Harness Racing 2011 Year In Review

For us Yonkers fans, the year began on January 13, 2011, with a 12-race card that just happened to include two pacers who would go on to race on the Yonkers closing night card on December 19. More on that later!

Between that beginning race and the year’s end, there was a lot to celebrate and a bit to regret. Since it’s always easier to reflect on the happier days, here are a few of the high points of 2011 (in no particular order save for the first, my personal favorite moment).

San Pail, a 7-year-old gelding out of San Pellegrino, was named the top older trotter in both the Dan Patch award voting and the O’Brien award balloting after wins in the Breeders Crown, Maple Leaf Trot, Nat Ray International, Credit Winner, and Allerage Trot. The Glenn Van Camp and Rod Hughes owned super horse was trained by Glenn Van Camp and driven to perfection by Randy Waples. My favorite memory of 2011 is San Pail edging out those two fabulous Europeans in the Breeders Crown final. Rapide Lebel and Commander Crowe (the most beautiful horse in the world) were easily the best that night – the best OTHER than San Pail, who ended the year 14 for 16 with 2 seconds and earnings of $1.28 million. For Randy and San Pail – keep it up in 2012!

Carl Jamieson’s Up The Credit, driven by his son Jody, won the Pepsi North American Cup in June, defeating Roll With Joe, Big Bad John, and Big Jim. In December, we learned that Up The Credit will not retire but will breed and race in 2012. Good news for all of us harness fans!

On 2011 Hambo Day at the Meadowlands, George Brennan became only the second driver (after Brian Sears) to win both the Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks with Broad Bahn and Bold and Fresh (recently sold to Norwegian interests). Not surprisingly, George also won theYonkers driving title and was named Driver of the Year by the U S Harness Writers Association. My New Year’s wish for George is that he will find a really trustworthy courier service to haul all that cash to the bank and an equally sound financial advisor to guide his investments.

In the early stages of 2011, we all held our collective breath as St Elmo Hero came out of theIllinois ranks to increase his lifetime wins to 25 straight before losing in a photo finish at Woodbine in April. The race came two days after the death of Michelle Eustis, daughter of trainer Charles Eustis III, in an early morning accident on the Balmoral Park backstretch. After the loss at Woodbine, St Elmo Hero was sidelined with foot problems but returned to racing and managed a fourth place finish in November’s American National finals at Balmoral Park.

Following our disappointment with St Elmo Hero, most of us found a new focus in a 3-year-old filly pacer with the clever name of See You At Peelers. Co-owned and trained by Jimmy Takter, Peelers extended her lifetime win streak to 22 straight and garnered national attention when she and Takter were profiled in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. When she won the Art Rooney Pace against the boys at Yonkers, she did so as the first filly ever to enter that prestigious race. When she lost to Idyllic in the Nadia Lobell Stakes at The Meadows, all of harness racing hoped she would overcome this setback and come back to start another win streak. But after two additional losses she was found to have an inflammation of the heart, possibly treatable with medication, and was forced to sit out the remainder of the year. Despite her limited schedule, See You At Peelers was recently named the champion 3-year-old filly pacer by the USHWA, following up on her 2010 Dan Patch award as the 2-year-old filly pacing champ. For 2012 we can all wish Peelers a happy and healthy New Year, whether she makes it back to the races or enjoys retirement at the Takter farm where they will always appreciate her contribution to Jimmy’s well-earned election to harness racing’s Living Hall of Fame.

Check Me Out, a daughter of Donato Hanover co-owned and trained by Ray Schnittker, picked up the Dan Patch award as the top 2-year-old filly trotter after matching San Pail’s record of 14 for 16 wins with two seconds. Driven by Tim Tetrick and Ron Pierce, Check Me Out won in the Merrie Annabelle and Breeder’s Crown stakes and overcame a break to win in the Matron stakes. More good news for the Donato Hanover breeding connections!

Among the better “feel good” stories of 2011 was Big Bad John’s win in the Little Brown Jug. Conditioned by hometown trainer Ron Potter and driven by Ohio native David Miller, the local favorite delighted the crowds who came to the races hoping they’d have something to celebrate. David Miller also steered Idyllic to a win in the Jugette, becoming only the second driver to win both races in the same year. The first was Billy Haughton.

Surely one of the biggest stories of 2011 was the saga of the Meadowlands and whether there was a future for harness racing in East Rutherford, New Jersey. As we now know, there will indeed be racing at the Big M, thanks in large part to Jeff Gural’s determined efforts. The 2012 meet opens January 7 but the story of the “new” Meadowlands is just beginning and is sure to be a hot topic in the coming year.

