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Miller Leads After WDC's Opening Leg

The United States' Marcus Miller emerged with the early lead in the standings after driving a pair of winners during the 2017 World Driving Championship opener on Saturday, August 12 at Century Downs Racetrack & Casino in Calgary, Alta. while Canada's James MacDonald also doubled up to finish the five-race leg in second-place.

The North American reinsmen dominated the first of five WDC legs hosted by Standardbred Canada, with Miller accumulating 57 points and MacDonald earning 50 points while Australia's Shane Graham put forth a consistent showing hitting the board in three of the races to secure third position in the standings, trailing MacDonald by just two points. Sweden's Bjorn Goop was the other first leg winner and finished in fourth-place with 43 points.

"I'm very happy," said Miller early on in the competition featuring 11 top international drivers. "There's a lot of races to go yet so I'm just going to try to hang in there and keeping doing the same thing."

Miller opened the 2017 World Driving Championship with a victory in the first race aboard 2-1 second choice Ashlynn Grace ($6.20) to take the early lead in the point standings. He secured a pocket trip with Ashlynn Grace, who started from the trailing tier in post 10, behind the inside leaver and found room between horses in the final turn to come through for the two-length victory, timed in 2:05.3 over the extended 1-1/16 mile distance.

The United States reinsman then sent 9-5 favourite Kavola ($5.60) three-wide from the outer flow approaching the third quarter mark to take over command in the third race and held off a wall of closers to win by one and a quarter lengths in 2:07.3.

"It's unbelievable. I know everybody at home is watching," said Miller of representing his country. "It's something else, this is one of the most exciting times in my life as far as harness racing goes."

MacDonald was victorious in the second and fifth races, first clearing to command from post eight after the first quarter and holding off the competition for the victory in 2:03.1 aboard Lucky Lucka ($19.70) and then sending Barossa Blue Genes ($6.70) three-wide off cover approaching the third quarter mark and drawing clear in the stretch to win by two and a half lengths in 2:03.3.

"It's a whole different ball game and I've never been involved in anything like this," said MacDonald of the international tournament. "I'm really excited to be doing it and thankfully having a little bit of success."

The drivers will head to MacDonald's home track at Mohawk Racetrack in Campbellville, Ont. for the second WDC leg on Monday, August 14.

"At Mohawk, I'll know all 11 horses in the race and I'll know their tendencies, not to say that's what they're going to do that given night, but I'll have a little bit of information," said MacDonald. "Every little bit you have ahead of someone else helps."

Goop's victory in the fourth race was his first in Canada as he made a power move in front of the grandstand sending Newport Min ($40.90) three-wide to the lead and then prevailed in a three-way photo finish in 2:07.1.

The opening WDC leg at Century Downs was the culmination of the First Annual Calgary Racing Festival. The week-long event, running through to Saturday, included an Industry Day, Mid-Summer Classic card, Charity Bowling and Charity Golf tournaments, and a Charity Gala.

After the next leg at Mohawk, the drivers will head to Georgian Downs in Innisfil, Ont. on August 15. The action then moves to Trois-Rivières, Que. on August 16, where Hippodrome 3R will host the fourth leg before the drivers head to Prince Edward Island's Red Shores Racetrack and Casino at Charlottetown Driving Park for the fifth and final leg of the Championship on August 18, one of the major highlights of Old Home Week.

The reinsmen will earn points based on their finishing position in each race and the top point-earner at the end of the five-day competition will be declared the 2017 World Driving Champion and win $25,000 in prize money.

The World Driving Championship -- along with the 25th anniversary edition of the World Trotting Conference, to be hosted in Charlottetown -- are both held every two years and will coincide with the 250th Anniversary of horse racing in Canada, and Canada 150 celebrations.

