05/21/2012 10:02AM

Bergman: Schnittker gets good race, but not a win, under Check Me Out

Lisa Photo
Ray Schnittker and Deweycheatumnhowe won the Hambletonian in 2008.

When Hambletonian hopeful Check Me Out made her sophomore debut at The Meadows this past Tuesday, defeat was not an option. Last year’s sensational trotting filly was entered in a Pennsylvania Sire Stakes event and was sent off as the 1-10 betting favorite.

Yet, in 1 minute, 53 and 4/5 seconds bettors and experts found out why the phrase “There’s no such thing as a sure thing,” came to be. Maven, a solid stakes filly during the early part of her two-year-old season, made a solid move for catch-driver Yannick Gingras and was not to be caught with the favorite a solid second.

Ray Schnittker, who that Tuesday doubled as both trainer and driver of Check Me Out, appeared to have made a tactical error with his filly. At the outset Schnittker took his horse off the gate and midway on the first turn found himself losing ground behind a filly that wasn’t keeping up with the pacesetters. The chart has Check Me Out nine lengths off the leader at the quarter but the margin was greater before Schnittker decided he needed to get his filly closer to the action.

Hindsight is 20-20 and in this case that’s what Schnittker suggested. “Maybe if it wasn’t her first start I would have left out of there a little,” he said. “My filly trotted her last three quarters in 1:24. That’s pretty good for a first start. You have to give credit to the other filly she went a big trip.”

Indeed Maven had gone a big trip but Schnittker’s drive had me thinking how the driving business has changed so radically over the last decade and how Schnittker is now a “hybrid” of sorts being both trainer and driver in what is essentially a catch-drivers' world.

But then this past Saturday Tim Tetrick, Check Me Out’s regular pilot, found himself on the losing end of a season’s debut behind the sensational three-year-old pacing filly American Jewel at Vernon Downs. While Tetrick was able to put his filly in good striking position there was no way he was going to track down Major Look in a track-record 1:50 mile.

So in the span of five days we learned that catch-drivers and trainer-drivers may not be that much different when trying to win yet not overextend horses in what should be tune-up races. What we did learn is that the era of letting horses race into shape is over. Maven trotting in 1:53 4/5 and Major Look pacing in 1:50 prove that point.

It’s kind of funny where Schnittker sees himself on the driving landscape. “I’d say I’m a notch below the top drivers,” he said straight out the other day. But Schnittker was also quick to concede that today’s drivers are much better prepared before each race. “I think today’s drivers are much smarter than those from the past. That’s not saying that (Herve) Filion and (Buddy) Gilmour weren’t smart, it’s just that the guys today have a read on every horse in every race."
What has evolved is a core of professional drivers who take their craft with incredible seriousness on a day-to-day basis. That means they know which horses to stay away from and which ones to follow in every race. Check Me Out’s loss of position in the first quarter may have been the difference in her winning or losing her first start of the year. It didn’t however dampen her trainer’s view of her talent and direction.

“She’s going in the Sire Stakes at Chester next (May 31)," Schnittker said. "I won’t be there to drive so Timmy (Tetrick) will take her. Then we’ll point towards the Elegantimage at Mohawk."

Had the first race defeat changed Schnittker’s belief about sending his filly against the boys in the Hambletonian?

“No, she’s still going to be in the Hambletonian," he said. "I think she can trot in 1:51 at the Meadowlands."

Schnittker is used to being second-guessed. Back in 1997 he had a speedy trotter named Armbro Plato entered in the Hambletonian. The colt had done most of his racing on the front end and been successful. He was the obvious speed from post five and many in the stands expected Schnittker to abandon any sane driving strategy and simply park the field and the favorites with his horse. Instead he took charge instantly and grabbed up in a soft 29 second opening quarter to let the race-winner have the top.

After he finished third in the Hambo behind Malabar Man with Armbro Plato, I can still remember Schnittker’s words: “Did people really think I was going to be an idiot for $1 million?”

Some 15 years later Schnittker has proven just how smart he is - first as a selector of yearlings, second as a trainer, and third even as a driver. Perhaps even more valuable than those three attributes is the very fact that his horses don’t just race at two and three years of age. He has a string of high-caliber aged trotters including the incomparable Grain Of Truth that show up regularly and earn six-figure incomes annually. Grain Of Truth, now 11, is on his way to his eighth straight $100,000-plus season.

Speaking of two-year-olds, expect Schnittker’s group to be ready when the opening bell sounds for juvenile season. I caught up with him on a day where he had shipped in to the Meadowlands to go a training trip with a few of his potential two-year-old stars. “The pacers went a trip in about 2 minutes and the trotters went around 2:03,” he said. Schnittker expects to have them ready for baby races in two weeks.

Schnittker’s success rate with two-year-olds has been uncanny over the years and there’s no question he’d like that to continue this season with this first crop of his very own Hambletonian champion Deweycheatumnhowe.  He sounded rather high on a colt named Caveat Emptor, whose dam is a sister to Shaq Is Back, a successful stakes horse Schnittker campaigned a few years ago. Also high on his list is a Donato Hanover-sired filly from Habits Lady named Royal Assets. She’s a half-sister to the half-millionaire Take My Picture.

Maybe there’s no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to betting on trotters. When it comes to developing top-level trotters that show up and perform optimally year upon year you can bet on Ray Schnittker’s stable.