08/01/2012 10:14AM

Hambletonian: Prestidigitator could spring surprise

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Derick Giwner
Sylvain Filion will drive Prestidigitator in Saturday's Hambletonian at the Meadowlands.

The Hambletonian has been anything but predictable over the last couple of years. Only one horse below 6-1 has finished in the top five in each of the last two years. In fact, the last favorite to head to the gate above even money and win the Hambletonian was Speed Bowl in 1982.

With likely odds in the 8-5 range for projected favorite, Uncle Peter, history hints to look elsewhere for the 2012 winner. One such surprise package could be Canadian newcomer Prestidigitator.

Some may not recall that Prestidigitator competed in the Breeders Crown at Woodbine Racetrack as a 2-year-old. He advanced to the final and finished just 3 1/2 lengths behind Uncle Peter that night.

“He was parked the whole way and finished fourth,” trainer R. Dustin Jones said. “With a little luck, he would have been an easy second.”

The son of Kadabra would start just one more time as a freshman, capturing an Ontario Sire Stakes final event before making plans for his sophomore season.

[HAMBLETONIAN: Watch race previews, see Saturday's full card LIVE]

“At the end of his 2-year-old campaign, I discussed with the owner and Dustin, and we decided to aim for the Hambo,” said Sylvain Filion, who has sat behind the horse in all of his 17 career starts.

After a winter break and a lightener versus older conditioned foes, Prestidigitator went to work beating up on Sire Stakes company at Georgian Downs and Mohawk Racetrack. But he hit a snag in the final of the Canadian Breeders Championship when he rolled into his only break of the year.

“Last year, we had problems with [breaking] but so far this year he has been good,” Filion said.”He made an uncharacteristic break going into the first turn last week [in the CBC]. We don’t really know why, but I think they did some work on him coming into the” Hambletonian eliminations.

In an era when most Hambletonian horses get at least a few preps at the Meadowlands before tackling the big dance, Prestidigitator’s elimination race was the first time he stepped on U.S. soil since being sold at Harrisburg for $120,000. The colt certainly received the grand tour of the East Rutherford oval as he was parked four wide around the first turn and was sent three deep on the final bend. The only part of the track he failed to acclimate to was the pylons.

Despite the adventurous journey, Prestidigitator found more when he needed it and passed three horses in the stretch to finish third and nab a spot in the $1.5 million final.

“He’s just an amazing animal,” Filion said. “I’m very high on this horse. I know he has a lot of potential.”

While potential surrounds Prestidigitator, one could wonder whether he is fast enough to win the Hambletonian. Although his lifetime mark is just 1:54, a clocking that will likely need to be lowered by at least two seconds if he wants a trip to the winner’s circle, Filion is confident his horse can pick up his game.

“Absolutely,” Filion said. “He proved it to me tonight [in the Hambletonian elimination] that he can go with them. Whatever time they go [in the final], he can go.”

Horses rarely come from the back of the pack to win, especially at the top levels of the sport. Luckily one hidden quality in Prestidigitator’s bag of tricks could be some early speed.

“Last year, he was kind of a hot horse, so this year we are trying to get him to be less aggressive,” said Filion, who added that his colt is a “high-speed horse” who could use that move at any point in the mile.

While Filion, 43, will be making his Hambletonian debut, trainer R. Dustin Jones and owner Serge Godin (Ecurie Synergie) actually won an elimination in 2000 with Uhadadream before finishing seventh in the final.

The three team up with Prestidigitator in hopes of bringing the most coveted trophy in harness racing back to Canada for the first time since 2006, when Glidemaster took the Hambletonian and the Triple Crown.

If you believe in statistical history, they certainly have a chance.