Will Christmas Come Early?

“We were laughing about how calm he was. Some of my horses, you can’t even get over there to take a picture or put my kids around him. He was like a pleasure, like 'C’mon over!' He was like Santa Claus.”

Joe Bellino compares Pet Rock to Santa Claus when he’s in his stall, which is kind of appropriate because the horse’s connections have been frequently going “Ho! Ho! Ho!” at the end of his races.

The three-year-old colt pacer, a son of Rocknroll Hanover-Casual Beauty, won for the fourth time in eight career starts Saturday night when he came up the inside down the stretch to overtake 3-5 favorite Bolt The Duer and win the $306,204 Art Rooney Pace by a half-length in 1:51. The time was a stakes and track record.

Pet Rock has finished second in his four lifetime losses. Last year, his three setbacks were by a total of less than three-quarters of a length.

His on-the-track toughness is a stark contrast to his demeanor in the paddock. And he looks ready to provide the Bellinos with some nice gifts if he keeps up the current pace. Fortunately for the family, Joe was persistent about making the purchase.

It all started last June when trainer Virgil Morgan Jr. saw Pet Rock win a qualifier in 1:58 at Scioto Downs. He quickly contacted Joe Bellino to see if he’d be interested in making a purchase.

“I called my dad and he said he wasn’t really high on the horse, let’s wait until he wins another qualifier,” Bellino said.

In the meantime, Morgan contacted salesman Ed Murphy and discovered Pet Rock was for sale. He then qualified at the Meadowlands, winning in 1:55.3.

“I was at my house all day waiting for the qualifier to come up,” Joe said with a laugh. “Once he qualified I called and said ‘Murph, get that horse for me.’ Of course, I had to pay a little more for him after that qualifier than I would have after the first qualifier.

“I took (the video) to my dad and said ‘I bought the horse.’ He said ‘What horse?’ and then he said ‘Why?’ I said ‘You’ll see after I show you the qualifier.’”

Joe was not only impressed by the Meadowlands qualifier, he had complete faith in Morgan, who now trains Pet Rock.

“Virgil saw him race out at Scioto,” Joe said. “Virgil knows his horses. If Virgil says it’s OK, I believe him. I would have bought him out (in Ohio) but it has to be a consensus, with me, Virgil and my dad.”

When Joe was asked if he got a pat on the back from Frank now that Pet Rock is proving himself, he laughed.

“He throws compliments around like sewer covers,” he said with amusement.

There was plenty to compliment at the Rooney, as the race went according to the plan drawn up between driver Brian Sears and Morgan.

“We were gonna leave off the gate and if Mark (MacDonald, Bolt The Duer’s driver) was going to let us go that was fine. We’d have cut the mile, and if not we’d have sat the pocket,” Bellino said. “Bolt The Duer left like a rocket and created a big gap for us to drop into. Everything went our way. Bolt The Duer did a lot of the work. He did all of the work really.”

What impressed the owner was Pet Rock’s instincts during the Rooney.

“He wasn’t raced a lot last year, so for a three-year-old to come up the inside the way he did -- horses don’t like coming up the inside,” Bellino said. “He started coming up the inside before Brian even had him doing it. That’s a compliment to Virgil and the guy who had him before, Lester Clemmons.

“It’s funny, he’s so calm in the paddock but when he goes out there he just covers the ground so well. It doesn’t look like he’s doing much, but he’s unbelievably gaited. He’s like a two-finger drive. You can leave with him, you can sit with him.”

Next up is Saturday’s eliminations for the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup at Mohawk Racetrack in Ontario. Pet Rock will be trying to buck the Bellino trend in Canada, where Rock N Roll Heaven finished fourth in the North America Cup after fighting a lung infection.

Bellino hopes, however, that things are shifting in his favour.

“I have not had worse luck in racing than when we’ve raced up there,” he said. “But my luck has changed because we started racing with Tony O’Sullivan in Canada and we’ve had good luck. I’m hoping that luck carries over.”

Joe says he is constantly asked to compare Pet Rock to Rock N Roll Heaven, but is reluctant to do so until after the season is over. He is willing to take a shot at greatness, however. If all goes well, he plans on supplementing him to the Cane Pace and perhaps beyond.

“If he does good and he’s feeling good we will supplement him to the Cane, so then maybe we can supplement him to the (Little Brown) Jug,” Bellino said.

Bellino’s one other hope is that Pet Rock’s former trainer gets to see him compete again.

“Lester’s wife sent me an email after Pet Rock won and said the horse put a smile on his face,” Bellino said. “I’m hoping he can eventually come see him race again.”

After all, everyone deserves the chance to visit Santa Claus when they can.

This story courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, visit www.ustrotting.com.