08/10/2017 10:14PM

Giwner: A most interesting Hambletonian Day experience

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Nikki Sherman
Trainer Ron Burke and driver David Miller watched the Judges review the inquiry in the Hambletonian from just outside the winner's circle.

I spent a good portion of Hambletonian Day walking around the track and talking to people. The crowd was strong, so much so that I missed a bunch of people I wanted to chat with on Saturday.

One of the people I did hook up with was Hunterton’s Steve Stewart. My previous contact with Steve was only via email and phone, so it was nice to have some face-to-face time. Ironically, mostly we discussed Gordon Waterstone’s Weekend Preview column and how it was a great change of pace from the normal format of writing for harness racing. Stewart sponsors the column and thought it would be interesting to have similar pieces written from various tracks. So that is what I’m attempting via this first-person Hambletonian Day narrative.

Between the two Hambletonian eliminations I ran into Walner’s owner Ken Jacobs enjoying the races in Trotters. While he was smiling, you could see the angst hidden underneath as the first elim was clocked in 1:52 3/5. “He could be winning by 10 lengths right now,” said Jacobs as he continued to keep a positive facial expression.

Jacobs seemed certain that Walner could race again in 2017 and mentioned the Breeders Crown as a goal, but he added that he was feeling pressure from outside sources to simply retire Walner to stud. “They’re throwing a lot of money at me,” said Jacobs, clearly torn between the best financial decision and his love for racing horses.

It really speaks to the man that Jacobs was in attendance on Hambletonian Day despite Walner being on the sidelines. Here’s hoping we get to see his star 3-year-old trotter on the track again and doing something special for a great owner and really deserving fan of the sport.

During the Hambletonian final I was just outside of the winner’s circle and the entire experience was a bit surreal. I give credit to trainer Ron Burke, who after standing for five minutes with his horse at the finish line to find out their fate after the inquiry, didn’t make a scene or get upset. It had to be hard on Burke considering how close he’s been to winning this race in recent years, but he handled it like a gentleman.

Once Ake Svanstedt’s Perfect Spirit was named the Hambletonian champion, the scene was even weirder. It was like everyone was in shock from the outcome. The winner’s circle celebration (if you could even call it that) was as low-key and quiet as any I can remember.

From there I went to look for Ron Burke in the paddock but was quickly engaged by an irate Frank Antonacci who trains International Moni. He was fuming about what he considered to be obvious interference by Yannick Gingras driving Victor Gio IT that caused his horse to go off stride on the first turn. While I didn’t see it clearly since I watched the race from the track apron, I inquired with some other horsemen who concurred with Antonacci’s opinion.

After a failed search for Burke, I headed back towards the grandstand via a shuttle van which happened to contain Antonacci again. In addition to being annoyed about being “taken out” of the race, he couldn’t understand why the Judges neglected to speak to any of the drivers in the race about the incident. I told him I would watch the replay and perhaps write something if I felt his opinion was valid.

That led me to the Judges booth where I spoke with Presiding Judge John Tomasello. He relayed that they rarely ask the opinion of drivers in the race. As I understood it, basically drivers can’t be unbiased and impartial. Which is fair; though I don’t see the harm in speaking to a driver. He added that the visual evidence wasn’t definitive enough to support a disqualification of Gingras’ horse.

Interestingly, just after the Hambletonian I was speaking with Mike Lachance who confirmed that he typically refused to provide information to the Judges. “It was their job to make the decisions. I wasn’t going to be the person that cost anyone a race.”

I thanked Tomasello and the Judges for their candor and wished them a goodnight. Too many times in the last 20 years I’ve been treated rudely by Judges for no good reason so it was refreshing to have a positive experience.

My last encounter of the evening was with trainer Jimmy Takter, who won five stakes races. He reaffirmed that there were no regrets about Ariana G not taking on the boys in the Hambletonian and said she would embark on that task in the Zweig open division at Vernon Downs since the fillies would go for substantially less than their male counterparts.

To pay true homage to Mr. Waterstone, I stopped for gas on my way home and was able to secure a price of $2.33 for regular unleaded.

When I made it home I watched the replay for the Hambletonian several times. While some others disagree, there is no doubt in my mind that driver David Miller behind What The Hill interfered with Jason Bartlett driving Guardian Angel AS. Regardless of anything else that occurred in the stretch, there is no denying that had Miller not moved to his right Guardian Angel AS would not have made a break. It’s cut and dry for me. Perhaps there was room when Miller started but that disappeared before the completion. Miller said as much when interviewed by the USTA. “I just ran out of room. At one point I had room and it disappeared.” That says all you need to know. For whatever reason the room disappeared and Miller went into the path of another horse. That disqualification was the right call.

While I agree that Ake Svanstedt’s Perfect Spirit was drifting out, that only would have come into play if Miller didn’t cause interference. Then the inquiry could have been to see if Ake impeded Miller’s progress by failing to pick a lane in the stretch and staying in that path.

On the issue of Antonacci vs. Gingras, it was pretty clear to me that interference took place. As they say on my favorite made-for-TV judge show, Hot Bench, the preponderance of the evidence favored the view that Victor Gio IT came in on International Moni.

That was my Hambletonian Day for 2017. We’ll do it again next year, hopefully with less drama off the track and more on it.