05/05/2014 1:59PM

Bergman: Sport lacks a standout 3-year-old pacer

USTA Photo
Moni Maker stands as one of the best trotters in Standardbred history.

On Saturday, the world of Thoroughbred racing crowned its new three-year-old male king in the Kentucky Derby. The impressive victory by California Chrome and what subsequently will be a chase for the Triple Crown will likely have an audience unified towards a single purpose with an individual horse talented enough to stand above the rest.

This past weekend, the standardbred sport ushered out some of its better three-year-olds and a few days later we’re no closer to crowning a champion, let alone having any certitude of the identity of the division leader.

A copy of Hoof Beats magazine for the month of May arrived at my door this past week and in it was an analytical piece that laid out the names of the projected division leaders. Oddly enough, confusion reigned in these rankings as a filly by the name of Precocious Beauty was put atop the long list.

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The very fact that a filly was listed above colts immediately gave me the feeling that not only was I uncertain of the identity of the would-be-king of this division, but so too were many other “experts” called on to opine on the subject by the magazine.

It became even clearer to me this past weekend when I watched some on this list perform in races at The Meadowlands and elsewhere. Some nicely bred three-year-olds from the Tony Alagna stable were on display at the Meadowlands and performed up to expectations. Initially one could have been extremely impressed by the victories in overnight races of Maxi Bon (1:49 4/5) and That’s My Opinion (1:50 3/5). Both three-year-olds were making their seasonal debuts and were impressive in victory.

Later on, Governor’s Cup champion J K Endofanera disposed of a relatively soft group in the Simpson with Yannick Gingras patiently going without cover and scoring in 1:49 4/5. The fifth-rated three-year-old in the Hoof Beats poll won, but clearly did not distance himself very far from the rest of the competition. In his wake was Jet Airway, an Ontario-bred son of Jeremes Jet that tied with a long list of other three-year-olds for 65th on the list.

Jet Airway was clocked with a final quarter of 25 1/5 and his stretch rally certainly caught the attention of all looking to speculate about the future, even in the form of a singular last quarter.

We all know that horses can improve dramatically from two to three-years of age, and for Jet Airway, a winner of a late-closer last fall at the Red Mile in 1:50 2/5, it’s not the first time he’s shown speed. Yet it would be premature to speculate whether the horse has the capacity to carry his high speed through more challenging fractions than were in evidence on Saturday.

Perhaps last year’s most spectacular two-year-old, He’s Watching, is the reason this year’s division appears to be more wide open than in a long time. The $3,000 yearling purchase in 2012 captivated those privileged to watch him through the New York Sire Stakes a year ago. He returned with a successful, if not speedy, qualifier this past Friday at Mohawk. Perhaps the biggest reason He’s Watching was not listed at “numero uno” was his diminutive size and his lack of theoretical competitiveness, having not raced in major stakes events as a two-year-old.

Needless to say, there are a large number of three-year-olds on the list and elsewhere (Maxi Bon, already a sub-1:50 sophomore was unlisted) that could range from a future non-winners of two horse to perhaps a Grand Circuit stakes winner. It should come as a surprise to no one that nominations to the Meadowlands Pace have escalated in 2014. With no Captaintreacherous on the list of leading three-year-olds, there is optimism all around by those far and wide that their “good” three-year-old could rise up enough, or others could fall enough to give them a chance at the big prize. Such is the case in the sport year-in-year-out. Staking is a by-product of where you think your horse can fit and what other obstacles are in the way.

A recent Meadowlands press release focused on the positive response by owners:

“We worked very hard on improving The Meadowlands Pace,” said Darin Zoccali (Meadowlands Director of Racing).  “We implemented an altered payment structure which will continue to evolve going forward and we are already seeing the results through the sustaining payments.  This year’s Meadowlands Pace is trending toward a substantial increase in the purse for the Final over 2013.” 

Altering the payment structure was certainly a factor in improved numbers, but historically stakes eligibles have risen and fallen annually based on the theoretical dominance of the division leaders.

A Note in Passing

The loss of Moni Maker, arguably one of the greatest trotters in the history of the sport, this past week was a sad day indeed. The incredible mare performed at an extraordinary level throughout her career and was one of those with the character and charisma to shine on the world’s stage.

I was fortunate enough to have a close relationship with the owners, especially the late Geoff Stein, a former Associate Editor at Sports Eye that I worked closely with during the early days of the publication. Geoff was kind enough to ask me to be his guest and join the group in Solvalla in 1999 when Moni Maker was invited to the prestigious Elitlopp.

Harness racing in the U.S. has changed radically since Stein and I first met in the mid-70’s, but perhaps Geoff knew that a trip abroad to witness this great event would rekindle the spark that had nearly burned out over time.

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The Elitlopp experience was something to behold. It was a sporting event like no other I had been to. The owners were treated royally by the race sponsors and the fans saluted all of the players during the day with random cheers rising from nowhere periodically throughout the racing card.

Though Moni Maker lost to a brilliant Remington Crown on that May afternoon, it hardly diminished the experience of the owners or myself.

Some 15 years later, it appears as if the American contingent to this year’s Elite race in Solvalla, Sweden could be quite strong, with more than a puncher’s chance to bring the trophy back.

There could be no better time for an International race to be brought back to North America and named to honor the memory of Moni Maker than there is today.