July 2-8, 2016
I’ve had the opportunity to call two Breeders Crowns during my time as track announcer at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a race as highly anticipated as the Ben Franklin pace that was contested last Saturday at Pocono as part of Sun Stakes Saturday. Three of the sport’s most talented horses at the absolute peak of their powers battled it out in a race that justified every bit of the hype. And although the result doesn’t technically prove anything but who was the best on that given night, the victory is a great feather in the cap of Always B Miki, who won the three-way dance. After all, the opportunity for he and Freaky Feet Pete and Wiggle It Jiggleit to converge on the same night at the same track in the same race might be a long time coming, if it ever happens again at all, so bragging rights might last a while.
Before we talk about exactly how the Franklin played out, there is the not-so-small matter of the three other huge stakes races that took place on Sun Stakes Saturday. In each of those races, the prohibitive favorite silenced any doubters that he or she might have faced coming into the race with a definitive performance. These performances may have removed some of the suspense from the proceedings, but they also solidified the greatness of the horses that delivered them.
In the $300,000 James M. Lynch Memorial pace for 3-year-old fillies, Pure Country came in looking to recapture the mantle of invincibility she possessed as a 2-year-old when she went unbeaten in ten races. She had won half of her six starts in 2016 coming into the Lynch, losing twice to Darlinonthebeach, who was in the Lynch field as well. But Pure Country, trained by Jimmy Takter, dusted that one by brushing by her in the front stretch, then held off a game Blue Moon Stride in the stretch by a half-length in a career-best 1:49:2.
Driver Brett Miller was aboard for Pure Country, and he continued his big night by piloting Racing Hill, who rolled to victory in the $500,000 Max C. Hempt Memorial pace for 3-year-olds. Racing Hill is the lone Sun Stakes champion who can’t really claim divisional supremacy, considering that Betting Line swept through him and several other Hempt competitors in the North American Cup in Canada and didn’t make his way to Pennsylvania for this race. But Racing Hill, trained by Tony Alagna, still earns credit for handling the Hempt field with such ease on the front end, winning by a comfortable 2 ½ lengths in a career-best time of 1:49.
The $500,000 Earl Beal Jr. Memorial Trot for 3-year-olds seemed to be a perfect place for Southwind Frank to continue his dominance of the sophomore trotting division, at least until he was upset at 1-9 in the elimination by Bar Hopping. A #7 post in the final seemed like an invitation to more problems. But Yannick Gingras never sweated the trip, guiding Southwind Frank to the lead on the front stretch, rating him expertly, and then coasting home for a two-length victory in 1:52:4. Suddenly the loss in the elimination seems like a blip, and the career record of 14 wins in 16 races looms large as Southwind Frank heads toward the Hambletonian hype.
Back to the Franklin, which carried a purse of $500,000. For those who might have forgotten, the three main competitors were Wiggle It JiggleIt, defending horse of the year and one of the most popular stars the sport has seen in years; Freaky Feet Pete, a four-year-old counterpart of Wiggle It JiggleIt with a record almost as gaudy despite coming from humble origins in the Midwest; and Always B Miki, whose world record-matching victory in the Franklin eliminations was the latest in a series of jaw-dropping victories for the 5-year-old stallion.
As if so often the case, these big races never go exactly according to plan. Most people expected several horses to be winging it toward the front end and a sturdy outer flow to develop. Certainly that’s what driver David Miller expected when he sent Always B Miki to the outside on the first turn. But instead he cruised to the front of the pack and past Freaky Feet Pete for the lead at the 3/8-mile marker.
It was by no means easy after that, as Wiggle it Jiggleit came hard at him first-over on the back stretch. Once that charge was repelled, Always B Miki, trained by Jimmy Takter, had to summon more energy to hold off Freaky Feet Pete in the pocket. But after a trip in the eliminations in which he was parked for two turns, Saturday night must have seemed like a breeze for Always B Miki. He fended off Freaky Feet Pete by a length, once again pacing the mile in 1:47 to match his world-record time from the previous week.
The enthusiasm and excitement generated by both the Franklin and all of the big races on Sun Stakes Saturday demonstrate just how much the fans of this sport care for it. They want to see greatness, and they had that chance on Saturday night. Let’s hope that fate provides even more opportunities for the harness racing stars to align in such a manner in the very near future.
That will do it for this week, but we’ll see you at the track. Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 2-8, 2016