08/01/2012 11:22AM

Hambletonian: Uncle Peter's multiple gears make him the horse to beat in harness racing's premier race

Derick Giwner
Uncle Peter appears to be peaking at the right time for Saturday's $1.5 million Hambletonian at the Meadowlands.

At first glance an argument can be made that the 87th Hambletonian is one of the most wide open renditions in the history of the sport’s premier race. On paper, there were no eye-popping elimination efforts. Yet if you watched the action closely, Uncle Peter truly should stand out as the clear boss of the field Saturday at the Meadowlands.

Uncle Peter made three distinct moves while winning his elimination. The 3-year-old displayed speed off the gate, uncorked a quick brush at will between the first two calls, and had plenty of trot when asked to pull the pocket and open up just before the three-quarter marker.

It is one thing to win your elimination with speed or to finish strong. Many horses have a clear element to their games which can carry them a long way on the stakes scene. It is the special horse, however, which delivers on command at any point in the mile while seemingly at the driver’s beck and call.

Ron Pierce, who has driven Uncle Peter in all but one of his six 2012 starts, loves this colt.

“He’s a beautiful colt to drive; very much push-button,” said Pierce. “He’ll do whatever you want him to do. He’s a very classy colt.”

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

After winning 4 of 6 starts as a rookie, including the Breeders Crown, Uncle Peter was widely considered the winter book leader for the Hambletonian. Although he could only muster one win in his first three races this year, the Jimmy Takter trainee has been on a roll since the beginning of July, reeling off three consecutive wins without truly extending himself.

It is certainly not surprising to see a Takter trainee peaking at the right time. With two previous Hambletonian winners - Muscle Massive in 2009 and Malabar Man in 1997 - Takter is known for his ability to get a horse perfect when it matters most.

“I am on Jimmy’s team and I feel he’s going to have this colt much, much better for the final,” said Pierce. “With Jimmy I always feel very confident.”

A win by Uncle Peter (post 1) on Saturday would place Pierce in elite company. He would join John Campbell (six wins), Ben White, Bill Haughton, Stanley Dancer, and Mike Lachance (four each) as the only drivers with at least four Hambletonian trophies to their credit.

The typically blunt and confident Takter, who said he told his wife, Christina, months ago that he would win the Hambletonian this year, has only one concern in the final, and it is one of the few elements of the sport that are out of his control. Uncle Peter wears a special shoe which does not work best when the track has a lot of moisture.

“He is racing with shoes called PG shoes; they are like rubber shoes,” said Takter. “When the track has too much moisture and you get that suction, it can cause the horse’s legs to get tired.”

Predicting the weather is even more difficult than handicapping a race. If the so-called experts are correct, Takter should be smiling, as partly cloudy skies and only a 20 percent chance of precipitation is being forecast for Saturday.

Uncle Peter may be the top dog, but there are nine others hoping to win a large chunk of the $1.5 million prize. Only one, Archangel, has a chance at a Trotting Triple Crown.

Archangel (post 4) has been practically flawless in 2012. After a solid freshman campaign, the son of Credit Winner has posted a sparkling 9-7-2-0 record, including a victory in the $445,594 Yonkers Trot, the first leg of the Crown.

A Hambletonian victory would put Archangel two-thirds of the way to becoming the ninth horse to win the Triple Crown. The Kentucky Futurity at the Red Mile in October is all that would stand in his way.

Archangel did all the work on the engine in his elimination before coming up second best behind pocket-sitter Market Share in the fastest elimination mile (1:52 2/5). Being on the lead has become second nature for the colt but something driver Jim Morrill Jr. would like to see change.

“This colt has been on the lead his last four or five starts but he is better off a helmet,” said Morrill, who hopes to find that trip in the final. “Being that he was pressed hard early [in his elimination], I was happy with his effort. I just wish I didn’t have to put him on the front tonight, that’s all.”

The ultra-consistent Market Share (post 2) certainly looked the part of a Hambo winner when he burst out of the pocket to beat Archangel while in-hand. Along with fellow elimination winner Knows Nothing, each will is likely to put up a fight in the final.

Knows Nothing, who starts from post 3, was handled very patiently for most of his elimination mile but pounced on the leaders when shown daylight in the stretch. It was an impressive move that could serve him well if he is lucky enough to get a smooth trip in the final.

“Yeah, he absolutely exploded,” said driver Jody Jamieson regarding Knows Nothing’s elimination win. “He comes off a helmet extremely fast. He really doesn’t even need to get in gear.”

Unlike most stakes races where the talent level dips quickly after the top four or so contenders, each of Saturday’s combatants have at least some positives in their corner. Guccio (post 7), another Takter trainee, finished a fast-closing second behind Knows Nothing in his elimination. He will need a clean trip to display his strong rally but finally seems to be maturing.

Takter felt he has Guccio as good as he could get him entering the final following some minor training adjustments. He has even hinted at some possible early speed from the closer.

Of the longshots with a chance, perhaps Prestidigitator, starting from post 6, is the most intriguing. He never saw the pylons in his elimination, his U.S. debut. The son of Kadabra was four wide around the first turn and three wide on the final bend.

“I got caught real wide on the first turn, but he just raced his guts out,” said driver Sylvain Filion, who admitted the Hambo has been on their radar from the get-go. “I tipped him three wide on the final turn and he still went on and kept trotting to the wire.”

Even as you come to the horses who are sure to be the longest odds on the board, the quality of the finalists hardly falls off a cliff.

Money On My Mind has good tactical speed and finished a decent second last week, though he will have a tough task from post 9.

Stormin Normand (post 8) was done in by a tough trip on elimination night but ranks as the leading money winner in the field.

My MVP was trotting fastest of all in the stretch last Saturday and seems to be coming into his own. He gets a cozy mid-pack post, 5.

Gym Tan Laundry has high speed in his arsenal and a driver in George Brennan who knows how to make a horse fly off the wings of the gate. He will need that speed to get involved from post 10.

Make no bones about it, the field is deep. But the road to the winner’s circle goes through Uncle Peter.