05/27/2016 12:06PM

Harness: Melander's Elitloppet favorite Nuncio is 'so special'

Derick Giwner

Stefan Melander has trained some great trotters during his harness racing career, including 2006 Prix d’Amerique winner Gigant Neo and 2001 Hambletonian winner Scarlet Knight, but he has never enjoyed a relationship with a horse in quite the same way as with Elitloppet favorite Nuncio.

Nuncio, who is also owned by Melander, is the 2-1 favorite according to online oddsmakers to win Sunday’s (May 29) prestigious Elitloppet, an invitational for older trotters that features an international lineup, at Solvalla Raceway in Stockholm. Nuncio, a 5-year-old stallion who was a star in the U.S. at ages 2 and 3, has won all four of his races this season and 14 of 17 starts since arriving in Europe last year.

He finished third in last year’s Elitloppet.

“Last year he was just great; he came to Sweden in good shape,” Melander said in an e-mail translated by associate Simon Hagen. “Jimmy Takter and Jim Oscarsson (who each trained Nuncio in the U.S.) did a great job with him. He trained very good so we decided to participate in the Elitlopp last year even if I think it was a little bit too early. He arrived to my farm in February so he just had two races before the Elitlopp.

“This year I have been able to get him in good shape before the race. He has grown enormously much. Last year I saw that he probably needed a year to be perfect, which I think he is now. He is much bigger and stronger.”

Nuncio is a son of stallion Andover Hall out of the mare Nicole Isabelle. He raced primarily for Oscarsson at age 2 and solely for Takter at age 3, when Nuncio and regular driver John Campbell won the Kentucky Futurity and Yonkers Trot and finished second in the Hambletonian.

For his career, Nuncio has won 30 of 44 races, never finishing worse than third in any start, and earned $2.18 million.

“I am really impressed that he makes everything so easy,” Melander said. “He is so special, too. He knows that he is best in our stable but he is not cocky or anything. He is so smart. I have trained Gigant Neo and Scarlet Knight, but this horse is so special he actually understands you when you talk to him sometimes.”

Melander, who is a renowned photographer as well as a horseman, won the 2010 Elitloppet with Iceland. He grew up less than a mile from Solvalla Raceway and took photos in the stables when he was a teenager.

“If I could win again with Nuncio it would be just great,” Melander said. “Iceland was a really good horse but cannot compete with Nuncio. I train them different. Nuncio just wants to race with all my other horses so I have to drive him for himself on the straight track. Usually we have up to 30-35 horses in every set.”

Nuncio trained Thursday and will jog and walk in the days prior to the race, Melander said.

“He loves to go out and jog,” Melander said. “We also ride him and he really loves it.”

Melander has been Nuncio’s regular driver, but will give the lines to Orjan Kilhstrom for Sunday’s Elitloppet. Kilhstrom won last year’s Elitloppet with Magic Tonight and the 2003 edition with From Above.

“Orjan Kilhstrom is a better driver than me,” Melander said. “I think sometimes that I am a little bit too kind to (Nuncio). I actually wanted John Campbell to drive him, but his daughter would be getting married this weekend, which I understand is more important.”

Nuncio races Sunday in the second of two Elitloppet eliminations. The top four finishers from each division advance to the same-day final.

The first elimination features the next three best bets to win the race according to the oddsmakers: 2014 champion Timoko (7-1), formerly U.S.-based Propulsion (9-1) and U.S. representative Resolve (10-1).

Timoko, who finished second in this year’s Prix d’Amerique, has won three of six starts this season. The 9-year-old stallion has earned $4.43 million in his career. Five-year-old Propulsion, who raced for trainer Tony Alagna in the States, is 3-for-3 this year. Resolve is trained and driven by two-time Elitloppet winner Ake Svanstedt.

“This year almost all the horses can actually win this race,” Melander said.

Nuncio isn’t Melander’s only shot at winning the race. He also sends out Volstead in the first elimination.

Volstead is a son of stallion Cantab Hall out of the mare Madame Volo. He was purchased as a yearling for $50,000 at the 2012 Lexington Selected Sale. He is a full brother to stakes-winner High Bridge and his family also includes stakes-winners Missy’s Goalfire, Have You Ever, Lassie’s Goal, and Lear Jetta.

“I actually think Volstead has a good chance to be among the (top) three,” Melander said. “His last performance he was outstanding. If we take it to the final and get a decent position, I would almost be worried if I was Nuncio.”

Sunday’s card at Solvalla also features appearances by two-time Dan Patch Award-winner Pinkman, French Laundry, and Uncle Lasse in a Group 2 event for 4-year-old trotters. Yannick Gingras will drive Pinkman. Also, millionaire Wild Honey competes in a Group 2 event for 4-year-old female trotters.

-Courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, please visit www.ustrotting.com

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