By John Furgele
The 2021 Borgata Pacing Series, a six-week showcase for older pacers at Yonkers Raceway, is in full swing.
With three legs of the series complete, the remaining three legs are set for consecutive Mondays with the big final set for April 19. With six races in six weeks, strategy as well as knowing your horse is of utmost importance.
The series formerly known as the Levy kicked off March 15 with five divisions of leg one. Each horse gets 25 points for making a start and the points are divided out as follows: 50 points for winning, 25 for second, 12 for third, eight for fourth and five for fifth.
Some trainers will try to stockpile points early and then rest their horse the week before the final. Others will skip a second or third leg but will run their horse in the fifth leg thinking that will make them keen for the final. Naturally, the more points you accumulate, the more options you have.
The window is tight and because Yonkers no longer races on Saturdays, the Monday final will no doubt, garner attention. And, because COVID-19 wiped out last year’s Borgata, it’s refreshing to look up entries and see stakes races and big purses on the docket once again.
It should also be noted that standardbreds run more frequently than thoroughbreds, and racing week in and week out is nothing new.
In leg one, the five division winners were Let It Ride, Lyons Steel, San Domino, Hesa Kingslayer, and Leonidas. Those five picked up 75 points for their efforts. The leg two winners were Hesa Kingslayer, Leonidas, Backsteet Shadow, and Rockapelo. With strategy in full play, there were only three divisions for leg three and those winners were Hesa Kingslayer, Rockapelo, and Western Joe.
These colts and geldings best days may be behind them, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to slow down anytime soon. In harness racing, durability means something, and the Borgata is a reward for possessing it.
The ages of the winners tell that story. Let It Ride, San Domino, HesaKingslayer are all 8-year-olds; Western Joe is seven, while Lyons Steel, Rockapelo and Leonidas check in at age six. These horses follow a familiar pattern. They gear up in February, start racing in March and continue through November with December and January used for rest. When six-figure races are contested, these are the ones that show up and perform.
If you like series racing, you have to find the chess matches most compelling, the series within the series. Both HesaKingslayer and Leonidas are 2-for-2 but only Leonidas was idle for the leg three races Monday night [March 29]. HesaKingslayer raced — and won — for the third consecutive week and you have to figure that he’s off when leg four commences on April 5.
Rockapelo was fifth in leg one before his impressive win in the second leg. He was sent out Monday looking to build off on that performance and he did just that, dominating in 1:51.4. Lyons Steel picked up 50 points for his win on March 22, and then rested, but the 6-year-old came back for leg three and picked up 12 points for a third-place finish.
To me, the most interesting leg is the fifth. Some horses will have to race; desperate to pick up enough points to qualify for the final, but the intrigue comes with those that have secured a spot in the final.
Do you race to stay sharp, or is it better to take the week off, train and fine tune? That decision of course goes to the trainers and it makes things interesting for bettors as they weigh the pros and cons of racing versus resting.
The horse I have my eye on is Leonidas. The 6-year-old comes from Australia and has a racing style that I haven’t seen. He’s a pure closer which in harness racing is rare.
Most harness tracks are either a half-mile or 5/8 miles, and to win, you must get out and settle in right away. On half-mile tracks, the common strategy is to get to the lead in the first quarter, slow things down in the second, surge in the third and try to hold on down the stretch.
Leonidas doesn’t do that. He’s content to go to the back, settle in and then make his move in the final quarter. That’s tough to do on the half-miles with the tight turns and we all know that horses that race on the outside are pacing more than 1 mile when it’s all said and done.
Leonidas doesn’t care and if you want to see for yourself, I urge you to watch the Nov. 15 Potomac Pace from Rosecroft for proof. When the race began, he went right to the back and sat patiently, waiting to make his move. It looked like he’d run out of time, but his timing was perfect as he won in 1:48.0 for driver Austin Siegelman.
In leg 2, he had the one post. That meant he had to take the lead, right? The answer — of course not. He was content to let others go, but he settled right in, took the lead by the 3/8 mark, slowed things down and then kicked away late to win with ease. He never appears to panic which could be to his benefit on the half-mile at venerable Old Hilltop.
There’s also a curiosity factor; he’s done most of his racing in Australia but appears ready to take on older pacers in North America going forward. He certainly adds a little excitement to short track racing, and should he make the Borgata final, it should be excellent theater.
The series began with over 40 horses. On April 19, the eight finalists will be racing for at least $150,000.