06/07/2017 3:54PM

Bergman: Elitlopp is a reminder of current racing strategy

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Bold Eagle raced on the outside for the entire mile of his Elitlopp elimination.

Racing and racing style changes through the years. Like most people, we are impressed by theories put together during our youth and tend to stick resolutely to them as years pass, and even as those theories begin to erode.

Such is the case of the “Perfect Trip.” A term used in harness racing that essentially attempts to describe an ideal scenario for a horse to win a race. You’ve heard announcers suggest it and most of the time they are referring to a horse sitting second behind the pacesetter while appearing “full of pace.” An alternate version would be a horse riding second-over cover on the outside and “waiting to tip three wide.”

It may be time for us to see these expressions rest in peace as in most cases they don’t accurately portray the visions they once did.

Take this year’s Elitlopp, perhaps the best collection of three races I’ve ever seen in one afternoon. It was a chance to see a horse that still may be the best trotter to ever race, Bold Eagle, in competition on a small track and racing at the North American conventional distance of one mile. At the same time, it was a change to witness the type of strategy that works in Europe but is rarely seen on these shores.

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The Bold Eagle we watched in his elimination heat put forth what would have to be considered as one of the greatest efforts of all time by a trotter of any age. That any horse could maintain his position on the outside for an entire mile and win in 1:50 on the biggest stage is mind blowing. To many of us doing this while parked and uncovered is even more impressive.

Yet that’s where it may be time to part ways with past beliefs and come up to speed with the new reality. Bold Eagle, racing on the outside for the entire trip, was in fact controlling his own pace by ensuring he would not be encumbered by a horse blocking his path. Sure, Delicious, a phenomenal trotting mare that has captivated many in Europe, was cutting a solid clip of her own, but Bold Eagle appeared at all times to be comfortable with the pace and not fully extended. That could be said with reliance since the French superstar has routinely raced at longer distances and managed to maintain his pace and willpower to win.

The 1:50 equivalent mile time may be short of what Sebastian K did at Pocono a few years back, but it’s hard to compare those two efforts in any realistic way and not conclude which is the better horse.

To those watching and analyzing the races from Solvalla on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, it was hard to look past Bold Eagle’s incredible first heat victory. Even when the renowned Nuncio wired the field in the second division, you had to come away with a sense that any horse from that group was not in the same league as Bold Eagle. Nuncio’s win came with him controlling the pace on the front end and appearing to set very moderate fractions to everyone’s liking. That Timoko had sprinting power in the stretch to qualify for the final didn’t send a tidal wave of interest in the aged French warrior in his next race.

In North America the final may have been a bit different, as odds-on favorites are afforded plenty of respect and even wild outsiders with incredible early speed are generally only looking for pocket or close-up position to have a chance at minor honors. It’s hard to criticize Bold Eagle’s driver for not being overly aggressive in the early stages since he was not the only one in the large crowd that believed his horse was much the best. At the same time, Timoko’s quick getaway in the final left Bold Eagle in an awkward position and the trip would only get worse as the race went along. Nuncio would be the first-over horse in the Elitlopp final and to say he was doing Bold Eagle no favors is an understatement. Nuncio didn’t have the look of the same horse that won the race a year ago and he was not pressing Timoko at any stage. What this did to Bold Eagle was put the horse in an uncomfortable position and perhaps one that he’s not had to deal with in his career, one spent on large tracks with long straights and even longer distances. On Sunday Bold Eagle had to deal with continuous high speed and more real obstacles that can deal you defeat. When Franck Nivard sent Bold Eagle wide off cover down the backstretch many were expecting an instant response. What they got was a vision of Timoko accelerating at the exact same time and doing it on the inside of the oval, not three deep.

The advantage of position belonged to Timoko from the outset. Regardless of whether you want to criticize Bold Eagle’s connections for going too fast in the first heat, the obstacles of following second-over cover in the final were more critical to his defeat.

We’ve seen it time and time again, and especially over five-eighths mile tracks. The sprint through the backstretch the final time is the key to the race and cover is rarely an advantage when horses are going at the absolute peak of their abilities. First-over or being on the lead are the two primary spots to hold simply because there are no obstacles to prevent a driver from going as fast as they want. When forced to follow a horse a driver must always be in control of the lines because a sudden acceleration or deceleration by your cover can ruin all momentum.

Perhaps when horses were winning the Elitlopp in rates closer to 2:02, that second-over trip Bold Eagle received on Sunday would have been the perfect trip. When the numbers are closer to 1:50, the best horses should lead and not follow.