05/03/2012 11:24AM

Harness racing: Pet Rock tops potential-filled Bellino stable

Lisa Photo
Pet Rock will qualify at the Meadowlands on Saturday.

The harness racing dream is owning a pacing or trotting colt with high speed and the fortitude to remain in form the entire stakes season. The Bellino family realized the highs of owning the best when they sent out Rock N Roll Heaven through a Horse of the Year campaign in 2010.

With a stable packed with prospective young guns led by Pet Rock, the Bellino family has abundant hope for this year.

While the buzz in the 3-year-old pacing division revolves around 2011 freshman champion Sweet Lou, it is often the less-heralded colts that step up and take charge as May and June arrives.

You may not remember the lightly raced Pet Rock. He started only five times as a rookie colt and just three of those starts came on the East Coast at the Meadowlands. "Kid Rock," as he is called by his grooms in the Virgil Morgan Jr. barn, finished a strong second to three of the top 2-year-olds last year, including Sweet Lou. "Rock" actually began his racing career under the care of Lester Clemmons when he caught the eye of Morgan in a qualifier last year at Scioto Downs. Morgan quickly turned owner Joe Bellino onto the colt, a son of Rocknroll Hanover-Casual Beauty. But Bellino wanted to see the horse in action at the Meadowlands.

"After the qualifier at the Meadowlands I called one of the best horse brokers in the industry, Ed Murphy and told him to get a deal done," recalled Bellino. "He worked hard on it for two or three days and eventually we settled on a price in the $220,000 range."

Bellino said that his father, Frank, who is the listed owner on all of the family horses, was skeptical about the purchase until he saw Pet Rock.

"After that he was on board," said Bellino.

Since Pet Rock was not staked to any big races, Bellino and Morgan decided to call it a year in August with their star colt in hopes that a fresh horse would lead to a stronger sophomore performer. The patience appears to have paid off as Pet Rock came back "great," according to Bellino.

"He put on a lot of weight and got much bigger," said Bellino. "He doesn't have a lot of miles in him, which worked well for us with Rock N Roll Heaven."

Considering his light workload as a 2-year-old, the plan of attack in 2012 was to give Pet Rock a bunch of qualifiers before testing the waters in parimutuel action. He has three workouts under his belt so far this year with a progressive pattern of improvement.

"We decided to take it slow with him and go a bit faster each time to build him up," said Bellino, who hopes to make a rare trip to the Meadowlands Saturday morning to view Pet Rock's final qualifying race before embarking on his 3-year-old campaign.

Assuming all goes well on Saturday, Pet Rock will begin his second season in a non-winners-of-2-races event at the Meadowlands before trying his luck against New Jersey Sire Stakes competition on May 19. From there he will visit Yonkers Raceway for the Art Rooney series, and, Bellino hopes, the $1.5 million North America Cup at Mohawk Racetrack in mid-June and the $800,000 Meadowlands Pace in July.

It is an ambitious schedule and Bellino is certainly not getting ahead of himself.

"I made a mistake with Lookinforadventure," said Bellino about his former star 2-year-old, who never realized his potential in his second year of racing. "I got really high on him, building him up to the press, and it was a heartbreaking disappointment when he didn't realize his potential. My expectations are high, but I'm going to let Pet Rock do the talking this time."

Pet Rock is not the only 3-year-old with the opportunity to do some talking in 2012 for Bellino. Highland Yankee, a son of the great trotter Muscles Yankee, holds the stables hopes for a chance at the most prestigious race in the Standardbred game: the $1.5 million Hambletonian.

Trained by Bruce Saunders, Highland Yankee finished a good second in the Valley Victory at Harrah's Chester in 2011. After the race he was found to have a non-descended testicle which was causing him discomfort, and underwent surgery.

"The woman who operated on him said it was definitely hurting him," said Bellino.

The now ridgling qualified nicely at Gaitway Farms to begin his sophomore campaign and will take to the track on the same morning as Pet Rock to "see what he has."

"We'll find out a lot more on Saturday," said Bellino on Highland Yankee's ability. "He's in tough against Vic Smith and Uncle Peter, who might be the best 3-year-old trotter out there. What I like about him is that he was never really asked as a 2-year-old. He was never touched by the whip."

Bellino has won won most of the elite pacing races with Rock N Roll Heaven, and you can tell the Hambletonian would be something special for him.

"If I got a horse in the Hambletonian I would be happy, forget about winning it," he said. "To be honest, I'd be happy just to get one in the eliminations. It would be amazing."

While Pet Rock and Highland Yankee might hold his best hopes for a premier performer, Bellino's heart is with 3-year-old Mybrothergeorge and the 9-year-old Psilvuheartbreaker.

The former is named after his brother George, who died suddenly just weeks after Rock N Roll Heaven completed his dream season. Another son of Rocknroll Hanover, Mybrothergeorge showed some potential as a rookie but qualified back a bit sluggishly.

"While my dad and I were disappointed with the way he went, we don't expect him to throw in another clunker on Saturday (when he qualifies)," said Bellino.

"He had a lot of tough miles last year. I wouldn't be surprised if he did really well, but my feeling is that Pet Rock is more prepared."

Psilvuheartbreaker is the horse that Bellino credits with putting his growing stable on the map. He claimed him for $62,500 back in February 2007 and the horse has since earned more than $1.3 million.

Given all of the talent in his stable, Bellino still had no trouble picking his favorites.

"I would give them all up before Mybrothergeorge," he said. "That horse will never leave us - him and Psilvuheartbreaker. That guy will move into my house with me before I would ever lose him."

Bellino won't have to worry about that since his family owns a farm in Florida where the two family favorites will certainly retire.

Bellino also has a quartet of young guns in the form of 2-year-olds who will be hitting the track in the coming months. The star of the group could turn out to be the $450,000 yearling purchase appropriately named Big Risk.

Out of the same mare (Artistic Vision) as Rock N Roll Heaven and by the fastest pacer ever, Somebeachsomewhere, Big Risk has already shown poise while training for his first career start.

"We went to see him and a couple of other 2-year-olds were out on the track with him when a truck backfired," Bellino said. "The other two were clearly spooked but he just went about his business, He's all business."

Big Risk, who is conditioned by Saunders, is expected to qualify during the first week of June and will start out racing in Pennsylvania Sire Stakes events before heading for open races.

The other top prospect from Team Bellino is Joeythewarhorse, a Somebeachsomewhere colt. A bargain compared to Big Risk at $110,000, Joeythewarhorse is a big horse who moves really well, according to Bellino. The colt is up in Canada under the tutelage of trainer Tony O'Sullivan and will make his first start sometime in July.

With a bunch of irons in the fire, the Bellino stable could be in line for a big year. At the very least, it is a long way from 1982 when Joe cites his dad's first purchase, a $27,000 claimer named Racy Thought.