09/14/2014 4:12PM

Bergman: Sport needs Father Patrick as a stallion

Derick Giwner
Father Patrick is currently required to race in 2015 for his offspring to be eligible to many major races.

Greatness may be like pornography. It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Such was the case back in 1980 when a pacer named Niatross graced the racetracks in North America and displayed a charisma that has been hard to match ever since.

Niatross was undefeated as a two-year-old and lost just two times as a three-year-old during a career that was highlighted for me when he became the first horse to break the 1:50 barrier some 34 years ago.

Victories, with a horse of Niatross’ caliber, came with relative ease. At the same time his defeats were the most puzzling to explain.

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I was present at Saratoga for the Battle of Saratoga during Niatross’ sophomore campaign. In an era where driving long distances to see races was required pre-simulcasting, it was always worth it to travel to witness a horse of this caliber in action.

The Saratoga race is memorable in the fact that rain marred the afternoon’s activities and track officials spent hours trying to get the surface in playable condition for the champion to race. The large crowd was anxious but patient, and finally the race went on.

Niatross led, as he had in most all of his races, but in the stretch something was not right. He looked to be having trouble maintaining his lead when suddenly, without warning, his weight shifted to the left propelling the horse and driver Clint Galbraith over the hubrail. It’s one of those moments in life you can never forget.

Meadowlands Photo    Niatross in action.

It was Niatross’ first career loss and that was shocking enough. Going over the hubrail may have given some of his supporters an excuse, but to me he was a beaten horse before he went down.

Fortunately Niatross recovered, but again would taste defeat in almost as bizarre fashion in the Meadowlands Pace eliminations. This was perhaps the horse’s greatest performance. The champion made a break in stride early in the mile and then was parked through vicious fractions. Mortal horses from that era would surely finish last if they were forced to endure such a trip, but Niatross held on for fourth place and returned to dominate in the Pace final and for the rest of his racing career.

It’s hard to draw parallels between pacers and trotters, but it seems as if the sport has found its next Niatross in Father Patrick. The two have rather similar career paths with impressive victories and improbable defeats.

Father Patrick’s losses this year have been at the Meadowlands and at an upstate New York track, just like Niatross’. His losses were impossible to predict and shocking when they happened, whether by a break in stride in the Hambletonian or a totally lackluster performance at Tioga. The Tioga loss to Datsyuk can easily be put in perspective when judged versus last Sunday’s Pennsylvania Sire Stakes championship at Harrah’s Philadelphia. In that mile Father Patrick defeated Datsyuk by eight lengths.

We can compare with hindsight, and there’s no telling whether Father Patrick will finish the season without another defeat. But one thing is certain about the colt, he represents something that may be far more important in the breeding business than it would be on the racetrack.

Father Patrick, should he hopefully be retired to stallion duty at the end of 2014, would bring a renewed energy to a breeding business that has been in decline and malaise for some time.

Father Patrick is a son of Cantab Hall, who is a stallion due to his impressive fertility that has been allowed to pass on the blood of his sire Self Possessed and his grandsire Victory Dream. Father Patrick represents a male line that not only needs to be continued, but needs another generation to see it flourish.

A look at the first-crop stallions showcasing yearlings in 2014, 2015 or even 2016, is not likely to give rise to extreme expectations. The last stallions to have a profound first-crop impact were Muscle Hill and Somebeachsomewhere. There truly doesn’t appear to be anything closely resembling that pair in the pipeline.

Should Father Patrick be asked to race as a four-year-old, his impact on the sport would be delayed and maybe even diluted.  While a few great racing events “could” arise should all of the players be at the top of their games and put on a series of great events, it’s more likely that they will not come to pass and no new generations of harness racing fans will emerge.

On the other side of the spectrum, if our breeding business, already suffering each year with fewer and fewer horses produced, can’t be energized, the likelihood of producing the next great horse is diminished.

Now Niatross wasn’t a savior in the breeding shed, but that may have had to do with the type of individual he was and the stallion line he was trying to save. Father Patrick could add another dimension to an ever-evolving trotting breed because of his engaging pedigree and his flawless gait and conformation.

It comes down to the question of what’s in the best interest of the standarbred sport? A few years back some people got together and pushed forth the concept that it was necessary to bring back horses as four-year-olds to give the sport a chance at appealing to the public via “name recognition”, and thus bringing about a new audience.

Sometimes those who seek change ask for more time to “prove” a point. Yet it’s hard to imagine any of those plotting the course of the future saw then what would happen on the racetrack in 2014.

We’re not talking about Father Patrick but Sebastian K and perhaps Commander Crowe. You see, despite all of the positive intentions of returning four-year-olds to race, it is the presence of Sebastian K, an eight-year-old, and the North American arrival of Commander Crowe, an eleven-year-old, that is likely to bring about the most buzz this sport has seen in some time this fall. Unpredictable, much like the defeats of both Niatross and Father Patrick, a worldwide audience will get a chance to see greatness and competition come to North America in the aged trotting ranks for the first time in quite some time.

That a truly International Trot or trots will arise is a testament to some brave owners from across the ocean and some forward thinking track operators willing to think outside of the box.

Father Patrick isn’t necessary on the racetrack to save this sport in 2015, but he is urgently needed in the breeding shed. I can hardly wait for his 2017 first crop to be auctioned.

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