07/29/2013 9:47AM

Jay Bergman: Hambletonian may go to the rugged, not the fast

Derick Giwner
Spider Blue Chip and trainer Chuck Sylvester are in the lead pack of Hambletonian contenders.

There’s been a 17-year gap since the Hambletonian last held more than one race on the first Saturday in August to determine the winner. This Saturday we can expect two or perhaps three elimination races for the sport’s most coveted prize. The result of those eliminations will leave all of the three-year-olds returning for a second and deciding heat.

The original Hambletonian format required one horse to win two races on a given day. During a time when Standardbreds were trained to race multiple times in one day, horses were well prepared to handle the assignment whether it was two or three or even four heats in one afternoon.

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Times have changed, both figuratively and literally.

Our top three-year-olds now routinely travel in the 1:52 range, making it much more difficult to return and race more than once in a two-hour span.

While those in the industry recognize that racing three or four times on a day under these conditions is nearly impossible, the decision was made to make the Hambletonian something different and special again by moving eliminations and the final to a single day.

What will define the winner this Saturday is going to be a combination of speed and durability, but most importantly, soundness. It’s the one part of the trotting equation that cannot be minimized.

Perhaps R. Dustin Jones, trainer of Wheeling N Dealin, has it exactly right. Maybe bringing a colt along slowly and soundly is the equation to performing at an optimum level during two one-mile dashes on the first Saturday in August.

Most trainers try to sidestep the issue of heats, making believe that all horses are created equal and therefore all will respond accordingly when forced into new territory.

While there theoretically could be pressure on all the horses, the presence of a large field of entries on Tuesday morning could actually make things easier for some in the first (elimination) heat. That’s what may be the most critical part of the festivities. Should one or two of the top contenders draw into easy divisions it could pave the way for extremely slow elimination heats. There’s no question given the format that drivers will want to conserve as much as they can for the final.

At the same time, while winning an elimination race could afford some post relief (elimination winners draw posts between 1and 5), finishing second or third without exerting unnecessary energy may be a more prudent strategy entering the final.

What is of paramount importance is the second heat. That’s where the money is really riding and that’s where strategy will play the most key role. One of the underlying aspects to this race and most any other major event is the presence of two or more entries from the same trainer. While new rules have been crafted to separate these entries for betting purposes, there’s little question that when $1 million is on the line, stables can and will work together to create the best possible scenario.

While studying heats some may wish to look back to the past and find successful trainers that have won this race. Certainly Chuck Sylvester, who has a top-rated contender in Spider Blue Chip, knows just what it takes to prepare a horse for a championship two-round battle on a big stage. He raced his horse in a definitive pattern and prepped for the big dance with a race 16 days removed.

A look at this past Saturday’s “prep” races was indicative in many ways of how trainers were looking to conserve rather than overstress their stock. Both events at the Meadowlands were slow-paced and tactfully driven.

The aforementioned Wheeling N Dealin did all that was necessary to test the surface for the first time and finish with firm, if not flashy footing.

Smilin Eli, in a new barn now, showed hints of the speed that had for a time made him the number one contender. The colt had to make a few stops and starts while trying to avoid trouble on the backstretch and then finished his mile without flare.

Trainer Ron Burke had E L Rocket, a recent purchase that has impressed in New York, ready, but the Credit Winner-sired colt didn’t go by Corky when asked to do so in the late stages. Perhaps driver Yannick Gingras and Burke were a little more serious than the rest. At the same time, the trainer is known for having his horses ready for battle 52 weeks of the year, part of a program that has had enormous success.

Is it the strategy that works for two heats?

Trainer George Ducharme indicated to all that his horse Royalty For Life will likely benefit from racing two heats. His theory was that the sometimes highly strung colt would be calmer in the second heat than he would be in the first. After an incredibly rocky early start to the three-year-old season, Royalty For Life has in fact calmed down enough to show his enormous talent. On Saturday he cruised to a 1:53 effort at Vernon Downs, taking the lead from the start and trotting off impressively.

In years past, that kind of performance may have had a few Hambletonian fence-sitters looking for softer races down the road as opposed to a seven-figure one at the Meadowlands. However, a closer look at Royalty For Life’s races would indicate that his troubles sometimes happen when he is placed in uncomfortable positions of having to stop and start quickly. His last two miles were uneventful in the sense that no horses got in Royalty For Life’s way.

For those looking to cash a ticket in the second heat, something that is enormously achievable even without past performances in hand, study the first two eliminations very closely. Then watch the horses come onto the track for the second heat. Look for the ones that appear full of themselves. Look for horses that are traveling smoothly. Incorporate that information with the horse’s first heat performance.

Remember, it’s not always the horses that went faster in their elimination races that will back and go faster in the final. Just a few weeks back in pacing’s William Haughton Memorial final, those horses coming out of the slower elimination race fared better than the ones coming from the world record mile.

The Haughton’s eliminations were a week apart yet the recovery time didn’t help the horses that worked harder. Imagine what it will be like when the races are less than two hours apart?

It’s something worth seeing first hand.

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