07/09/2015 9:52AM

Pandolfo: Ell enjoying the ride with JL Cruze

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Curtis Salonick
JL Cruze has won 14 of 16 races in 2015.

Last fall, trainer Eric Ell and his owners were at the Harrisburg Mixed Fall Sale looking for a few horses to race in condition races in Delaware. Ell purchased a 3-year-old trotter named JL Cruze for $37,000 for owners Kenny Wood, Bill Dittmar, Jr., and Stephen Laquinta.

"He had been racing at Vernon Downs," Ell said.  "The owner was a very nice guy. I don't think he wanted to sell him but I believe the gentleman had some health problems. We've sent him the trophies after some of the big wins that the horse has had.

"We raced JL Cruze at Dover towards the end of the year and he won a couple of races, but he was running awkwardly and he didn't seem to like the turns," Ell said. "He used to hit himself sometimes and he broke stride. He had sort of a high stepping gait in front, which concerned me. I changed to lighter shoes and that helped.

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"But then we took him to the Meadowlands to race in the Super Bowl series and he really liked the bigger track.  Early on he'd get on one line and I remember driver John Campbell telling me that JL Cruze was green. But he kept getting better and started to trot clean."

JL Cruze cruised through three winter trotting series’ at the Meadowlands, winning the Super Bowl Final for $50,000, the Charlie Singer Final for $49,000 and the Shiaway St Pat Final for $59,800. He then shipped to Pocono and won the Bobby Weiss final for $30,000.

"It's not easy to win all of those series Finals in the winter," Ell said. "I remember one night, there was a vicious headwind in the stretch and he came home in 26 4/5.

"He just keeps winning but it's not as if he hasn't had any problems. He got injured twice this year. One of the injuries was to his right front foot. After we patched it up I had to put bar shoes on him," Ell said.

JL Cruze was winning, but his biggest tests were yet to come. On June 6, JL Cruze, racing in bar shoes, had to face champion Father Patrick, a horse who earned $1.6 million last year, more than any other trotter, and set a world record for 3-year-olds on a five-eighth track. JL Cruze left in 26 4/5, yielded to Father Patrick, but came back on and beat him at 6-1 odds. And it was no fluke because he beat him again the next week.

JL Cruze has now won 16 of 19 starts since moving into Eric Ell's barn. I asked Ell if he's going to take the bar shoes off.

"His foot is getting better," Ell explained, "but he's racing so strong. I can't see taking the bar shoes off right now."

Last week in the Sun Invitational at Pocono Downs, JL Cruze was pitted against the great Sebastian K. The world champion showed his usual brilliant speed, making two moves to the lead, but JL Cruze went first over for John Campbell and beat the fastest trotter ever by a nose.

Winning those three winter trotting series’ is one thing, and quite an accomplishment for a gelded $37,000 purchase, but they didn't expect to beat the likes of Father Patrick and Sebastian K, two of the biggest stars in harness racing.

"I was surprised," Ell said, "because now he's facing great horses. But this horse is a 100 percent racehorse. No matter how fast they go, he doesn't quit, he keeps on coming at them."

The 55-year-old Ell has trained more than 1,100 winners to earnings of over $14 million in his career. And this isn't the first horse that's improved in his shedrow.

"JL Cruze is the best horse I've trained," Ell said. "But we've made several other nice purchases over the years. We claimed Anders Bluestone for $25,000 and he's won over $800,000 for us. He beat Buck I St Pat and Corleone Kosmos in the 2011 Maxie Lee Final at Harrah's (Philadelphia).

"This year we've done well with another horse we bought at Harrisburg last fall, Bristol Bay. He had been racing in Pennsylvania sire stakes.  He's by Somebeachsomewhere but I only paid $9,500 for him. A few minutes later someone told me that he had forgotten to bid and would pay me $10,500 for him. I could have made a quick $1,000 profit. But I decided to keep him.

"Well, when we got him back to the barn I realized that he had two bowed tendons. He was in bad shape. I have to admit, I'm proud of the job I did with this one. I took my time with him. We had his tendons operated on, had him gelded, gave him time off. We brought him back this year and he's won 4 of 7 starts. He's won at Yonkers, Pocono, and he just won a non-winners of $15,000 at Harrah's Philadelphia."

Ell has had a long relationship with one of his owners, Kenny Wood. "I've been training horses for Kenny Wood for over 30 years," Ell said. "He's a great guy to work for.”

Wood owns property in Denton, Delaware and that's where the horses are stabled.

"We've got a few paddocks there so we can turn them out," said Ell. "In fact, with the exception of JL Cruze and a couple of 2-year-olds, I'll be turning out most of my horses for the rest of July. With all the stakes races in the summer, it's a good time to rest the raceway horses. This way they can get freshen up and I can bring them back in September."

Wood is a great guy in more ways than one. He owns a well drilling company. A few years ago, some missionaries approached him and wanted to buy one of his rigs to be used in Africa. Wood decided to go over to Africa. Once he saw the horrendous water conditions there, with people walking miles to get muddy water, Wood decided to help.

"Kenny has been going to Africa three or four times a year for the past three years," Ell said. "He drills wells there and 90% of the cost comes out of his own pocket."

JL Cruze will be racing in the $250,000 Graduate Final at the Meadowlands this week. They had to supplement him for $50,000. If all goes well, he could race in the John Cashman on Hambletonian Day where he'll once again face the best in the sport. He would have to be supplemented to the Breeders Crown.

"It's too early to tell if we'll supplement to the Breeders Crown," Ell said. "Right now we're just taking it one race at a time and enjoying this horse. He's unbelievable."

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.