03/17/2014 10:23AM

Jay Bergman: Watch out for Apprentice Hanover in the Levy series at Yonkers

New Image Media
Apprentice Hanover has won nine straight races dating back to 2013.

The George Morton Levy Series kicks off major stakes action this Saturday (March 22) at Yonkers Raceway. A total of 47 horses are named to the aged pacing event that carries five preliminary legs leading up to a lucrative final on April 26. It’s a series that has proven itself over time to be engaging and sometimes puzzling. Last year one horse was sold for a lofty sum just to allow the eventual Aged Pacer of the Year Foiled Again to get into the final.

This year Foiled Again leads the list of nominees. While the series has been hard on many of its horses, Foiled Again has proven to be the exception to the rule, as the now 10-year-old embarks on what figures to be another vintage campaign.

On the other side of the spectrum are 46 horses hoping that they can get around a half-mile track and compete at the highest level. They must overcome obstacles, most notably for many is besting the Ron Burke stable’s large supply of top shelf aged pacers as well as the logical half-mile track issue—post position.

[DRF HARNESS: LIKE us on Facebook and get timely updates on the latest harness news]

Coming in from Ontario for the first leg will be the hottest horse in North America over the last few months. The four-year-old Apprentice Hanover brings a nine-race winning streak to Yonkers for what trainer Ben Wallace hopes to be somewhat of a coming out party.

Yet Wallace is way too experienced to believe that the expensive two-year-old purchase of owner Brad Grant in 2012 is any lock to continue his winning form at Yonkers. However, the trainer certainly likes the way his horse has raced and coming off a brilliant 1:50 4/5 mile in the Preferred ranks at Woodbine this past Saturday, who could blame him?

“I finally had him where I wanted him at the end of last year and I talked it over with Brad to continue to race him through the winter and point him towards the Levy Series,” said Wallace.

While Apprentice Hanover did win six of 19 races as a three-year-old, he earned less than a quarter million dollars doing so in 2013, with four of the wins coming in November and December. Much of the season was spent with Wallace trying to nurse the horse over serious stomach and allergy issues. Over the winter things have improved dramatically, with the horse toying with competition that has likely been thinned out in Ontario. At the same time, Apprentice Hanover appears to have regained his winning edge and that gives rise to Wallace’s caged optimism.

“I don’t think he’ll embarrass himself down there,” said Wallace. “I think if he’s sitting close up in any of these races, he’ll give a good account of himself.”

There is certainly reason for optimism, especially over a half-mile racetrack. Apprentice Hanover captured the final three-year-old stakes race of 2013, the Cleveland Classic at Northfield, coming from off the pace in a 1:52 1/5 clocking. Driver Jody Jamieson was in the bike that night and has continued to go wherever Apprentice Hanover has been entered.

“Jody will be down to drive him at Yonkers on Saturday,” Wallace said, confirming that the winning combination will stay in tact for at least the opening round of action.

Asked why he elected to race Apprentice Hanover this past Saturday with many of the Levy contenders skipping the week due to the grueling five-week nature of the series, Wallace had good reasons.

“If I didn’t race him he would be missing three weeks in a row heading into the series. I was going to qualify him if the race hadn’t filled,” said Wallace. “I’m not going to race him in all five legs at Yonkers. He’s been racing best with me giving him time between races.”

Whether Wallace can miss more than one leg of the series and hope to qualify for the final remains to be seen.

Wallace has always been the kind of trainer that had a long term outlook and didn’t panic at the first sign of problems. In Apprentice Hanover he has what could be a sleeper. A precocious two-year-old in 2012 purchased for big money but failing to return on the promise at three, the son of Somebeachsomewhere has another chance to redeem himself this year.

Despite the large number of nominees to the Levy, there appear to be a high percentage of horses that won’t be traveling outside of the Tri-State area once the series concludes. Not to judge the quality prematurely, but a high percentage of the horses are five-year-olds and above and many don’t have Open credentials.

At the same time, there could be quite a bit of intrigue just finding out which of trainer Ron Burke’s 10 nominees will wind up in the final.

Sweet Lou has never been able to get the light to shine directly on him whether in his own stable against Foiled Again or against a wickedly deep three-year-old crop of 2012. Now at the age of five, the Levy could afford the son of Yankee Cruiser a legitimate shot to emerge as the true force in the Burke stable.

A year ago Mr Hasani N caught our fancy but never quite caught on at the open level. Trainer Darran Cassar appears to have brought him back very smartly this year. In his two starts at Yonkers, he’s looked much more relaxed on the racetrack and much more determined as well.

[DRF HARNESS: Check out our NEW and IMPROVED Harness Eye PPs and see our discount packages]

Joe Pavia Jr. has qualified Bet On The Law twice in Florida at Pompano Park and he could be a better and more rugged horse as a five-year-old racing in the Levy than he was a year ago when he tackled these horses in vain.

Trainer Mark Harder didn’t get Statesman N in time last year to have him in the Levy series. The import showed plenty of talent over the half-mile track at Yonkers in 2013 and definitely deserves a chance to go with the best in the coming weeks. Harder’s stable has shown plenty of life this winter and Statesman N may lead the way through March and April.

The winter is certainly over, or so the calendar says, and that’s good enough for me. The Levy this Saturday and the companion filly and mare division known as the Blue Chip Matchmaker on Friday begin what should be some of the best racing this spring at Yonkers Raceway.