Every year, PJ Iovino makes the calls. His goal is simple — find eight of the best older pacers to fill the field for the Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial Pace at Saratoga Casino and Hotel. He admits that some years are harder than others, but in 2019, he found a terrific group of pacers that ranged from ages four to eight.
Saturday night’s field had a little bit of everything. Western Fame came in with $526,300 in 2019 earnings. His signature win came in the $664,000 Levy Pace at Yonkers in April and he was coming off a respectable third in the Ben Franklin at Pocono on June 29. This Is The Plan was the hard luck horse. He had just one win, but finished second to Lather Up in both the Haughton Elimination and Haughton final. In the elimination, he ran 1:46.2; the problem was that Lather Up tied the world record for the fastest mile in harness racing history when he stopped the clock in 1:46.
None Bettor came from Australia and all he has done since being here is win. In 11 starts this year, he has nine wins and came into the Gerrity with seven straight victories. The other horses included The Wall, Jimmy Freight and two long shots, Ideal Jimmy and Done Well.
And, then, there was the old man, McWicked. Last year, he became the oldest horse to be chosen Horse of the Year, winning the honors at age seven. His 2018 season was astounding — 19 starts, 12 wins, three seconds and two thirds to go along with $1,575,364 in earnings.
He came into the Gerrity having raced just five times this year. He debuted with a win, but then struggled, with two thirds, a second and a lackluster fourth in the Haughton. Perhaps the now 8-year old was starting to show signs of old age. Nonetheless, it was the second time that Saratoga’s harness track had successfully lured the reigning Horse of the Year to its half-mile oval. In 2015, Wiggle It Jiggleit came to town and romped to victory.
As expected, both This Is The Plan and None Bettor left the gate in an attempt to get the lead. The Plan was quickest, and took them through the quarter in 26.3, the half in 55.4 and three-quarters in 1:23.1.
McWicked was content to sit back but at the end of the first lap, driver Brian Sears got what he needed. The Wall pulled and went first over and that gave Sears his opening.
“The Wall gave me a good trip,” Sears said. “He moved out early and gave us good cover which is what we needed.”
Despite racing three-wide most of the race, Sears knew his horse was on his game, even as the others were trying to push him out.
“He was sharp tonight. Every time I called on him, he responded,’’ Sears said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Still, This Is The Plan was more than ready for the stretch drive and at 7/8ths, it looked like he was going to hold on, but McWicked found an opening in the three path and by a neck, tripped the wire first. It was vintage McWicked, something Sears expected.
“I’ve been driving him on and off since he was three,” the Hall of Fame driver said. “He knows when it’s race day, he’s competitive and loves it.”
McWicked is two years older than both Western Fame and Ideal Jimmy and perhaps that experience was the difference. Sears agreed.
“He’s a class horse,” he said. “He can drive himself, that’s how savvy he is.”
Because he’s not a gelding, the logical question is how much longer he will race. Standardbreds can race through age 14, but those that stick around that long are geldings.
“I’m not sure how long he’ll keep racing,” Sears said. “As long as he’s competitive, I think he’ll keep going. Like I said, he loves to race, so we’ll see.”
McWicked paid $9.80 to win. This Is The Plan finished second, while None Bettor was third in the 11th running of the Gerrity.
Like the weather, harness racing continues to heat up. This Saturday, it’s the $400,000 Adios Run for the Orchids at The Meadows and then on Aug. 3, it’s the biggest day of the year as The Hambletonian comes to The Meadowlands. In addition to that $1 million race for 3-year old trotters, there’s the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks for 3-year old fillies and eight other stakes races.
It would come as no surprise if the top three Gerrity finishers square off in the Sam McKee Memorial on Hambo Day. And, if Lather Up joins the fray, look out.