10/12/2015 9:48AM

Bergman: International Trot breathes life into U.S. racing

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Eirik Stenhaug
It was a standing room only crowd at Yonkers Raceway as backers of Norway's Papagayo E cheer the International Trot winner.

There was a sporting event held this past Saturday afternoon at of all places Yonkers Raceway.

For the better part of the last eight years the only noise that could be heard surrounding that facility was that of 5,500 slot machines going off every second. It was different the moment I set foot on the apron of the Empire City Casino/Yonkers Racetrack. There was a rather large assembly in attendance for the International Trot and for once it was nice to see people on the exterior of the casino enjoying the action around and on the racetrack. It was a festive atmosphere only enhanced by absolutely ideal weather conditions.

Most noticeable from the outset was an impressive group from Norway assembled outside of the Empire Terrace dining room. The group was dressed in the colors of Papagayo E and proudly waved the Norwegian flags while periodically breaking out in songs of support for their country’s representative.

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It wasn’t the first time I had witnessed such a display of affection for a standardbred. Such passionate behavior is routine at major International races throughout Europe. It was the first time on a Saturday afternoon at Yonkers Raceway.

Criticism abounds in today’s society as amateur number crunchers seek the immediate data to determine success or failure. From the instant I witnessed the outpouring of patriotism from the Norwegians the data did not matter. For a few hours on an autumn afternoon a gambling hall had been converted into a sporting arena. The devotion to the beauty of brilliant trotters is easily misplaced when the day-to-day focus is only the head number and nose of a four-legged creature pulling a cart.

A travelling French journalist was so pumped up before the race he could hardly control his emotions. “They took the shoes off Timoko,” he said. Then he suggested that the change, combined with a hood that was being added, would give the horse an explosive turn of speed.

As I had written last week, the French come to win and the journalist had far greater insight to the machinations required to elicit a superior performance from a horse most North Americans would throw out due to lack of recent activity.

Timoko did come to play, ready for whatever might happen. Ironically it was Verlin Yoder, whose Natural Herbie had received an invite most likely because he captured last years International Preview, that shed light on the biggest difference between the preview and the 2015 Revival. “Last year there was only one foreign driver in the race,” Yoder said, “this year there are eight.”

Verlin recognized completely before the 1-1/4 mile contest that tactics would be different. The opening turn was a vivid example of how important early position is in all European events, as Johnny Takter sent Creatine full bore into the first turn seizing control and telling the other rivals to get in line either behind him or in the second flank. Race winner Papagayo E and driver Ulf Ohlsson did exactly that, edging between the leader and BBS Sugarlight, a horse that showed early speed in Europe but was not quick enough early to hold the pocket.

Timoko and Bjorn Goop left enough but clearly had no interest in cutting the pace and were simply sent out to protect position. Prior to the race Bee A Magician’s trainer, Richard “Nifty” Norman, had told me that he would love to have his horse follow Timoko even if it meant the entire distance. At the start it appeared to be exactly what driver Brian Sears had in mind as he prompted the 2013 Horse of the Year to follow Timoko. Yet surprisingly, as Mosaique Face, a horse many insiders believed was the best in the field if not for the post position, hustled three wide on the opening bend, Sears didn’t rush Bee A Magician to stay behind Timoko and allowed Mosaique Face to squeeze in between his charge and the French color bearer.

Despite all of the early activity, the first quarter was an incredibly slow 28 4/5.

Even when longshot On Track Piraten made a bold move off the second turn to hustle towards the top before the half, the move failed to generate any increased speed. In fact, Creatine still managed a 59 1/5 collective second and third quarter pace despite the look of pressure.

Herein lies the truth about racing in Europe. Despite the appearance of aggressive moves in between calls, horses aren’t that much concerned with getting the lead as they are being in striking position for the final quarter mile.

Johnny Takter aboard Creatine knew he was under no danger of losing the lead despite the aggression of On Track Piraten and that allowed him to cut a mile in 1:57 2/5 that wouldn’t be enough to beat $15,000 claimers on a normal day.

So with a bit more than a quarter mile remaining Brian Sears sent Bee A Magician four-wide on the backstretch and would remain wide through the final turn. The dream trip of sitting behind Timoko and following that horse in the stretch was gone and the sprint had begun at the exact moment that Bee A Magician found herself exceedingly wide around the fifth and final turn.

In essence Sears got caught driving his race while the remaining European drivers were conducting the International on American soil but clearly utilizing foreign policy.

It was a great race to the wire, with the passing lane proving the biggest difference between this year’s International and any from the past. Papagayo E would have been pinned in without a place to go with no passing lane, but his connections are now $500,000 richer thanks to the open stretch.

JAYWALKING: The defeats of both Mission Brief and Wiggle It Jiggleit on the same day are vivid examples of what can happen when any two-horse race turns into a flat out sprint. The International pace was perfect for Creatine, yet he couldn’t stall horses that just happened to sprint faster for a brief period. The same was true for both Mission Brief and Wiggle It Jiggleit as their sprinting power was not enough to hold off horses that can accelerate to high speed for a short distance. Wild Honey and Freaky Feet Pete deserve props for well-earned victories. I haven’t lost an ounce of faith in the runner-ups.

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Nathan More than 1 year ago
FRESH YANKEE.
Strangerl More than 1 year ago
You mean there were no druggist like Banca & Allard in the race?
Joel Weiner More than 1 year ago
First let me preface this by saying I usually enjoy reading your columns and Derick's too. With that said, this was truly a great race where drivers raced & horses raced with passion as moves and tactics were made and used throughout the entire race as compared with the dreary nightly racing at this track. It's a shame that the nightly racing here that does nothing to bring in new bettors or owners is allowed to continue while the excitement of a race like this will slowly fade away. Doesn't anyone at Yonkers Raceway know what their doing when it comes to the lifeblood of this sport? Doesn't anyone get tired of the first over horse coming from the sixth position? One could start with getting rid of the passing lane and force these drivers to make moves again.
niatross11 More than 1 year ago
I have been following harness racing for many years and always made a point to travel to Roosevelt Raceway to watch the International Trot with great anticipation. The 2015 addition of the race was as good as any I have seen in the past. Having been a great supporter of the French horses, I was disappointed seeing a pocket sitting horse win by coming up the passing lane. Not a big supporter of the passing lane. Too bad this race can't be combined with an International Trot race at the Meadowlands like the ones they used to conduct around the 4th of July.
John Cicale More than 1 year ago
Thanks for painting a refreshingly positive picture of this ( I hope ) renewed tradition. I really wanted to see Timoko; he ran a great race. (Sadly, I had too many other commitments that day). I wish these horses could stay around for a North American tour of the Meadowlands, etc. The driving tactics made this the most interesting race at Yonkers, maybe ever.