07/22/2013 10:41AM

Jay Bergman: The top 10 Hambletonian contenders


We’re less than two weeks away from the sport’s most coveted prize, the Hambletonian. Perhaps never in the race’s history at the Meadowlands has the event been so unpredictable at this point. To date, there have been no superstars who have emerged and no colts or geldings who have even appeared without some flaw.

The one certainty is that the most consistent and impressive 3-year-old trotter will not be entered in the Hambletonian. That would be Bee A Magician, the thus-far flawless filly who captured the Del Miller Memorial a week ago, posting the fastest mile of the year for a sophomore, regardless of gender.

It has been a challenging season made even more confounding by the lack of real airtime from last year’s Breeders Crown champion, Wheeling N Dealin. Perhaps possum is being played by his connections in Ontario. If not, the colt hasn’t yet shown the speed required to capture a race of this stature.

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Wheeling N Dealin was beaten soundly in an overnight event Saturday at Mohawk, losing by some 10 lengths while being raced extremely conservatively. The colt does have enough time to be fine-tuned, but isn’t that what the last few months were about?

One colt, Royalty For Life, has shown the most speed of anyone in this division. He’s qualified fast (too many times) and showed power in winning the Dancer at the Meadowlands despite having to navigate the first turn four wide most of the way. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Royalty For Life’s scorecard shows the Dancer to be the lone pari-mutuel race this year in which he didn’t make a break in stride. While trainer George Ducharme hopes that the miscues are a thing of the past, competing drivers are not likely to make things easy for the colt when the big money is on the line.

Royalty For Life’s break in the Beal final appeared to be a combination of a high-strung horse and a field suddenly coming to a stop.

It is precisely this dynamic that should attract a healthy number of between 20 and 30 colts when the entry box closes a week from Tuesday. The odds are that the number of entries could climb closer to 30 given the facts above.

We’ve assembled a top-10 list that we’ll reveal Letterman (David, that is) style.

A recent winner of the Connor Memorial at Hazel Park, he has shown steady improvement while racing primarily in the Midwest this season. He did show some ability as a 2-year-old when pitted against stakes competition. With the Meadowlands closing out its first era as Hambletonian host (the race will be contested before a new grandstand next year), would it be a shock if a horse arriving from Michigan, the home of the first Hambo winner at the Meadowlands in 1981, Shiaway St. Pat, wins?

Here’s a smallish colt who trainer Jimmy Takter says gives you everything he’s got all of time. He’s neither flashy nor extremely fast, but his guts were on display last Saturday night, when he captured a Yonkers Trot elimination despite not handling the track at all. His time was slow, and his trip was awkward, but his determination was evident.

Here’s an example of where Hambletonian experience could pay off. Trainer Robert Stewart has known his share of disappointment in the big event. The trainer of Andover Hall, Conway Hall, and Angus Hall has made this trip before and, through circumstances mostly beyond his control, has come away with no trophies. Creatine probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the above star racehorses and popular stallions, but he was born in the right year and will face the right crop. Here’s a colt who probably got kinked a bit while having to trot in 1:52 and change in his first start while chasing older foes. That may have set him back a few weeks, but he responded recently with a solid Sire Stakes victory at Harrah’s Philadelphia.

In any other year, he wouldn’t make this list, but despite his recent woes (two straight losses after a perfect season in 2012), he must be given a chance to make it to the big dance. Trainer Dustin Jones appears to have avoided giving his Cantab Hall-sired colt any significant speed work, racing off the pace in both pari-mutuel starts. With that said, the horse does appear sound, and maybe, just maybe Jones is setting him up for two heats with this pattern.

This colt probably would ube higher on this list if not for his lack of racing over the last couple of weeks. On talent alone, he was a shining star for most of the season. His victory in the Beal elimination was quite impressive. His loss in the final may have been a result of a sloppy surface, something he’d never been on before. Now, due to some possible behind-the-scenes misconduct from his former trainer, he missed the Dancer and was forced into the David Smith stable. It would be wise not to sell Smith or this colt short if all systems are go on Hambo Day.

No. 5 – E L ROCKET
Is 2013 finally the year that Ron Burke wins trotting’s most coveted prize? The fact that he was able to get a Hambletonian-eligible colt purchased for the base six-figure sum is impressive in itself. What he’s done with E L Rocket since the purchase makes him a serious contender. The son of Credit Winner could become the first New York-bred colt to win the race in 25 years.

It’s been 26 years since Chuck Sylvester’s greatest horse, Mack Lobell, captured the Hambletonian. Somehow, he still hasn’t lost his touch, as evidenced by the maturity and staying power Spider Blue Chip has shown this year. The Andover Hall-sired gelding showed grit and determination in winning a pair of races at the Meadowlands and then almost got by Royalty For Life in the Dancer after a close-up trip. Sylvester prepped him smartly with a victory in PaSS action at Harrah’s Philadelphia, and you have to believe the Hall of Fame trainer is anxious for the return of two-heats.

No. 3 – CORKY
He still is Jimmy Takter’s best chance in the Big Dance. The Muscles Yankee-sired colt likely bounced in the Dancer after a huge effort in capturing the Beal. There is nothing but solid lines supporting Takter’s claim, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be primed.

From the first time I saw this Yankee Glide-sired colt in a baby race at the Meadowlands, I thought he was something special. He went on to capture the Peter Haughton in August and finished his juvenile campaign in September. He’s had a different approach this year, with trainer Jim Oscarsson racing him strictly from off the pace. That appears to have paid off, with two solid wins in July, his most recent a 1:54 1/5 effort at Harrah’s.

Somehow, the irony seems to be building behind this horse’s story line. Brian Sears has thus far in 2013 been the only driver to get along with the colt. Sears, who will guide Hambo Oaks favorite Bee A Magician, has the opportunity to do what George Brennan did in 2011, that being leave the Meadowlands driving colony to race at Yonkers and then come back on the biggest day in New Jersey Standardbred racing to capture the Hambletonian and the Hambletonian Oaks. For the record, Sears already accomplished the feat in 2009 with Muscle Hill and Broadway Schooner.

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