07/28/2016 10:51AM

Bergman: Harris has Hambletonian aspirations for Waitlifter K

Nikki Sherman
Waitlifter K picked up his first win of the year in the Zweig on July 24

Identity means a whole lot when it comes to training standardbreds. Have a top pacer or a top trotter and you can become pigeonholed. Trainer Andrew Harris was in danger of becoming that kind of trainer.

“Casie (Coleman) only had pacers,” Harris said of his former employer.

“When I went out on my own I didn’t want to be labeled as a guy who could just train pacers,” Harris said, recognizing the danger it could cause him in expanding his reach in a very competitive sport.

[MEADOWLANDS: Watch the Hambletonian Oaks Eliminations and entire Meadowlands card--Live on DRF!]

One of the owners Harris reached out to was veteran Bob Key.  Recently Key elected to change direction with a 3-year-old trotter.

Waitlifter K had spent his 2-year-old season with Hall of Fame conditioner Chuck Sylvester and returned to the races in the later spring not quite up to the level of expectations.

“He raced late into his 2-year-old season and I think it took more time to bring him back,” said Harris. “I think Chuck did a great job with the horse getting him ready.”

Harris had only a week to get Waitlifter K prepared for the Dancer at The Meadowlands on July 16, but he was quick to look to make the horse not just faster but hopefully safer as well.

“He just didn’t look like he was able to go fast enough and you have to be able to go fast to win these races,” said Harris, concerned at the time that speed was an issue. The trainer changed the shoeing on Waitlifter K, a homebred son of Muscles Yankee, prior to the Dancer and enlisted Brian Sears to drive the colt.

To put it mildly, the results didn’t get Harris off to a flying start as Waitlifter K made a break in stride past the halfway mark and fell back.

The trainer was not discouraged, though he was disappointed with the outcome in the Dancer.

“He was in a good spot sitting second,” Harris said. “Then when Dog Gone Lucky cleared the front, Brian looked like he was going to come out. He was half-in-half-out and I think when he grabbed up and decided to sit in, the horse got confused and broke.”

Going into last Sunday’s Zweig consolation at Vernon Downs, a race he likely would have been elevated from had he done well in the Dancer, Waitlifter K had something to prove to Harris. But the trainer also thought he had something to prove to the competition.

“I told Matt (driver Kakaley) to let him trot and not worry about the outcome. I wanted people to see what kind of talent this horse has,” said Harris.

Obviously the trainer also wanted to see the fruits of his labor get rewarded, even if the stage was a little smaller than it’s going to be on August 6 in the Hambletonian at The Meadowlands.

Waitlifter K and Kakaley were not present on the starting gate when the Zweig consolation got in motion at Vernon. The pair lagged behind, but once the gate sprung Kakaley moved the colt with purpose. Unfortunately they got parked through the opening bend after a sharp 27-second first quarter.

“He got parked a long way before getting the front,” said Harris.

The trip would only get tougher as the heavily favored Jack Vernon with driver David Miller went into attack mode just after Waitlifter K had cleared to the front. A tenacious duel took place as the pace escalated through fractions of 55 3/5 and 1:23 4/5, with the favorite biting the dust but more competition coming in the name of Lima Cadillac.

Waitlifter K was determined and finished the mile strongly scoring in 1:52 3/5, a personal best and a clocking notably faster than the Zweig final won by Bar Hopping.

“I know it wasn’t much of a last quarter,” said Harris, “But he had to race under a lot of pressure from the start.”

For Waitlifter K, it was his first win as a 3-year-old in four tries, but more importantly it puts him on firm ground heading towards the Hambletonian in just over a weeks time.

“I’m going to bring him up to the Meadowlands to train a decent trip on Saturday,” said Harris of his plans going forward in final preparation. “Then we’ll come back with a slow trip on Tuesday.”

Winning the Hambletonian would mean everything to the 31-year-old conditioner who stables at White Birch Farms, but he is far from getting ahead of himself.

“There are definitely two horses that are the division leaders,” Harris said, referring to Southwind Frank and Marion Marauder, “But I think we’re in the next group and you never know what can happen in the Hambletonian.”

The trainer is less worried about the Hambletonian format that calls on horses to race twice within the same afternoon should there be elimination heats.

“He’s a lazy horse so I really don’t think racing twice will bother him,” said Harris, who has already prepped horses for duel heat events working for trainer Casie Coleman when she captured the Jug with Michaels Power in 2012.

Win, lose or draw on Hambletonian Day, 2016 has been a very rewarding year for Harris to date and with a solid stable he looks poised to enjoy his biggest season ever since going on his own.

The stable is already ahead of last year’s earnings and we’re still in August. The $1 million Hambletonian could go a long way towards seeing those numbers rise and perhaps Harris has found the perfect year and gotten the perfect gift horse for the sport’s most treasured event.

Waitlifter K is the fifth foal from Treasure Forever, a daughter of Lindy Lane that earned over $100K campaigning for Key. Her first three foals were by his Hambletonian champion American Winner. He went back to another Hambo winner in Muscles Yankee, already the sire of three Hambletonian winners and a grandsire of Trixton, the 2014 champion.

Harris tries to stay loose and hopes that perspective can keep his horses and those around him calm come crunch time. In reality, the pressure this year is mostly on the favorites, leaving Harris and Waitlifter K to perhaps slip under the radar.

Following last Sunday’s Zweig performance, the pair are coming into view at just the right time.