In the case of Yonkers Raceway’s missing trainers, Standardbred Canada reported in early December that The New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRW) had issued fines and suspensions to some 16 individuals who were held responsible for medication violations (particularly Afrin positives) at Yonkers and other New York harness tracks. This is what the sport of harness racing needs. For a long time there was an ugly cloud that never seemed to go away since the late 70’s and 80’s. We need to keep this great sport legit for all those involved or harness racing could lose its popularity and fall by the wayside. The New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRW) is stepping up their efforts to ensure that the sport of harness racing is on the up and up. After all the rumors flying around the racing community, the following suspensions and fines were levied:

  • Joe Anderson: 2 years and $5,000 fine
  • Paul Blumenfeld: 180 days and $5,000 fine
  • Rob Harmon: 180 days and $5,000 fine
  • Thomas Merton: 6 months and $2,000 fine
  • Lance Hudson: 120 days and $2,000 fine
  • Heidi Rohr: 120 days and $2,000 fine
  • Mark Kesmodel: 105 days and $1,000 fine
  • Chris Oakes: 105 days and $1,000 fine
  • Richard Banca: 90 days and $1,000 fine
  • Paul Fusco: 90 days and $1,000 fine
  • Frank Yanoti: 90 days and $1,000 fine
  • Kevin Johnson: 60 days and $1,000 fine
  • Frank Calcagni: 60 days and $750 fine
  • Don Campbell: 60 days and $750 fine
  • David Duspiva: 60 days and $750 fine
  • Michael Vanderkemp: 60 days and $750 fine
  • April Aldrich: an appeal was filed and the case is still under review.

Let’s hope this is the last we hear about positive tests on banned substances.

Perhaps the most curious story of the year was the off-again on-again relationship between Yonkers Raceway and leading trainer Lou Pena. On July 29 Yonkers advised Pena that his horses would no longer be accepted. Despite, or perhaps because of, his 244 wins and amazing .445 UTR, Pena was suddenly persona non grata at the Hillside Oval. For comparison, his nearest competitor at Yonkers had 82 wins. According to Lou, no reason was given beyond it being “for the best interests of the sport”. While many have their suspicions about Pena and the New Jersey authorities have spent much time in his barn, he has not had a single horse test positive since 2006. So much for innocent until proven guilty, eh! To further cloud the issue, at the end of November Yonkers inexplicably asked Pena to return, albeit with a much-reduced stable. And in the perfect ending to the tale, Lou Pena has been named 2011’s top trainer at Yonkers Raceway!

From the Perils of Pena it’s only a small step to discussing some of the less happy moments of 2011. After failing to qualify for this year’s Breeders Crown, Buck I St Pat was retired in October. The three-time US Trotting Mare of the Year ended her career at age 8 after winning $2,347,565. Earlier in the year there was the January 27 barn collapse at Lindy Farms where the Antonacci family lost broodmares Lady Starlet and My Dolly, both stakes winning race mares. The great Moni Maker shared the same barn but fortunately survived. In September we learned that the magnificent pacer and sire Falcon Seelster had been put down at age 29. Also in September came the death of top older pacer Giddy Up Lucky who passed away under what might best be termed questionable circumstances. Among other losses this year was Malabar Man, 2007 Horse of the Year, Hambletonian winner, and sire of stakes winners. He died October 25, age 17, at Winbak Farm.

In November the harness racing world lost one of its most respected voices when Stan Bergstein left us at age 87. Through his 50 year association with Harness Tracks of America and other industry organizations, Bergstein worked tirelessly to promote and improve Standardbred racing and was the only person ever inducted into both the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and its Communicators Hall of Fame. Less well known was Dalio Simmons who died December 8 at age 51. He was the owner, trainer, and driver of Majik Master and had raced at Northfield Park for many years before relocating toNew Jersey. Dalio was a small-time horseman who, some said, marched to his own drum.

And sadly, three horses passed away in the final days of December. Sonic Seelster was put down December 19 at Harrah’s Chester when he collapsed in the paddock area after returning from a race in which he was heavily favored, broke stride early and never competed. Sandro Hanover won his last race at Yonkers on December 20, broke down just past the wire and was euthanized on December 26. Finally, we can all hope, there was the loss of Eldorado Max, a local favorite at The Raceway at Western Fair inLondon, Ontario. The 14-year-old collapsed past the finish line. His final race was to have been the Old Lang Syne Trot on New Year’s Eve. RIP to all.

Winners Wire

Since the inception of Winners Wire on May 3, 2011, harness racing is a lot more fun when you have other fans and friends following along, sharing stories and handicapping. Here are some of the highlights at the Wire in 2011.

Our very first winner of Handicapper of the Month was Dave (W9TG). Pat (Pat5336) had the most wins ever with 12 out of a possible 16 in HOTM.
Virtual Stable highest earnings goes to Gary (Bloodstock) who earned over $75,000.
2011 Handicapping Statistics

Over 600 Picks

Most Wins: 634 (Cam)
Best Win %: 32.76% (Cam)
Highest ROI: $1.91 (Cam)

Over 300 Picks

Most Wins: 184 (johndav)
Best Win %: 33.69% (johndav)
Highest ROI: $2.00 (spicytomato)

Special thanks go out to Donna (caftan) for authoring many articles around the sport of harness racing on the Winners Wire blog and her in depth knowledge of the sport and all the useful information she shares on the forums; Dave (W9TG) for all the help he has provided for the Winners Wire and for keeping the Virtual Stable in check; and Gary (Bloodstock) for his efforts and hard work in keeping the ROI up to date for our daily handicapping picks at Yonkers Raceway.

I look forward to seeing the Winners Wire grow in 2012 and all the fun it will bring!

Farewell to 2011, the year that was. The stories were both good and not so good, and there were many more than could be covered here. And, oh, I almost forgot – those two pacers from the Yonkers opening day and closing day cards? Bolero Topgun and San Antony-O. We hope they, and you all, have a winning 2012!