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Bergman: Searching for the 2016 older pacing underdog
If there is one thing that has kept my interest in the sport of harness racing for over 40 years it is the longshot. From the first time I witnessed a race at Roosevelt Raceway there was always a greater attraction seeking out a price horse. Perhaps it’s something to do with being a contrarian and not wanting to go with the crowd. I thought it was just common sense in a world that revolved around taking money bet by others. In order to win betting favorites you need to pick an awful lot of winners. In order to have success with longshots you simply need to find a few.
Going into the 2016 campaign it is pretty clear that the Free-For-All ranks are expected to have some notable favorites coming out of last year. Horse of the Year Wiggle It Jiggleit and his Indiana-sired rival Freaky Feet Pete are both expected to be at the top of the 4-year-old division.
The favorite player is going to look heavily at the past performances of these two standout 3-year-olds and more than likely conclude they are superior in talent to those they routinely trounced in 2015.
The contrarian needs to come up with an alternative plan. I look at years of racing and weeks of racing in the same regard. There are those who suggest a horse will perform similarly to their last outing. The contrarian tends to look further back to find other efforts that are unique and place them in a current mindset.
Not everything follows a straight line and when you are dealing with Standardbreds, very often there are a lot of issues that go on behind the scenes that never surface. Trainers don’t always tell all and often the handicapper is left with the absolute belief that one horse is better than another even though the margin might be a lot closer due to factors unknown.
Not every horse that raced well as a 2-year-old came back to race at the same level as a sophomore. Not all great 3-year-olds turned into dominant 4-year-olds. That would be the natural progression expected and common sense would dictate that a faster horse is always a better horse.
Then again, in a sport where health plays such a vital role, just being faster may not be enough if a horse isn’t sounder.
There is another school of thought that some horses mature at faster levels than others. Thus the horse that was a standout as a 2-year-old may have simply been an early bloomer.
The 3-year-old season is so long and grueling it leaves an impact on every horse, but some deal with adversity better than others.
There were some sophomores from last year’s class that showed promise and speed perhaps a shade below the aforementioned Indiana-bred geldings. Some could be considered disappointments while others enjoyed the spotlight in surprising fashion.
In The Arsenal was perhaps the most interesting of the group in that he seemed to have unique quirks that appeared to prevent him from being the best he could be on all occasions.
Early in 2015, In The Arsenal won the Rooney in rather less than impressive fashion, though I’m certain the owners didn’t mind the winner’s share. The son of American Ideal seemed to wait on other horses at times.
Later in the season he would race in the Hempt at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono and finish third to Wiggle It Jiggleit in a race that offered a contentious opening half. Driver Brian Sears said afterwards that the horse didn’t like following cover second over and that he thought he might have had a better fate had he been able to go first over.
After a third-place finish in the Breeders Crown elimination at Woodbine, Sears gave the horse his chance to be first over. This time it was after he’d left the gate in 26 seconds and dropped in third. Needless to say, In The Arsenal finished last in his final 3-year-old race.
In The Arsenal is a rare horse in that he won in sub-1:50 miles as a 2 and 3-year-old. Despite the winning times, he’ll likely best be remembered for forcing Wiggle It Jiggleit to a 52 1/5 opening half in the Cane Pace at The Meadowlands on Hambletonian Day. The hectic pace would be the only time in the career of Wiggle It Jiggleit that he failed to hit the board.
“After the Meadowlands Pace I couldn’t keep him healthy,” said trainer Kelvin Harrison. “I just brought him back in and he looks great.”
Harrison believes In The Arsenal is a top rung horse if he can just get some consistency out of him. “He had respiratory issues that we were dealing with and I couldn’t get him good for more than two weeks at a time,” Harrison said. “I think he was as good as a horse could be in the Meadowlands Pace eliminations and then had his air shut off in the Meadowlands Pace final.”
Harrison plans to have In The Arsenal back in mid-May if all goes as scheduled. “The transition from 3 to 4-year-old is difficult, so we’ll take it slow,” said Harrison.
Trainer Mark Silva has made his mark in this business taking quality horses that aren’t performing up to owner’s expectations and putting the finishing touches on them. Silva could have a top 4-year-old should Cane Pace upset winner Dealt A Winner mature as his family lineage would suggest. A son of Cams Card Shark and grandson of one of the all time great aged performers in Cam Fella, Dealt A Winner’s sire line offers hope for additional improvement. His dam is by Matts Scooter, a horse that improved each year he set foot on the track.
Dealt A Winner closed out his stakes season with a pair of gritty second-place finishes to Wiggle It Jiggleit at Dover Downs. Despite the collective six-length margin of defeat in the Matron and Hansen, there’s reason to believe he could get much closer this year given the experience.
Trainer Brian Brown often lamented that Lost For Words’ size hurt the horse in the long run racing the difficult sophomore season. The son of Well Said showed incredible high speed at times during the campaign but had difficulty maintaining it at key points in significant races. He seemed to wear down towards the end of the year, perhaps leaving his best effort in a supporting role to Wiggle It Jiggleit’s Race of the Year in the Little Brown Jug.
Longshot players always root for the little guy, but you have to wonder whether 31 races at 2 and 3 may have been too taxing to lead to future stardom.
There are certainly countless other potential spoilers with stories untold to date. Here’s hoping for surprises down the road in what should be a most interesting aged pacing year.