08/05/2013 11:04AM

Jay Bergman: Patience pays off in Hambletonian win for connections of Royalty For Life

Lisa Photo
Royalty For Life overcame some early season trouble to capture the Hambletonian.

If Jeff Gural and company want to take a bow they can. There is one lesson I can glean from Saturday’s Hambletonian. And that is that the playing field is level.

How else can we explain how a longtime horseman, with zero Hambletonian experience, could win the race with his very first horse entered in the classic?

Better yet, a homebred.

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Royalty For Life had enough pedigree to go two heats. He had enough talent to simply manhandle a field of 22 pretenders. There’s no way else to describe it. Going into the race there was some concern that Royalty For Life was a horse that couldn’t mind his manners. There was concern that traffic could play a role in dismantling his obvious mission. In the end, no post position inside or out could or would derail this locomotive.

What made this Hambletonian special, outside of the fact that it was the last in front of the current grandstand, was that a veteran horseman was allowed to do his job without interference. George Ducharme was fortunate to have loyal and dedicated owners in his corner, not money managers and accountants.

We’ve seen it all too often in the recent past, where lesser known horsemen get obliterated when insiders start pecking away at the ownership and make false claims such as “He’ll never get you to the big dance.”

Certainly less stable ownership walls would have come down in a big way following the major disappointment in the Beal at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. It’s a difficult pill to swallow when the best horse loses and you happen to be those paying the bills.

As winning driver Brian Sears correctly pointed out, “Luck is a major factor” in determining the outcome in these races. Perhaps no one got luckier than Sears when Tim Tetrick had to make the decision to jump ship and board Hambletonian runner-up Smilin Eli thus paving the way for Sears’ emergence.

And the owners and trainer were smart enough to realize that it was hardly the driver’s fault when Royalty For Life got caught inside and was forced to take up quickly in the Beal final, causing him to lose his stride. That confidence paved the way for an epic first-turn in the Dancer Memorial, leading to a victory and two effortless heats this past Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully, in a generation that appears to require instant analysis and instant gratification, cooler heads worked in unison to protect a trainer and a horse. Royalty For Life accomplished what he was meant to do on Hambletonian day. While we could easily question the character and stamina of this three-year-old division, there’s no denying this year’s Hambletonian winning horse, driver, trainer and owners earned their way to the top.

On the whole, it was a brilliant day of racing dominated by trotters and early speed in the early going. All three eliminations for the Hambletonian were won in wire-to-wire fashion. It was near impossible to come from anywhere in the backfield for a majority of the day.

Then suddenly the bias shifted dramatically in the last three races, with longshots coming from well off the pace to capture the New Jersey Classic (Lucan Hanover), the U.S. Pacing Championship (Thinking Out Loud) and Dapper Dude in the final race before this grandstand.

It was a fitting end when you consider the last two winners combined the training talents of Ontario’s Bob McIntosh and driver John Campbell, a mainstay at the Meadowlands with strong roots in Ontario.

It had a way of ringing out the old with old school horsemen and old school tactics.

Jimmy Takter’s dominance in the two-year-old trotting game continued, with two impressive performances in the Merrie Annabelle and Peter Haughton Memorial. First it was Shake It Cerry (pronounced Kerry as in the current Secretary of State) making it look easily in the Merrie Annabelle. Driver Ron Pierce said before the race that she was the best two-year-old filly he’d ever sat behind and that included Personal Style and Check Me Out. The 1:53 3/5 effort broke the mark set last year by Takter’s To Dream On, who managed a third-place finish in the Hambletonian Oaks, which was quite impressive considering her struggles for much of the season.

Father Patrick avenged the disqualification of his brother Pastor Stephen in the 2010 edition of the Haughton, setting himself apart from previous rival Nuncio in the wake of a 10-length score. The 1:54 1/5 effort was not a record but at the same time the track had deteriorated some by this time. Father Patrick’s sub-:27 second quarter made things extremely taxing for Nuncio and that colt appeared to suffer the effects of two 1:54 trips in consecutive weeks. Hopefully he’ll have some time off to recuperate and come back strongly later this season.

It seems like it’s almost never easy for I Luv The Nitelife these days. Despite winning eight of her nine 3-year-old starts, the daughter of Rocknroll Hanover seems to be in a dogfight every time they turn into the homestretch. Saturday’s $125,000 Miss New Jersey was no exception as she first had to wear down pacesetter Jerseylicious and then hold off Ms Caila J Fra (the only filly to beat her this year) for the victory. Her 1:49 mile was a career best.

Saturday marked the end of a very successful meet betting-wise at the Meadowlands. Walking through the grandstand it was remarkable how well the “Old Gal” had held up over the years. At the same time, television monitors have come a long way since 1976 and we look forward to a new era, hopefully filled with high-definition broadcasts and huge high-definition televisions. To me, if you want to draw crowds, sporting and otherwise, you have to be current and innovative. Management has tried to innovate, now with the new facility it will make it easier for them to pay attention to detail and give racing fans young and old even more to cheer about on a regular basis.

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