05/04/2015 11:11AM

Bergman: Harness Racing offers no guarantees

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Derick Giwner
Mission Brief broke in her first qualifier of 2015.

If there is one certainty in harness racing it is that there are no guarantees. There may be implied warranties, such as the gift of a horse’s natural speed endures. However, when it comes to habits, good and bad, the absence of time gives no assurance that behavior will improve.

Take for example two of last year’s most impressive juveniles, Mission Brief and Artspeak, a pair that excited the racing world with blinding speed, while at the same time offered a note of caution. The two have come back to race as three-year-olds and surprisingly, stunningly to some, have exhibited the same characteristics that marred them in some ways during otherwise brilliant seasons.

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Artspeak, the juvenile pacing colt standout of 2014, made an untimely break in a qualifying race at the Meadowlands just over a week ago while commencing what was sure to be a strong closing kick. As a two-year-old, the son of Western Ideal’s potentially perfect season went up in smoke when he made breaks in two of his last three races.

Mission Brief, the phenomenal two-year-old filly trotter that ended her first season at the races with a mind-blowing 1:51 4/5 Breeders Crown victory at the Meadowlands on a cold November night, was undefeated in races that she didn’t make a break in. Unfortunately for her connections, the daughter of Muscle Hill decided to lose her stride at the wrong time and in the wrong races. The heavy favorite to win both the Peaceful Way and Goldsmith Maid at Woodbine a year ago, Mission Brief would miscue and come away checkless in races collectively worth $800,000.

Last year’s finish to the season left many in the crowd including this writer the feeling that nothing could stop Mission Brief from returning in 2015 and capturing the Hambletonian against male competition. Her epic Crown performance on the same night the champion three-year-old colt Father Patrick was also trotting in 1:51 4/5 opened the door to comparisons and predictions.

So it was no surprise to see driver Yannick Gingras taking it easy with the filly in a qualifier this past Friday. Fractions were evenly rated and the competition did their best to stay out of her way. Then in mid-stretch Mission Brief just went off-stride. It was sudden as most are and surprising given the hope that the filly would grow out of her bad behavior.

It’s a long season and no one wants to begin on the wrong foot. The training camps of Artspeak and Mission Brief did their part in assuring the racing world that they had the problems figured out and would make the necessary corrections before the two return to the racetrack.

Reassuring as that may be, you have to believe there are countless other trainers, also with returning three-year-old stakes contenders, that are hoping that the bad habits of these two didn’t get ironed out from two-to-three.

While past performances are no guarantee of future actions in the case of Artspeak and Mission Brief, they have at least indicated current status. The road ahead could prove a different story and both horses will have ample opportunity to grow out of juvenile behavior.

The effortless speed of both Mission Brief and Artspeak give off the appearance at times everything is automatic. When you see horses like that perform on the racetrack you wonder whether they are just freaks and could succeed no matter what the circumstances. That trainers Ron Burke (Mission Brief) and Tony Alagna (Artspeak) can and do handle the pressure of racing extraordinary horses so well, it seems they are not even in the equation. The reality is quite different as these miscues make it all that apparent that work must get done between starts and horses must be ready to perform when called upon.

JAYWALKING: Now that the Levy series at Yonkers has come to a close, you have to say that small changes in the rules of the series went a long way towards making it more enjoyable to watch and wager on. While the Levy may have lost some nominees, that proved a positive as fewer divisions in the preliminary rounds made the races that much more competitive. Yes, post position does and will always play a role in how these races get contested and perhaps it’s not fair when the best horse in the preliminary rounds gets post eight. The other side of that equation is that the Levy is more fair than any other series in racing in that it gives owners five weeks of $50,000 purses, enough time for the draws and racing luck to work out accordingly. It also provides for a $100,000 consolation race that was won this year by Sapphire City, helping to catapult that horse’s lifetime earnings above $1 million. The Yonkers regular was probably lucky not to reach this year’s final.

Very few do it as well as Jimmy Takter. Watching Father Patrick’s qualifier this past Friday and seeing him effortlessly step away from Market Share with a 26-second final quarter was extremely impressive. The thought last year when it was announced that Father Patrick would breed and train at the same time was that the horse wouldn’t return to action until June or July. That he made his second qualifier by the first of May and looked every bit as good as he ever has is truly amazing.

Takter likely has the best four-year-old trotting horse and may also have the best four-year-old pacing horse if reports we hear of Always B Miki are accurate. Unlike Father Patrick, Always B Miki is recovering from injury but is well on his way towards a return to the races. Takter has taken over the conditioning and apparently has grown fond of the son of Always A Virgin that won 12 races as a three-year-old and was a likely favorite to capture the Breeders Crown last fall before sustaining an injury on Breeders Crown night.

 

Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
Your column rightly illustrates that horses are not NASCAR entrants that merely need to be pointed in the right direction. Whether $10,000 claimer or Grand Circuit star, they have "off" weeks like any athlete.