06/01/2015 10:54AM

Bergman: Trainer Steve Elliott loaded with 4-year-old talent

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Fred Brown
Rockeyed Optimist has accumulated eight wins in nine starts this year.

Going into the second leg of the new Graduate series this Saturday at the Meadowlands, one trainer appears to have made the most of the 4-year-old only conditions. Steve Elliott, a trainer with a lengthy history of success and noted for his iconic trotters Valley Victory and Donato Hanover, has an abundance of wealth in the division.

“I have great owners,” Elliott says modestly, but it’s hard to sell that claim to the general public. What Elliott has done this year is astounding, with the emergence of Rockeyed Optimist this winter and the return of a newly equipped Doo Wop Hanover. That pair already tallied two Graduate series victories last Monday afternoon at Tioga. The pair will be in action on Saturday night, as may be Art History, another four-year-old that has been the best horse on the grounds at the Meadowlands over the last month.

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“The transition from 3 to 4-year-old racing is huge,” said Elliott. “It’s like going from a maiden claimer in thoroughbreds to a maiden special weight.”

Elliott’s success this year has a lot to do with getting the right horses, but it also has a lot to do with having a great amount of patience.

When Rockeyed Optimist landed in his stable midway through his 3-year-old season, Elliott thought the son of Rocknroll Hanover might benefit from a rest. “I talked to George (Berkner) and he was okay with it,” said Elliott, who thinks todays owners are smart enough to recognize when a horse must take time off.

Rockeyed Optimist is a different horse in May than he was in January. “He was just a closer but the more we’ve put him on the front end the more confidence he’s gotten. He used to go to the back of the stall and stay there and now he’s looking out the door all of the time,” said Elliott, characterizing a horse that’s much happier and far more responsive on the racetrack.

After winning six of 19 starts combined at two and three, Rockeyed Optimist has won eight of his nine starts in 2015 with over $125,000 in the bank this year. Combine that with a 1:48 1/5 mark taken in the Graduate and he has the makings of a coming star.

“The owners came to me when he started winning in the winter and asked me to put him in some of the bigger races,” said Elliott. “I told them that I didn’t think it was a good idea and that he’d have plenty of chances to race against those horses as a 5-year-old.” Elliott thinks the major difference in the age group is that 5-year-olds can string four 26-and-change quarters in a row and 4-year-olds can generally only go three big quarters.

Doo Wop Hanover scorched the Tioga strip with a 1:47 4/5 clocking pulling driver John Campbell to an open lengths victory. The Hall of Fame driver was a passenger in the stretch of the Graduate leg victory.

“Last year when he wanted to go he just took off, you couldn’t control him,” Elliott said of Doo Wop Hanover. Over the winter trainer Peter Blood was instrumental in helping to straighten him out and once back in New Jersey Elliott put in the finishing touches. “We worked getting his mouth right,” said Elliott.

Speed is clearly not an issue for Doo Wop Hanover but manners have always been. In the Graduate leg he sat perfectly and then raced incredibly when called upon. Perhaps the only wrinkle left for the 4-year-old will be whether he’s capable of handling the top classes while racing on the front end.

While Rockeyed Optimist and Doo Wop Hanover have gained stakes recognition this year, Art History is the one making all of the noise within New Jersey.

The Western Ideal gelding was picked up last June by Elliott and had some soundness issues. With some time off to heal, Art History has come back with a vengeance. After finishing second in his first two outings this year, he’s reeled off six consecutive victories for the team of Elliott and driver Scott Zeron including a 1:48 2/5 mile on May 16 at the Meadowlands.

“He’s a kind of lazy horse,” said Elliott. “You wouldn’t know from training him that he was going to go this fast.” Art History has been able to build a sharp resume racing at the Meadowlands and it’s still too early to tell how he’ll make out against the best horses in the division.

Stacia Hanover went a huge trip in the New Jersey Sire Stakes final for 3-year-old pacing fillies on Saturday night but was nailed on the wire. “That was a tough trip for her,” said Elliott, “Chris’ filly (The Show Returns) came up big this week or we would have won.”

The Elliott stable has been enjoying one of its best seasons in quite some time and it numbers 38-head including about a dozen 2-year-olds that are being readied for baby race action. At this stage of their conditioning, the trainer is too old and wise to speculate on what they will become. He indicated that his owners are quite excited with how the babies are training.

Of the 2-year-olds, there are only pacers and that’s somewhat surprising given the aforementioned Valley Victory and Donato Hanover, two of the sport’s greats, emerged from this stable. “The owners just didn’t buy any trotters,” Elliott said. Many of the trotting owners have gone the way of Jimmy Takter. “He runs a first class operation and does a great job,” Elliott said of Takter. “He deserves those horses.”

Asked if he was surprised the impact that Valley Victory has had on the trotting sport some 25 years after he was retired, Elliott reflected, “I qualified him as a 2-year-old and he went a last eighth in 12 2/5,” Elliott said. “That was pacing horse speed.”

How would Valley Victory compare with today’s trotters?

“He might have gotten his ass beat,” Elliott said.