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Bob Pandolfo: Discussing the Hambletonian, racing with driver Brian Sears
Harness driver Brian Sears is one of the all-time great harness drivers. Sears has won over 8,000 races, including a Hambletonian with Muscle Hill and a Hambletonian Oaks with Broadway Schooner. He is one of the leading drivers of all time at the Meadowlands where he has won over $55 million in purses. This year he comes into the two big events with the morning line favorites in both races. I interviewed Sears this week:
Pandy: I know you like your chances with Bee A Magician in the Oaks. What about Royalty For Life, the morning line favorite in the first elimination of the Hambletonian?
Sears: He's got a lot of ability. He's a big horse with a lot of speed. I just have to hope he behaves, and he has been much more in control the past few starts. If I can get him through the first heat, I would think that he's the type of horse that might be even better in the second heat, because the first race would take some of the edge off him and he'll be calmer. I know that trainer George Ducharme thinks that Royalty For Life will handle heat racing well since he's so big and strong.
Pandy: Do you like heat racing?
Sears: I do. I know it can be tough on the horses, but it's exciting. The Adios (at the Meadows) used to be run in heats. I was a regular driver at the Meadows when I won the Adios with Pine Valley in 2001. It was really exciting. With heat racing you have to try to win without taking everything out of your horse in the early heats. In the final I managed to work out a three-hole trip and won it up the passing lane and it was a big thrill for me. We have to realize that this is a spectator sport and heat racing adds a lot of drama.
Pandy: Even though you moved your business to Yonkers, you've still managed to get drives in the big stakes races at the Meadowlands. Does that surprise you?
Sears: Not really. I'm in a good position. I live close to the Meadowlands and I can still come in and drive in the baby races and I have a good relationship with some of the trainers.
Pandy: When you won all those driving titles (six) at the Meadowlands, you did it with skill, timing and patience. You're a finesse driver. Does it bother you that the racing has become more speed favoring?
Sears: I hear that from a lot of people, they complain to me that the racing is getting too speed favoring and not as much fun to watch. I don't know what the answer is. I know that some people think that the bikes are part of the reason for it and that may be true. But in my opinion the bikes we're using now are also safer. The older bikes have wider axles, twice as wide at the bike I use now. We can race tighter together now because we don't have to worry about locking wheels as much as we used to.
But there's no question that the game has changed. Every race now is like a sprint and if you're not within a few lengths of the lead your chances of winning aren't that good. You have to make adjustments and I now I do leave with horses that I wouldn't have in the past.
Pandy: But at the same time, I've noticed that even at Yonkers, which is a speed favoring track, you still seem to win more races from off the pace than anyone, which I find amazing.
Sears: Using horses hard is really not my style. I like to try to work out a trip and save something for the stretch. It's actually a lot more fun to win a race off a cover trip than on the front end. If you ask other drivers, I'd bet a lot of them would agree. When I was driving at the Meadowlands, when I got out in the flow and there were several lead changes, then on the final turn I'm nicely covered up second over with a lot of horse left, that's a great feeling. I feel like I've done my job and now it's up to the horse. I put him in a position where he has a good chance to win because he has something left.
Pandy: In the Adios (at the Meadows) last week, it looked like you were thinking of leaving with favored Vegas Vacation, but you took back and finished strongly to be second.
Sears: Sometimes you don't want to take a horse out of his style. In the Adios last week, sure I was thinking of leaving with Vegas Vacation. But I took back because at the start a few left hard inside of me. If I had pushed him to the lead the pace would have been much faster and he would have been used hard. The whole complexion of the race would have changed.
Pandy: Do you miss driving at the Meadowlands?
Sears: I love driving on a one mile track and I loved driving at the Meadowlands. At the Meadowlands driving is more of an art, especially years ago when the racing was less speed favoring. I loved driving for some of the trainers there.
Pandy: How do you feel about driving two-year-olds and lightly-raced young horses in general?
Sears: Years ago we were conservative early. Nowadays you're expected to use the horse right from the first or second start. Sometimes a horse will get one race and then go right into a stakes race and you're using this young horse hard. When I was driving for Brett Pelling, I felt that he really knew how to keep these horses together. He'd always give them two qualifiers. The first one, he'd say, 'Just take back and let him go around.' In the second start, he'd say, 'Give him a quiet one.' When the horse started racing he'd also want to bring him along slowly for the first two or three starts. By the time the fourth start came around the horse was begging to go and then we'd turn him loose and the horse would go big. In 2004 I won the Breeders Crown three-year-old pace at Woodbine with Pelling's Western Terror and he brought that horse along beautifully. Pelling really studied the psyche of a horse, the attitude. He knew that if you used them too hard all the time that the horse would sour. If I used a horse hard one race, the next time out he'd say to me, 'Don't leave this time and don't go first over! See what you can get off a cover trip.'
Pandy: Do drivers have to schmooze people the way we do in most other businesses?
Sears: People skills definitely help a lot. Unfortunately, I don't have them (chuckled Sears). But sometimes you just have to tell people what they want to hear.
Thousands of harness racing fans will be betting Sears behind Royalty For Life in the Hambletonian and Bee A Magician in the Hambletonian Oaks this Saturday. Hopefully for his loyal followers, the “White Knight”, as he is referred, will lead his faithful to riches.
To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.