08/05/2005 11:00PM

Hambletonian one for little guy

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Roger Hammer has spent most of his career training and driving at small tracks and county fairgrounds in Pennsylvania. Hammer scaled the heights Saturday at The Meadowlands when he won harness racing's most coveted prize, the $1.5 million Hambletonian.

Hammer, 59, in his Hambo debut, steered Vivid Photo ($16.40) to a 2 3/4-length victory over 1-2 favorite Classic Photo in the race for 3-year-old trotters.

Hammer crossed up the experts, and the other drivers in the race, by taking back at the start. Vivid Photo had won 9 of 11 races this year, primarily by firing to the front and controlling the pace. Hammer tinkered with the proven formula and looked like a genius.

"I figured everybody thought I'd drive him crazy, so I did the opposite today," Hammer said. "I know the horse. He's a strong finisher and he wouldn't give up."

With Vivid Photo biding his time, Strong Yankee took charge down the backstretch and carried the field to the top of the stretch. Vivid Photo followed Classic Photo into the outer flow and swung four wide entering the stretch.

Vivid Photo kicked into high gear and swept to the victory with Hammer jubilantly waving the whip past the finish wire.

"It's great," Hammer said. "I can keep the bill collector away for a while."

Vivid Photo trotted the mile in 1:52 3/5.

The Hambletonian kicked off a unique cross-breed double that concludes with the $1 million Haskell Invitational Sunday at Monmouth Park.

Attendance at The Meaowlands on Saturday was 31,245, the highest at the track since 1990.