10/27/2014 10:04AM

Bergman: International Preview proved great racing is possible

Derick Giwner
Natural Herbie (7) wears down Commander Crowe (1) and Arch Madness (5) in the International Trot Preview.

It hardly seems that long ago that I penned a column asking specifically for racetracks, such as Yonkers, to seek out and find the best in the sport in the form of invitational races. If you recall the idea was that money was available to do so but none was being allocated.

Thankfully someone was either listening or had the idea themselves and put it into motion. How quickly the world can change when action is taken. The results of Saturday’s International preview are reminiscent of so many major contests over the half-mile tracks of the past. That is to say, put unknown factors in a race and the dynamic changes.

What was different on Saturday?


Before the posts were ever drawn, the first U.S. appearance of Commander Crowe guaranteed that $250,000 event would have an unknown quantity.

[DRF HARNESS: LIKE us on Facebook and get timely updates on the latest harness news]

The distance at one and one-quarter mile opened the door to so many possibilities. In a sport that has religiously stuck to its one-mile “standard” distance, that extra quarter mile can and will make a difference, especially when it comes with a purse worth racing for.

The “Invite” gave racing secretary Steve Starr an enormous opportunity to use the power of his position and the dollars generated for purses at Yonkers in the best way possible. The money assured that a quality field would be present. Sebastian K came into the race as the obvious chalk, but once the draw was in place he was less of a lock. Sebastian K had not raced on a half-mile track in his career and he had not raced at a distance of more than one mile during this year’s brilliant campaign. The fact that Sebastian K had tasted defeat in consecutive starts also gave the competition the go-ahead to be a little bit braver.

Then you have the rejuvenation of Arch Madness. Just six short weeks ago he appeared more than ready for a comfortable retirement. Last week Trond Smedshammer’s aged wonder showed renewed speed and the ability to handle a distance longer than the mile. That was all his connections needed to put top pilot George Brennan in the bike. Suddenly Arch Madness, a horse that truly couldn’t trot with Sebastian K for much of the year, was now leaving full tilt into the turn for Brennan and changing the complexion of the most interesting race of 2014.

True, when Arch Madness is good, as he clearly is right now, he can leave well enough. But wasn’t there a point earlier this year when Sebastian K left so quickly that he made others appear to be standing still?

On Saturday Sebastian K could not loop Arch Madness and his break in stride may have been the result.

For the better part of Saturday’s International preview it appeared to be strictly a two-horse affair. Arch Madness looked every bit the same horse that effortlessly trotted a mile and one-sixteenth in 2:00 3/5 eight days earlier. This time the fractions were less taxing. It seemed that only pocket-sitter Commander Crowe would be a real threat as Brennan was able to back down the tempo. With a half-mile remaining it seemed as if Commander Crowe would commit to pulling the pocket to attack. This strategy is employed quite often throughout Europe though rarely in North America. It’s more than a driver’s desire not to be boxed in. In Europe it’s all about attack mode and stressing rivals. Waiting just for the stretch drive may not be enough to wear out an opponent, and certainly in distance races any effort put to threatening the leader is usually sufficient weaken a horse.

In the end it wouldn’t be Commander Crowe or Arch Madness. The pair of $4 million-plus career earners—the elder statesmen—raced with dignity, but neither was sharp enough to contend with a horse that has impressed mightily when he has come to the east coast.

Natural Herbie created a buzz on Hambletonian Day with an impressive victory in the Vincennes Trot. Ironically he returned in a race that had true international significance and showed the world what he was made of.

Natural Herbie navigated the half-mile track with ease, but at the same time he also showed that he could trot all day if brought to the outside. Trainer-driver-owner Verlin Yoder raced uncovered a long way in the added-distance race and from these eyes could not have won the race had the distance been a mile. The leaders would have had too much left given soft middle fractions. But fortunately the extra quarter mile proved the demise of Arch Madness, and Commander Crowe didn’t appear to have that much quickness when sent in the passing lane. On the other hand, Natural Herbie just kept digging in and most definitely was the bravest horse in North America on Saturday night.

While Saturday’s Yonkers card also featured the Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes, both lacked much high drama. The racing secretary has little to say when it comes to major stakes races. Who draws into a field dictates what betting patterns will be. In the case of the Yonkers Trot, the defection of Gural Hanover made the race lopsided for the bettors.

There are some in the industry that believe championship races belong exclusively on the mile track and at a mile distance. Perhaps Saturday’s contest will give those people a chance to rethink their positions in the future.

For those interested in the real International Trot, to be renewed in 2015 at Yonkers Raceway, Natural Herbie should have secured an automatic invitation with his win. Once again it is a gelding, not a four-year-old stallion that has achieved the headlines.

And doesn’t the success of Natural Herbie and Verlin Yoder finally put an end to the argument that any restrictions are necessary to assure the industry of great stories and great races?

Just give racing secretaries a chance to put together quality world-class invitational fields and great racing will follow.