07/29/2014 9:20AM

Bergman: Sebastian K losing his air of invincibility entering Cashman

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Derick Giwner
Sebastian K faces his toughest race of the year in the John Cashman, Jr. Memorial on Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands.

First they were in awe of him.

Now they want to beat him.

That’s the perception from this corner when looking at Sebastian K’s arrival on these shores, his incredible rise to the top of the hill, and now with each passing week a change in how his superiority is being perceived and challenged.

There’s no question from the moment Sebastian K hit the racetrack at the Meadowlands that he stunned the North American racing world. The fact that he came off the shelf and was so fit and ready for battle impressed many. For a time it seemed as if Sebastian K was playing on his own turf, with others “pretending” to be in his class.

The eight-year-old had exhibited such incredible acceleration in a few starts that one would have thought that no one would dare to try to leave against the horse for fear of being parked out and losing all chance.

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When Dave Palone came off the track after facing Sebastian K and trying to out-leave him with the ill-fated Modern Family, he sounded exasperated. “My horse can leave,” Palone said. “But he was scrambling and I had to grab a hold of him and the other horse was around me.”

Despite winning all but one of his starts this year with the lone defeat by a nose in the Maple Leaf at Mohawk, going into Saturday’s John Cashman Jr. Memorial at the Meadowlands Sebastian K is starting to look a little bit more like the Mike Tyson after the Buster Douglas bout as opposed to before.

Invincibility has a way of raising the bar and scaring the competition. Once someone showed that there was a way to take down the champ, others followed and more became brave.

What seems to have happened to driver Ake Svanstedt in the last two races of Sebastian K’s season is that he seems far more unsettled in the sulky than in earlier races. He’s gone from a point in time where other drivers didn’t know what to expect from him to a place where he’s uncertain of what to expect of others.

Looking back at the Maple Leaf and last Saturday’s Cashman eliminations, you could see Svanstedt turning about in the bike with each passing moment. In Canada it appeared he was waiting for the precise time to regain the lead. This past Saturday he was extremely anxious from the moment Creatine crossed over to the top. Svanstedt had leading driver Tim Tetrick with Mister Herbie on his back and was keenly aware that Tetrick might want to get past the longshot on the lead before Sebastian K moved.

It might have been a crime to the betting public not to take Sebastian K down for what looked like a belated move, but it would have been a bigger crime had Sebastian K been removed from the Cashman final and true racing fans didn’t get to see him in what likely will be his toughest race in North America on Hambletonian Day.

What the racing public will see this week is a Sebastian K that is still fit enough to beat any horse. At the same time, there’s a sense that other drivers will be more than willing to put his driver in an uncomfortable position if they can. While the horse probably isn’t one-dimensional, Svanstedt has driven him in a fashion to avoid any kind of potential road trouble. This strategy has worked very well thus far, but heading into Saturday’s contest the driver is going to have to worry about more than one horse behind him or in front of him.

When Yannick Gingras came off the bike after driving Archangel against Sebastian K in the world record-setting mile on June 28 at Pocono, he didn’t sound like a driver who was in awe of the winner. “I was right on his back. I’m not saying I would have beaten him, but I would have been right with him,” Gingras said of his horse that kept up perfectly through a wicked26 1/5 third quarter but broke late on the final turn.

Sylvain Filion must have thought the same thing when he pulled Archangel from the pocket before the three-quarters against Sebastian K in the Maple Leaf trials on July 11 at Mohawk. The move didn’t work very well that night, with Archangel losing ground in the stretch and finishing third.

Yet once Gingras was reunited with Archangel in Saturday’s Cashman trials it was a different story. The 26-second speed was back as the five-year-old cruised around horses through the first turn and trotted the fastest mile in Meadowlands history, a 1:50 effort. There was no Sebastian K in this field, but he did manhandle both Intimidate and Market Share, two horses with the capability of beating any trotter on earth on any given day.

And it’s not just the driving that has to give concern to the Sebastian K backers. The trainer himself first added shoes to his horse to race on Saturday night and then after the change had already been posted, elected to remove the shoes and race Sebastian K barefoot as has been his custom.

Racing every week is not customary in Europe and as good as Sebastian K has looked on the racetrack, he’ll be racing for the fourth time in four weeks on August 2.

There is no longer pressure on the horse to set world records, he’s already done that, but this Saturday’s contest is going to force both the horse and driver to be perfect on the racetrack. There are enough drivers with quality horses in the field—with talent and egos to match—that would like nothing better than to upstage Sebastian K on an afternoon that the entire world will be watching.

The Hambletonian may be the most prestigious race in the sport but it’s not likely to produce anywhere near the drama as the John Cashman Jr. Memorial will.