06/29/2015 11:14AM

Bergman: Wicker Hanover peaking for Beal final

Curtis Salonick
Wicker Hanover goes into the Beal final at Pocono Downs on Saturday on a three race win streak.

Trainer Noel Daley knows a few things about trotters. The veteran Down Under conditioner has had some extremely gifted ones in his stable including the $3.5 million winning Mr. Muscleman and Hambletonian runner-up Explosive Matter. He also captured the sport’s most prestigious event back in 2011 with Broad Bahn.

“I knew Broad Bahn was perfect that day and expected him to win,” said Daley of his lone Hambletonian triumph.

Daley would love to be back for this year’s edition of the Hambletonian with Wicker Hanover, an upset winner in one of three elimination races for the Earl Beal Jr. Memorial at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono this past Saturday.

“I didn’t make the March payment,” said Daley. “At the time I knew that Takter had at least five in his stable that were better. I didn’t think Wicker Hanover was a top ten horse then. He may be one now.”

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The son of Explosive Matter does not remind Daley of his dad. He was a gift horse in some ways, as the connections of first-time owner Christer Haggstrom approached Daley at Harrisburg and asked if he would train a trotter for them. “They had the horses picked out in the book that they liked and I liked him,” said Daley of the $37,000 yearling buy in 2013.

Daley’s decision to stake the colt a certain way was born out of years of practice. “I would say that 90 percent of staking is wrong,” said Daley, recognizing the pitfalls of getting too high on horses. Too often in this business the stakes schedule forces trainers into races that horses aren’t prepared to go. In the case of Wicker Hanover, Daley saw a 2-year-old that had a nice season but wasn’t all that flashy.

“He didn’t have the same kind of speed as Explosive Matter,” said Daley of Wicker Hanover. Explosive Matter had the misfortune to be born in the same year as Muscle Hill and that certainly had a way of limiting his exposure on the racetrack. But in the stallion barn the son of Cantab Hall has been more than respectable.

“He doesn’t get anywhere near the mares that the other top stallions get but he’s done a great job,” said Daley. “Three of the first six horses to qualify for the Beal were by Explosive Matter.”

Daley has asked the up and coming driving star Andrew McCarthy to guide the fortunes of Wicker Hanover this year and the results just keep getting better and better. On Saturday night, despite starting from post seven in a field that was expected to be dominated by the Takter-trained tandem of Pinkman and Whom Shall I Fear, Wicker Hanover flew past Pinkman in the closing strides to capture his third straight, this in 1:54 1/5 over the sloppy going.

“He beat him fair and square,” said Daley about knocking last year’s divisional title winner off the unbeaten ranks as a sophomore. “Andy took him to the outside on the turn and then Trond’s horse (Donatomite) made a break right in front of him. He had to check him and come wide but he was solid.”

It was the third consecutive victory for Wicker Hanover, who was perhaps as impressive as any sophomore trotter that raced in the Beal trials.

“I was a little concerned about his last start,” Daley said in regard to a narrow nose victory in a Pennsylvania Sire Stakes race over a less heralded Takter colt named Walter White. “But I spoke to Andy after the race and he said that Wicker was just hanging there waiting on the other horse. We made a bridle change and he was much better this Saturday.”

Looking ahead to the $500,000 Beal final, Daley is taking it as low key as a trainer could. “He came out of the race in excellent shape and we’re hoping for a good draw,” said Daley. “I wouldn’t trade him for any of the others and I think we can be in the top three.”

In this division you have to be philosophical and Daley knows that it’s a long season. “Some horses just don’t hold their form and others do,” said Daley. “I’ve been underestimating Wicker Hanover but he’s a good solid horse. I wouldn’t say that he has the speed of Explosive Matter or Mr. Muscleman, but I would say he’s as good as Broad Bahn was at this stage.”

While Wicker Hanover won’t get the chance to race for the biggest prize on Hambo Day, there will be plenty of races ahead for him. He’s almost a certain qualifier for the rich Pennsylvania Sire Stakes final and Daley feels if he continues to race at this level there are races in Kentucky that he fits as well. “He’s wearing trotting hopples now,” said Daley, “but I think over time, maybe next year, I’ll be able to take them off. I think that will help make him a little faster.”

In Saturday’s Beal final there will be only one son of Muscle Hill (longshot Southwind Mozart) behind the gate and three by Explosive Matter, but there will also be a Jimmy Takter-trained duo of Uncle Lasse and Pinkman. While Pinkman couldn’t hold on in the stretch, Uncle Lasse needed every inch of the stretch to go by Crazy Wow in a 1:54 mile. Uncle Lasse had previously won three straight races on the front end and this was his first effort chasing down another horse on the season.

Trainer Ake Svanstedt set a world record with Sebastian K at Pocono last year and he appears to have last year’s Peter Haughton champion Centurion ATM ready for a big withdrawal. That was clearly evident as the S Js Caviar-sired colt got stuck behind traffic in the early stages and had to do plenty of steering in the stretch before flashing solid late speed qualifying behind Wicker Hanover and Pinkman.

Cruzado Dela Noche was the fastest of the three division winners, but his event was marred by many breakers. He gave trainer Nancy Johansson something to cheer about early in the evening prior to last year’s Horse of the Year JK She’salady’s disappointing effort in the Lynch trials.

Two weeks ago it appeared that the sophomore trotting deck was stacked heavily in favor of one conditioner. Heading into Saturday’s $500,000 Beal final it’s a wide open event that should be a thriller.