12/28/2015 11:26AM

Bergman: Great expectations for 2016

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If Always B Miki can stay healthy he'll be a force in 2016.

Expect the unexpected.

As we look forward to 2016 there is much to be learned from this passing harness racing campaign and hopefully much to look forward to.

What has been learned is that all of our horses are somewhat fragile and no matter how gifted are not guaranteed to perform when we need them to. The year opened with incredible expectations for one filly to reach the Hambletonian and defeat the boys. Anyone that witnessed the incredible 2-year-old campaign of Mission Brief in 2014 couldn’t help but anticipate a date with destiny at The Meadowlands in August.

That date came and went, and for a second straight year driver Yannick Gingras was forced to watch someone else lift the trophy.

It wasn’t as if any race should be a guarantee, but in both cases the public was denied a duel. In 2014 Father Patrick never got past the start and in 2015 Pinkman gained control and Mission Brief couldn’t elevate her performance to see the race end in a photo.

While we tried to predict a filly taking the Hambletonian, no one was expecting a year ago that the 3-year-old season would be dominated by not one but two horses bred in the state of Indiana. Though George Teague started Wiggle It Jiggleit in January there was no reason to believe he would be around in November. Even less reason to believe that a horse could lift the level of competition each month and rise to the occasion like none in recent memory.

No matter what caliber of horse we’ve seen in the past, it’s extremely rare not to have more than one competitive race as a juvenile and return to dominate a year later.

A true Horse of the Year was crowned and though he couldn’t defeat Freaky Feet Pete towards the tail end of the season, it didn’t dissuade voters from casting their ballots. Freaky Feet Pete was near invincible in his own right and overpowered the division in the Breeders Crown. His rags-to-riches tale would have been incredibly unique had Wiggle It Jiggleit not stolen the headlines early on.

Now a year removed from Hambletonian expectations we’re left contemplating what will be in 2016 when the sophomore class returns to do battle in what’s expected to be an epic year for Free-For-All Pacers.

The loss of Artspeak to the stallion ranks will hardly diminish the quality that could and should emerge in this division going forward. As Foiled Again has no doubt proven what this sport needs and thrives upon are geldings that are left to focus just on racing.

But there will be no $1 million race for these horses to point towards. There will be individual battles and Invitational races for sure.

The Levy series will put plenty of money on the line at Yonkers but it is unlikely to draw from the returning 3-year-olds and more likely to be the start of another Foiled Again season. While Wiggle It Jiggleit proved his half-mile track ability at Harrington early in the campaign and then in Delaware, Ohio in what has to now stand out as the greatest Jug victory in history, the Levy is a series that may just demand too much for too many successive weeks to risk entry for one with long term goals. Since the Horse of the Year campaigned late in the calendar year, one could understand a later return date than early spring for Wiggle It Jiggleit.

Timing being what timing is, no horse has had worse timing during his racing career than Always B Miki. Scratched on race night from the 3-year-old Breeders Crown, a race that owners spent considerably to supplement to, Always B Miki had pretty much his entire 2015 campaign derailed by another injury for trainer Jimmy Takter. Thankfully he returned in time to capture this year’s Breeders Crown but not soon enough to give the public a full taste of his enormous talent. Without a Presidential Series to enter in January, the die was cast for another extended period of time away from the racetrack for Always B Miki and the hope that he can return in 2016 free of any further injury and sharp enough to make the racing product that much more compelling.

What handicappers like to see and horses rarely oblige is consistency. Mission Brief when at her best is a trotter to behold. Unfortunately, despite an impressive 3-year-old season, the daughter of Muscle Hill was able to win races but was not always at her best. Greats can often get by at 80 percent efficiency when the competition is lacking but if Mission Brief is to step up to the Invitational ranks as a 4-year-old, which hopefully means facing male competition, she will be a need to be more perfect with more frequency than in 2015.

In 2016 the sport will once again see a 2-year-old filly with an unblemished record return. The season did not go as planned for the 2014 Horse of the Year J K She’salady. The gifted filly had her win streak broken and never found her groove in an unproductive campaign for trainer Nancy Johansson. Nancy’s dad, Jimmy Takter, campaigned the undefeated Pure Country to 10 consecutive victories including divisional honors. Perhaps the bar in the Takter stable has been set lower for this filly in 2016 as Takter has speculated that he has a few other fillies set to return next year with similar potential.

There are certainly a good number of no-name types in training looking forward to becoming the breakthrough artists of 2016. There is no certainty in this business, just hope.

Fortunately thanks to the returning stars mentioned above and many unmentioned, 2016 has incredible potential to showcase this sport in a manner we haven’t seen in quite some time. Now hopefully if we can get the racetracks to pay special attention to these names while not simultaneously thinking about slot machines we’ll have a fighting chance.

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