contender (Royalty For Life) in the Hambletonian. Say what you will about Sears leaving the Meadowlands, but he sits second in the country in earnings this year and the guy can drive.

Another guy who shows up out of the woodwork every year is former Meadowlands regular Jim Morrill, Jr. He only has 15 drives at the Meadowlands this year and picked up seven stakes drives on the Hambo card. It just goes to show you that people recognize talent, whether a big fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond.

Enjoy Hambletonian Day and don’t forget to follow our coverage live for up-to-the-minute results, pictures, video, stories, and more. We will also post a FREE Harness Eye program page with updated past performance elimination lines of the 10 finalists. This should be available approximately one hour before post time for the $1,000,000 Hambletonian final.

Happy Hambo Day!