12/27/2012 6:11AM

Meadowlands: Ford sends out hard-knocking veterans this weekend

Trainer Mark Ford feels that long schedule breaks are not good for top horses.

It’s opening weekend for the 2013 season at the Meadowlands but trainer Mark Ford’s stable hardly seems to know the meaning of opening or closing. His 50-some stable tends to operate at full strength 52-weeks a year. For evidence look no further than Saturday’s $22,500 A-1 pace at the Meadowlands where his River Shark will be making his 47th start this year.

“He’s actually better on the big track,” said Ford about River Shark, a winner of $268,510 this year and just $6,633 shy of the $1 million mark in lifetime earnings.

River Shark and driver Mark MacDonald start from post seven in the nine-horse sixth race on the 13-race card that commences at 7:15 p.m.

It’s not unusual for horses from Ford’s stable to race more than 40 times during a year. His Pembroke Prayer, a trotter, has started more than 42 times in each of the last three seasons under Ford’s care.

“I think when you have horses racing at this level it is much more difficult to let them down completely and bring them back. That’s why if they have some problems I will give them a week off here or there but not much longer,” Ford said.

Despite his difficulty handling the half-mile tracks, somehow River Shark has managed to win 11 times this year and finished second and third seven times each. The six-year-old had suffered a broken cannon bone a few years back but has obviously recovered from that injury.

River Shark enters Saturday’s contest following an impressive victory at Yonkers on December 22. Prior to that were a solid closing second at Yonkers and a pacesetting second place finish at Saratoga.

“I like keeping them on the move and going from track to track, I think it keeps them fresher,” said Ford.

On Saturday River Shark will meet up with young and old as racing secretary Peter Koch has done his best to group horses for the new classified racing system. Normally three-year-olds don’t get to race against aged horses, but as the year comes to an end Hillbilly Hanover will be a three-year-old for just two more days following the race. The son of Dragon Again has blossomed since joining the Ron Burke stable late this fall. Yannick Gingras will drive the gelding that has captured three of his last four starts including a 1:50 1/5 career best effort on December 14 at Harrah’s Philadelphia.

Southwestern Dream, another member of the 40-start club, drew post two with Eric Carlson in the sulky for trainer Bruce Saunders. The seven-year-old by Cambest has been a regular at the Meadowlands throughout his $912,102-earning career. The veteran has won a race in 1:51 2/5 or better in each of the last five years at the Meadowlands and shows no signs of slowing down.

The nine-year-old Western Shore has at times been among the leading pacers in the sport. Lately the son of Western Hanover with career earnings in excess of $1.2 million has been racing against mid-priced conditioned company while attempting to regain his stature. After four months off, Western Shore returned with an eye-catching 1:52 2/5 qualifier last week at the Meadowlands. He seems ready for battle having drawn post six for his return.

Ford was satisfied that his stable earned $4.2 million this year but is optimistic things will improve next year. His association with All Star Racing has seen him train millionaire Shanghai Lil and her brother Blue Claw (entered in race four on the Saturday card) for much of their aged pacing careers.

Will he be training Bolt The Duer, the exciting half-brother to both of those campaigners in 2013?

“That’s Pete Foley’s horse and he’s done a very nice job with him,” said Ford.

That doesn’t mean that Ford wouldn’t love to train the Messenger Stakes winner in 2013 if given the opportunity.

Ford thought if Warrawee Needy returns to top condition in 2013 that he might get a chance to train the horse for Carl Jamieson south of the Canadian border. Warrawee Needy was a brilliant two-year-old in 2011 that had some impressive highs and disappointing lows throughout the 2012 season.

As for his current stable, Ford looks forward to perhaps having Eighteen, a recent winner in Open company at Yonkers, pointing towards the Levy series.

Ford also manages the Mark Ford Training Center in Wallkill, New York. There are currently 310 horses stabled there. The trainer didn’t sound very concerned about the coming year and the suggestion from Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs that they will card more races for Pennsylvania stabled horses.

“I’m not so sure that’s going to pan out. I don’t think it will have any impact on the horse population at my center,” Ford said firmly.