Harness Racing: Manchego Returns; World Record at Northfield; News from the Big M, Freehold, Ontario

By John Furgele

Last fall, Manchego ran what was thought to the final race of her career in the Breeders’ Crown. A few months of rest, then it would be time to enjoy retirement for a while, and on to the business of becoming a broodmare.

Oops. Well, Manchego was retired last October. Over the winter, though, trainer Nancy Takter was able to convince Manchego’s owner to unretire her and get going again for 2021 — perhaps beyond.

On May 15, she rallied in deep stretch to win the Arthur Cutler Memorial at the Meadowlands. On May 30 at Harrah’s Philadelphia, she went wide again to win the Maxie Lee trot, beating the boys again in 1:51.1.

Manchego is not only back she’s employing a different racing style, preferring to come from off the pace rather than run in front.

“We changed tactics late last year,” said driver Dexter Dunn. “Last year, there were some instances where she wasn’t finishing her miles off, so we started stalking more. She’s responded well and doing what you want her to do.”

The win in the $100,000 race was No. 35 and pushed her career earnings to over $2.8 million with big-purse races still to come.

World record set at the battle of Lake Erie

The best older pacers took to the track in the $200,000 Battle of Lake Erie at Northfield Park in Ohio and when the smoke cleared, This Is The Plan, who won the Borgata in April at Yonkers, routed eight others and set a world record of 1:47.3 on a half-mile track.

Northfield Park dubs itself the “Home of the Flying Turns,” but to see a horse pace two laps in 1:47.3 is mind-boggling. I’m not even sure track announcer Ayers Ratliff realized just how fast the Ron Burke pupil raced. The previous best on a half-mile surface was Pet Rock, who blazed a 1:48.1 at the Delaware County Fair back in 2013.

Yannick Gingras was in the bike and like he did in the Borgata, he sent the 6-year-old gelding right to the lead. Western Joe was terrific, rallying from fourth to get second in 1:48.3, but it was still a full second – about five lengths — behind the world record performance.

“I didn’t want to take any prisoners,” Gingras said. “The faster you go he just doesn’t get tired.”

With the $100,000 payday, the son of Somebeachsomewhere has now earned over $2.2 million and has two major stakes victories in 2021. It clearly was an eye-popping performance, something that was evident to Gingras.

“Records are made to be broken and we just broke one,” he said. “I gave the people a little show tonight.”

Meadowlands back at full capacity

There was good news coming out of East Rutherford as the track announced that fans will be allowed at full capacity. We all know that most watch harness racing away from the track, but the Big M does have two days with big crowds — the Meadowlands Pace and the Hambletonian.

The Pace on July 17 usually attracts about 10,000 fans. The Hambo on Aug. 7 hovers around the 20,000-mark.

Despite limited on-track attendance, the Big M continues to have impressive handle on their Friday and Saturday cards, a number that should increase significantly with fans on site, both at the track and the sports book.

Good results for Freehold

The other harness track in New Jersey — Freehold Raceway — wrapped up its 47-day winter/spring meet with impressive results. Overall handle was up $22.9 million (31%) from 2019 and handle per card went from $37,881 to $41,083, an 8% rise.

There were 20 cards that handled over $500,000; six saw $600,000 or more and the Jan. 2 card was the high-water mark with $701,670.

Racing resumes Aug. 27.

Ontario plans for return

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough in Canada and on harness racing. Unlike the United States, vaccine rollouts have been slow up north and Premier Doug Ford’s government re-instituted restrictions, which caused Woodbine Mohawk Park to shut down. Furthermore, many trainers took their horses to tracks like Harrah’s Philadelphia, Pocono Downs and the Meadowlands.

The good news is that harness racing will resume — without spectators — on June 11 with 10 races.

“While it’s been a very frustrating period, I would like to thank the Government of Ontario for the recent attention it has given the horse racing industry,” said Jim Lawson, CEO of Mohawk Entertainment. “Our industry has been substantially impacted, but I remain confident in the future of horse racing in Ontario and am looking forward to returning.”

The track’s signature race, the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup, usually contested in June, has been pushed back to Sept. 11 and will feature 3-year-old pacers.

It’s a busy September at WMP. On Sat. Sept. 4, the Canadian Pacing Derby for 3-year-olds and up will offer a $600,000 purse as will the Maple Leaf Trot, also for 3-year-olds and up.

On Sept. 11, the Canadian Trotting Classic for 3-year-olds, with its $600,000 purse will be contested. And, on Sept. 25, two events close out the month, both for 2-year-olds.

The Metro Pace, which still hasn’t revealed its purse will be on the card as will the $1 million Mohawk Million for 2-year-old trotters. The “MM” sells nine of its 10 slots for $100,000 each. The 10th slot is given to the winner of the William Wellwood Memorial.