10/19/2016 4:37PM

Bergman: Lack of action in Yonkers stakes a result of bad luck

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Mike Lizzi
Wiggle It Jiggleit got an easy lead when his competition elected to watch rather than sprint at the start at Yonkers Raceway last week.

The voices on the screen were practically speechless following the $250,000 Invitational at Yonkers Raceway on Saturday. Co-host Pete Venaglia appeared shocked that no horse other than Wiggle It Jiggleit had left the gate to attempt a first quarter battle. Frank Drucker seemed equally perplexed that the defending Horse of the Year had essentially gotten the racetrack to himself before he hit the first turn. Drucker asked a surprised driver Montrell Teague in his post-race interview and even he seemed shocked that no other horse wanted to get into the mix given the rather large purse put up by Yonkers.

When those who watch the races nightly at Yonkers are surprised that no other catch drivers were interested in “taking a shot” for a quarter million dollars, it may suggest that this is not all about money. Then again, it may suggest that today’s catch drivers are just much smarter than experts give them credit for.

Wiggle It Jiggleit was likely a generous 2-5 shot in this field considering there was no Always B Miki or Freaky Feet Pete in the lineup. That Keystone Velocity, an 8-year-old making his first listed start for trainer Rene Allard, was in the race had much to do with propping up the price on the winner. Bettors these days throw out all known logic when it comes to horses making their first starts for trainers such as Allard or Tom Milici. Expectations were high considering that Keystone Velocity had finished a credible fourth in the Quillen a few weeks back at Harrington and that was without Allard listed as the trainer.

[MEADOWLANDS: Watch & Wager on all 18 Breeders Crown elimination races this weekend.]

Yet driver Brian Sears knew better than to think that Allard could actually add extra class to the veteran performer. Clearly Venaglia had to believe that the new owners of Keystone Velocity would have a great chance to recoup much of their investment if the horse pressed forward at the outset.

The reality for the field of seven was that six did not belong and those driving for the connections of the overmatched weren’t going to sacrifice themselves just to create a more visually pleasing event for Venaglia, Drucker or the rest of us in the audience.

To a sense, the same held true in the other major races on International Day as Bee A Magician, a horse some of the experts expected to be a little short after a summer vacation, was given the keys to the city metaphorically and strolled to an easy payday in her mile and a quarter $250,000 Invitational Trot. There was a stunning lack of aggression in this field as the added distance and nine rivals could have made decisions a bit more complex for Bee A Magician’s driver Brian Sears. Perhaps this was a combination effect in that some of the competition may not have been in top form or perhaps lacked the half-mile track experience that obviously favored the former Horse of the Year and winner of the event.

Still from an aesthetic point of view, the $250,000 did not provide a more exciting event than $50,000 would have garnered.

As for the International, the second $1 million renewal of the event at Yonkers was a stark contrast from the first and that probably has a lot to do with the make-up of the field and the lack of a bona fide French horse to liven up the action.

I was somewhat stumped when Hannelore Hanover became the first U.S. invitee to the International, since the gifted mare had never raced on a half-mile track. Drawing the rail made it look all too easy but clearly it didn’t prove a gift for driver Yannick Gingras on Saturday, as the mare couldn’t negotiate the first turn. If ever there is a bad spot to be in, you had to feel for Gingras since there could be no practice for him. Historically European trotters are quick starters and get around turns exceptionally well. Oasis Bi got away fast and clean and crossed over quickly. Then favored Resolve and Ake Svanstedt took over. Svanstedt is having a much better 2016 for his entire stable and clearly had his son of Muscle Hill ready for the small track. Resolve’s first appearance at Yonkers back in July wasn’t all that impressive, with the 3-5 favorite finishing third after racing overland for Svanstedt in the Open, beaten by the Tom Milici-trained Undercover Strike on that occasion. Still, that education had to pay off for the horse and trainer, it was something the connections of Hannelore Hanover never had the chance to do and it likely proved costly to them.

You have to give credit to Yonkers and its horsemen for putting up the money to produce races such as we saw this past Saturday. At the same time, we as an industry have to examine why such races are all too often void of any serious action?

It’s great to have two Horses of the Year on the undercard, but just having them waltz around the track for a high appearance fee seems somewhat counterproductive. Earlier this season there were rumors that Yonkers management would be willing to make a $500,000 Invitational if Always B Miki, Wiggle It Jiggleit and Freaky Feet Pete all accepted. That would have been an incredible gesture and if it actually came off could have provided some real fireworks to the undercard.

Sometimes luck plays a role in how races pan out and that’s the way I’d prefer to look at the outcomes this past Saturday. No corrections are really necessary; just a little better luck could have gone a long way. Always B Miki was never going on a half-mile track and unfortunately Freaky Feet Pete didn’t make it this far in the long and very trying season. If owners and trainers are given more advance notice, perhaps next year’s $250,000 Invitational Trot can provide a solid and better balanced field.

Most importantly, the International Trot must have a French horse to be a true championship affair. Hopefully we’ll see one in the 2017 edition.