WDC LEG #1 LEADERBOARD

Rank - Driver (Country) - Points
1. Marcus Miller (United States) - 57
2. James MacDonald (Canada) - 50
3. Shane Graham (Australia) - 48
4. Bjorn Goop (Sweden) - 43
5. Gerhard Mayr (Austria) - 38
6. Mika Forss (Finland) - 34
7. Dexter Dunn (ITA/New Zealand) - 29
8. Rik Depuydt (Belgium) - 25
9. Noel Baldacchino (Malta) - 24
10. Mark Purdon (New Zealand) - 21
11. Eirik Hoitomt (Norway) - 16

RACE RECAPS

Race 1: United States' Marcus Miller opened the 2017 World Driving Championship with a victory in the first race aboard 2-1 second choice Ashlynn Grace ($6.20) to take the early lead in the point standings. Miller secured a pocket trip with Ashlynn Grace, who started from the trailing tier in post 10, behind the inside leaver and found room between horses in the final turn to come through for the two-length victory, timed in 2:05.3 over 1-1/16 miles. Defending WDC champion Dexter Dunn of New Zealand finished second aboard Freesia, the 3-2 favourite, after rallying four-wide outside of third-place finisher Run And Tell, driven by Austria's Gerhard Mayr.

"It set up just how I was hoping it would," said Miller following the race. "My trainer said the rail horse was the one to follow. There wasn't too much action outside of us early and it set up just perfect. I had just enough room to get out in the last turn, the right time, and it worked out. She raced great and they had her ready for today, it was a good deal. She was pretty wrapped up. A cozy trip like that though will do that."

Race 2: Canada's James MacDonald was victorious in the second WDC race, with 8-1 shot Lucky Lucka ($19.70) clearing to command from post eight after the first quarter and holding off the competition for the one and a half length victory in 2:03.1. Brighten Your Life came on for second for Finland's Mika Forss and Wild Chic finished third with Noel Baldacchino of Malta.

"She was really good, I never drove her before obviously, but it's just good to get the first win out of the way and I can concentrate on trying to pick away and keep making points and hope everything goes well," said MacDonald, who moved into first-place after the first two races.

"She hit her knee a little bit in the last turn and when she was starting to get a little tired, she was getting a little bumpy. I knew I had lots of horse, I just didn't want to push her off her feet. I was confident if I could get her to the straightaway, she had lots of go left and she could get there."

Race 3: Marcus Miller became the first two-time winner in the 2017 WDC and reclaimed his place atop the driver standings after scoring with 9-5 favourite Kavola ($5.60) in the third race. The United States reinsman sent Kavola three-wide from the outer flow approaching the third quarter mark to take over command and then held off a wall of closers to win by one and a quarter lengths in 2:07.3. Mods Mystery and Gerhard Mayr edged out Pinkmakesboyswink and Australia's Shane Graham for the runner-up honours.

"I'm very happy. There's a lot of races to go yet so I'm just going to try to hang in there and keeping doing the same thing," said Miller.

"They said that last week she was parked the whole mile and won anyway so I knew that she tried hard and I figured as long as I stayed close and was able to work out some kind of trip, which the way these races are going so far, second-over without seeing the wood seems like that's okay so far. She's a game little horse, a nice little racehorse and was good today.

"I think it was pertinent that I cleared before the last turn and I think that's what won the race for me, but she made a nice brush, that was good."

Race 4: Sweden's Bjorn Goop pulled off a 19-1 upset in the fourth WDC race as he made a power move in front of the grandstand sending Newport Min ($40.90) three-wide to the lead and then prevailed in a three-way photo finish in 2:07.1. The duo held off a resurgent Outlawintriguedbyu, driven by Shane Graham, and early leader Test Pattern with Belgium's Rik Depuydt in the bike.

"First time ever racing in Canada tonight," said Goop after the victory. "That was a typical European move because they went so slow and I was far behind and I had to do something because I was at the end and I had to do something if I was supposed to have a chance to win.

"I was trying to make her go [down the backstretch] and she responded very well. She fought all the way to the line."

Race 5: James MacDonald closed out the first WDC leg with his second victory of the night for Canada. MacDonald sent 2-1 second chocie Barossa Blue Genes ($6.70) three-wide off cover approaching the third quarter mark and drew clear in the stretch to win by two and a half lengths in 2:03.3. Graham hit the board again with Chief Saratoga finishing second while favourite Gray Zee and Miller got up for third.

"The horse went a big trip. I was out every step of the way, I was covered up," said MacDonald. "But I drove him a month ago when I was here in Calgary [for the Pacing For Charity event] so I did know a little bit about him and he was dropping a lot down from where he was that day and he came up with a huge effort today."

Miller ended the first leg of the WDC atop the leaderboard with 57 points while MacDonald finished in second-place with 50 points. Graham's top placings secured him third position in the standings, trailing MacDonald by just two points.


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