09/17/2012 10:41AM

Bergman: Little Brown Jug a refreshing change of pace

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Derick Giwner
The Little Brown Jug requires a horse to win two heats on the same day. The event, which will be held Thursday at the Delaware County Fair in Ohio, attracts a crowd in the neighborhood of 40,000.

Tradition is not a bad thing.

On Thursday afternoon in Delaware, Ohio the Little Brown Jug will be contested. It’s a race that allows all those who prefer standardbreds, to look back at the past, embrace the present, and hope for a future. In an era that demands everything move faster, the Little Brown Jug sticks out as something that still works rather well.

Harness tracks struggle to find ways to attract fans, but that doesn’t hold true in a small town north of Columbus. It’s one day a year and perhaps that’s enough for 40,000-plus fans to flock to see a race that remains as vibrant today as ever.

The magic spell Delaware, Ohio,  has cast over the sport is easy to understand for those Midwesterners and even some of us from the East Coast. I was indoctrinated in 1982, the year we first observed just how smart a driver John Campbell was. It was in that race where Merger, a longshot to some, took to the outside early and forced McKinzie Almahurst, the race favorite, to get boxed in. Campbell was thinking on his feet then as he has for the last 30 years.

WATCH THE JUGETTE LIVE  /  WATCH THE LITTLE BROWN JUG

While some have argued that heat-racing is not something we should be doing in an age where horses pace in 1:50 as opposed to 2:00, I can see no fault in doing so. The simple fact remains that our horses today go faster, there’s nothing that says they don’t have it in them to race more than once in a day. I would be willing to wager that those who won races in 2:10 may have thought it wasn’t right to force horses to race heats in 2:00.

Delaware has not changed. The oval has always been the fastest half-mile track in the sport and the same holds true today. It is as much a speed-favoring surface as any other track, perhaps more so in that there is no passing lane and the homestretch can seem rather short for those wagering on closers.

For years the Little Brown Jug was an event you had to go to in order to appreciate. Certainly the county fair atmosphere is something to behold. What it offered me was a place to get closer to the athletes. Unlike the tracks in the Northeast where the paddock was off limits to those wishing to get a closer look, at Delaware everything was out in the open. Every horse was out in the open and every trainer, caretaker and driver walked openly among the crowd.

For someone rooted in the notion that something must be going on behind the scenes, Delaware was more than a breath of fresh air.

With the advent of simulcasting the Jug has branched out and moved into tele-theaters and offtrack wagering sights throughout North America. Sam McKee, the voice of the Meadowlands and a recent addition to the Hall of Fame, will be anchoring the simulcast from Delaware for the 15th year. Dave Bianconi and Ellie Sarama will be teamed with McKee for three straight days beginning on Tuesday and culminating on Jug Day Thursday.

The Jug Day can be a long and tiresome affair with generally more than 20 races programmed. However, McKee and company do an amazing job keeping the conversation going and the mood light. This is no easy task filling live television for six plus hours.

The Jug simulcast is unique in that it captures fully the essence of the Delaware County Fair experience. Throughout the afternoon the gang interviews trainers, drivers and owners and somehow manages to get people to actually talk. It’s almost as if the atmosphere fits the horsemen so well that they loosen up and look more at ease in front of the camera. In spite of its length, the Jug Day broadcast proves that many horsemen have something interesting and positive to speak about.

This year’s Little Brown Jug attracted 14 horses and that’s the good news. In many years past the numbers had become outrageous with as many as 30 horses entering the box. In some of those cases the best horses didn’t always win due to trip difficulty.

With seven on the gate in each division of the first heat, the race sets up perfectly. A Rocknroll Dance has been a favorite of ours since we first spoke with trainer Jim Mulinix over the winter. Mulinix has cleverly trained the horse and sold pieces of him this year proving that he’s a shrewd businessman as well. But none of that would have been possible if A Rocknroll Dance hadn’t been iron tough and incredibly fast.

Mulinix chose the perfect driver for the horse in Yannick Gingras. While A Rocknroll Dance has not won every race he’s been in, Gingras has put him in play and made the best of some very difficult situations.

On Thursday, A Rocknroll Dance will have to overcome the odds once again. He drew post 7 in the second division and will have to deal with Sweet Lou, an archrival from early this season that has been unable to win the big one. Sweet Lou landed the rail and that should give driver Dave Palone all the encouragement he needs to protect position and march down the road.

Can Sweet Lou bounce back?

That seems to be the biggest question of the week and has no sure answers. At times, last year’s Breeders Crown champion has looked unbeatable. Yet much of that luster has worn off over time and it’s hard to see a bright spot going in with the knowledge that the colt may have to race three times on the afternoon. That’s because a horse has to win two heats to capture the Jug.

The first heat groups Ontario’s finest, Michaels Power with Adios winner Bolt The Duer and North America Cup champion Talking Out Loud. Both Michaels Power and Bolt The Duer are exceptional half-mile track horses. What’s interesting is that Bolt The Duer’s best efforts have come from a stalking position, a strategy that rarely works at Delaware.

The Little Brown Jug is both a test of speed and toughness and until we find a horse in this sophomore pacing crop that fits those characteristics better than A Rocknroll Dance, he remains the choice.