08/02/2012 9:31AM

Pandolfo: Hambletonian tempo hard to predict


I watched my first Hambletonian in 1971, the year that Speedy Crown won. But the first Hambo that really wowed me was in 1975 when Bonefish, driven by Stanley Dancer, won by a nose in his 4th heat. To this day I still can’t recall a horse giving a braver effort in a major race. Bonefish never raced again but turned out to be a great broodmare sire before dying at the age of 16. He was the grandsire of the great mare Moni Maker. Bonefish was also the grandsire of Valley Victory.

The following year, 1976, it took four heats again and this time Steve Lobell, driven by William Haughton, won the final. Steven Lobell almost died after the race. After 1976 the Hambletonian Society decided to limit the race to three heats. Eventually heat racing went away. In 2013 the Meadowlands will bring back heat racing for the Hambletonian. It won’t be as hard on the horses because it will only be two heats; the eliminations will be raced on the same day. I think it’s a good idea because in the last 10 years or so the Hambletonian has lost some of its luster as several favorites have taken the early lead and won races that had very little action. The return to heat racing should help.

[HAMBLETONIAN: Watch race previews and see Saturday's full card LIVE]

When you look at the list of Hambletonian winners, the race was won by some of the greatest trotters of all time. In 1935 the incomparable Greyhound won the Hambletonian.  The “Grey Ghost” won 71 races in 82 career starts. His world record of 1:55 1/5 stood up for 31 years. Now world records last about 31 minutes.

Some other Hambo winners that really stand out are Nevele Pride (1968), Mack Lobell (1987), and Muscle Hill (2009).

Perhaps the most unforgettable Hambletonian was the 1989 edition which ended in a dead heat. It was supposed to be a match race between two brilliant 3-year-olds, the colt Valley Victory and the filly Peace Corps. Valley Victory got sick and had to be scratched, and Peace Corps, who came into the race with a 17-race win streak, did not make the final. Park Avenue Joe and Probe each won one of the first two heats to set up a match race in the third and final heat.

The final turned out to be one of the greatest races in the history of the Hambo as the two trotters finished in a dead heat. Amazingly, Park Avenue Joe was declared the winner, based on the totality of his performances in the first two heats. This, of course, was ridiculous. The owners of Probe appealed. It took two years, but finally the two trotters were named co-winners of the 1989 Hambletonian. Incidentally, the video replay of this amazing race is on www.youtube.com and the announcer was the great Tom Durkin.

When I handicap the Hambletonian, I feel there are two key factors: 1) Find a horse that is improving and hasn’t been used too hard (hasn’t peaked too soon); and 2) Find a horse that can finish strong.

However, in the last 10 years or so, the Hambletonian has changed. The best place to be has been on the lead, or in the pocket, which are the best trips in today’s sport.

There are several colts in the race that figure to race off the pace and can finish fast: Knows Nothing, Prestidigitator, and Guccio are three that should be charging. But with the recent history of leavers winning the Hambletonian and most other big races, the money is going to be on the rail horse, Uncle Peter. His driver, Ron Pierce, has won many big races with aggressive handling.

An interesting angle in this year’s race could come from the aftermath of the Meadowlands Pace. The Big M Pace looked wide open on paper but several of the drivers decided to race off the pace. The result was that the pace was dawdling and Yannick Gingras stole the race on the front end. The fact that several drivers got caught napping in that big race just two weeks ago could have an impact on the Hambletonian. The drivers may not want to make the same mistake twice, so the pace could be faster than anticipated.

A horse that I think has to leave from the outside is Stormin Norman. He has good speed and Hall of Fame driver Dave Palone. If Stormin Norman leaves fast, the pace could be hot because Uncle Peter should be leaving fast from the rail. But, again, the drivers may not opt to take a chance with conservative drives this time and other horses could also try to use their speed early. I expect a faster pace than we’ve seen in recent years. Of course I expected a fast pace in the Meadowlands pace and I was wrong.

Here is my analysis:

ARCHANGEL raced sharply in his elimination. He was used to get the lead, set a lively pace and held the place behind a perfect trip winner while not asked in the final sixteenth. UNCLE PETER made two moves to win in a sharp performance and could set the pace or sit a pocket trip. KNOWS NOTHING finished sharply to win his elimination and has 7 wins in 8 starts. He should be either first over or covered up in good position if there is a decent flow. PRESTIDIGATOR had a very tough wide trip from post 8 last week and finished gamely.