06/06/2013 11:43AM

Tioga: Pet Rock looks for a smooth trip in $184,000 Roll With Joe

Derick Giwner
Pet Rock paced a 1:48 mile while finishing fifth in his 2013 debut.

It’s too bad there are no record books for horses that finish fifth. If there were, Pet Rock would have a place alone atop all others in the sport of harness racing for his effort last week. The four-year-old made his season’s debut last Saturday night in a leg of the TVG FFA series at the Meadowlands and put in what has to rank among the greatest “first starts” ever.

“I guess you could say I prepped him well,” said trainer Virgil Morgan Jr. of the effort.

Pet Rock comes back eight days later to face nine rivals in the $184,000 Roll With Joe, race eight on Sunday’s afternoon program at Tioga Downs. The composition of the 10-horse field is mind-boggling. In an era of incredibly talented pacers, Tioga’s Roll With Joe has put together an amazing collection of young and a little older for this event.

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But Pet Rock, a $1 million career earner, is still looking to find his place in this group.  Morgan is thankful the horse has survived his first trip of the year where catch-driver Simon Allard refused a three-hole tuck on the first turn and proceeded to challenge the seasoned and previously respected Golden Receiver through torrid early fractions.

“It was a bush-league drive,” Morgan said of the effort. “It was his first start of the year and there was plenty of room to drop in the three-hole.”

But Allard didn’t drop in, instead he pushed the pace forcing Golden Receiver through a :25 3/5 first quarter and a :52 3/5 half. Pet Rock was still parked at the three-quarters posted in 1:20 flat, however he was behind cover at that point.

Miraculously, once following horses on the final turn, Pet Rock picked up the bit and followed. In the homestretch, he surprised everyone missing two lengths in a 1:47 3/5 mile.

“He was still trying to pass horses in the stretch,” said Morgan.

Indeed parked the mile in his first start of the year pacing his own mile in 1:48 is astounding, but Morgan has come to not be surprised by the endurance or ability of Pet Rock.

“He’s a special horse and has a super attitude,” said Morgan, who confessed after the hard first mile he lightened up on Pet Rock’s workload heading into Sunday’s contest.

Pet Rock will once again have to overcome some obstacles starting from post 10 in the second tier at Tioga on Sunday. Last year he came within a nose of capturing the Cane Pace over the same surface. This year his appearance has attracted a stellar field that includes the richest pacer of all time, Foiled Again (post 6), and seven millionaires.

Among the elite class, the Roll With Joe marks the second start of the year for Betterthancheddar. The now five-year-old son of Bettors Delight had his own traffic issues in his debut, the Molson at Western Fair. In that race, Betterthancheddar was hopelessly boxed between horses. Driver George Brennan was doing everything possible to wedge free, with success unfortunately coming too late. The Casie Coleman-trained horse won 9 of his 11 starts last year, earning a shade under $800,000. He’ll start from post three on Sunday.

Driver Yannick Gingras will drive Sweet Lou from post five. After capturing the Meadowlands Maturity, Sweet Lou was nosed out by stable-mate Fred And Ginger in a brilliant TVG FFA effort last week at the Meadowlands.

Golden Receiver’s quick early speed has primarily been on display at the Meadowlands this year, but he’s adept off the wings on any sized track. The eight-time winner in 10 starts in 2013 drew post two with Tim Tetrick slated to drive.

A Rocknroll Dance, one of last year’s premier three-year-olds, has yet to hit the board in three starts as a four-year-old, but could be ready for a break-out performance having drawn the pole position in the Roll With Joe. John Campbell drives.

“This is a great group of horses. I think post position is going to have a lot to do with how these races play out,” said Morgan of what appears to be a stacked division.

Dave Miller hops aboard Pet Rock for the Roll With Joe and Morgan couldn’t be happier.

“Dave qualified the horse a few times and loved the horse,” said Morgan.

The 13-race Tioga program (first post 1:30 p.m.) is stakes-filled. Co-featured is the $158,000 Artiscape for the sport’s best older pacing mares. Anndrovette and Feeling You will face a five-mare entry that includes four from trainer Ron Burke’s stable.

Also carded on Sunday are divisions of the second-leg of the New York Sire Stakes for three-year-old filly pacers. The Joe Holloway-trained Shebestingin drew post eight in the seventh-race division.