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Hambletonian: Champions collide in trotting classic
History will be made at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Saturday August 8. Regardless of whether filly sensation Mission Brief can become just the 14th horse of the female persuasion in 90 years to capture the prestigious Hambletonian, we will see something special.
For just the second time in the 37 years that we have crowned a 2-year-old filly trotting champion, that talented young lady will face-off against her male counterpart to crown a champion of champions. Technically it will only be the second time in history that both 2-year-old divisional winners will race in heats on the same day as the final.
You have to travel back in time to 1996 when Continentalvictory bested Lindy Lane by a half-length to find such a match-up. Pampered Princess took on the boys and actually won an elimination of the Hambletonian in 2007, but that was a year in which the final was contested one week after the preliminaries. Ultimately she broke in the final and Donato Hanover drank from the Hambletonian trophy.
You would be hard pressed to find a history making duo quite as different as 2015’s Pinkman and Mission Brief. Pinkman is a model of consistency on the track that rarely dazzles but usually wins. Mission Brief is like a pricy sports car, displaying flashes of brilliance and at times skidding off the track.
Who better to break down the top performers from 2014 than regular driver Yannick Gingras.
“Somehow he always finds a way to put his nose in front,” said Gingras about Pinkman. “A lot of times people don’t talk about him because he isn’t really flashy and doesn’t win by five lengths. I don’t think the two heats will bother him one bit. It might even wake him up a little and he’ll be better in the second heat.
“She has unmatched speed in the race,” said Gingras on the Ron Burke-trained Mission Brief. “I don’t know if I ever drove a horse that can go as fast as her. So far this year her mannerisms have been really good. Last year it was a problem, but so far this year she has let me do whatever I want with her. Even when she wasn’t very sound, I was able to sit with her a little bit.”
Even Pinkman’s trainer, Jimmy Takter, admits that Mission Brief is special.
“She’s a fantastic filly. I’m her biggest fan,” said Takter. “She’s probably the best 2-year-old horse I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pacer or a trotter better.”
Mission Brief and Pinkman will race in separate eliminations with Gingras in the bike. Should they both qualify for the final, the 36-year-old driver will have a tough decision to make. Does he go with the tortoise or the hare?
Pinkman comes with absolutely no flaws according to Gingras, but Mission Brief is another story. She has dealt with back issues all year and only recently brought anything close to her “A” game. “Her last start was definitely her best,” said Gingras. “She was absolutely perfect that day at Vernon, but it is one start.”
While the world keeps attempting to read Gingras’ mind, he truly seems to have a clear head despite the enormous decision which could arise.
“I really believe that one of them will step up that day,” said Gingras about his expectations from the horses in their eliminations. “Like in the Little Brown Jug, you always end up getting there and sometimes a horse steps up in the first heat and you know that one would have to do something really bad to lose. Last year I had Limelight Beach and I didn’t expect to win it, but he was scary the first heat and I knew they would have to go a big mile to beat me the second heat. In my mind I know that one of them will step up so big in the first heat that it will make my decision easy.”
Although Pinkman and Mission Brief will enter Hambletonian Day with the spotlight, 17 others also have their eyes on the prize, including four of Pinkman’s stablemates from the Takter barn. Each has shown what it takes to step up with a big mile.
“He raced good the other day,” said Takter about French Laundry. “To me he is probably the weakest of the five. I think he needed that race (win on August 1 at Meadowlands).”
“The Bank is very sharp; super sharp right now,” said Takter.
“I was disappointed with his last start, but his blood work wasn’t really perfect and we had a little time here to work with that,” said Takter on Uncle Lasse. “I think he will be right there (in the Hambo).”
“Canepa Hanover is probably the horse with the most ability,” said Takter. “I haven’t been hard on him. I haven’t gotten into him yet because he hasn’t felt like he was ready for it. He’s been a little of a project, but I think he’s sitting right now on a big mile.”
Takter is not the only trainer with multiple entrants in the big dance on Saturday. Ake Svanstedt will send out three hopefuls led by Centurion ATM, who finished a strong second in his last start despite an early break that cost him valuable ground.
“I don’t know,” said Svanstedt on the reason for the break. “It was the first time he broke in a race. He trained good after that.”
Svanstedt got off to a fast start in 2014, his first year training in the United States after a very successful career in Sweden. Thus far in 2015, his stable has been a bit slower to get in gear, a trend that Centurion ATM has followed.
“We haven’t trained Centurion so tough,” said Svanstedt. “Over the last month we have trained him a bit more. We trained him for the Hambletonian.”
If Centurion ATM comes up short, Svanstedt’s other starters include Workout Wonder and Southwind Mozart.
Smaller trotting outfits are also represented with hopes of racing in the $1,000,000 final. Jacksons Minion comes in for trainer/driver Tom Jackson fresh off three consecutive wins and conditioner Tom Fanning hopes to score his first ever Hambletonian win with Fashion Creditor, a winner on July 31 at the Meadowlands in 1:52 3/5.
Rounding out the group of 19 filling out two eliminations are: Donatomite, Habitat, Total Darkness, Billy Flynn, Cruzado Dela Noche, Alderbaran Eagle, Wings Of Royalty and Muscle Diamond.
One of the above horses will parade around the Meadowlands winner’s circle around 5:20 p.m. on Saturday and be forever known as Hambletonian champion.
Will it be one of the 2-year-old champions? Will Takter win for the second consecutive year? Perhaps an underdog will shock the world?
The storylines are intriguing and endless for the one race every driver, trainer and owner dreams of winning.