Driver Yannick Gingras swept the Merrie Annabelle and Peter Haughton Memorial eliminations for freshman trotters on Friday night at Meadowlands Racetrack.
Gingras began with two-year-old trotting filly Lifetime Pursuit, who will head into the final of Merrie Annabelle with a perfect three-for-three record after capturing the lone $20,000 elimination for the Hambletonian Day stakes event early in the evening.
After settling away third along the rail through a :28-second opening panel, Gingras sent Lifetime Pursuit to the lead at the :57.4 half-mile mark. The Brittany Farms homebred filly proceeded to lead the field past three-quarters in 1:27 before drawing off by two lengths to win in a career-best equalling time of 1:55.2.
After the race, Gingras noted that the win was as easy as it looked for the Cantab Hall-Queen Of Grace filly.
"She's special and she did it all on her own tonight, really easy," he said.
Lifetime Pursuit, who paid $2.60 to win as part of the favoured Jimmy Takter entry, was followed by early leader Cooler Schooner, early breaker Heavens Door, Struck By Lindy, Fortunes Of Fables, Takter trainee Moonlight In Miami, Steppin Out and a ninth-placed-eighth Love Detective, also conditioned by Takter. Breaker Pacific Winds K and Danielle S were eliminated.
The top eight finishers in the elimination will join Cee Bee Yes and Shake It Cerry, who received byes, in the final on Hambletonian Day next Saturday, August 3 at Meadowlands Racetrack.
Gingras was right back at it in the following race, winning the first of two $20,000 Peter Haughton Memorial eliminations for two-year-old trotting colts and geldings with favourite Southwind Spirit for trainer Ron Burke.
Entrymates Derby and Great Society were one-two through a :29.3 opening panel before Quikwit rushed up from third to take over down the backstretch. As the field raced by the half-mile mark in :59.3, Gingras sent Southwind Spirit first over from fourth and applied heavy pressure to the leader en route to the 1:28.3 third quarter mark, eventually wearing him down in the stretch for the 1:57.3 victory.
The top five finishers advance to next weekend's final. Derby finished one length behind in second with Quikwit third. Great Society and Well Built were fourth and fifth.
Despite turning in a winning effort, Gingras admitted he was a little disappointed with the colt's elimination performance.
"He is a much better horse than what he showed tonight," he said in a post-race interview. "I'm not sure exactly was the issue is, but I'm sure Ronnie will figure it out. He was on the right line a little bit and didn't have as much trot as I think he should. I'm sure they'll have him much better next week."
Southwind Spirit paid $2.60 to win. The son of 2009 Hambletonian champion Muscle Hill is two-for-four in his career and finished second in the New Jersey Sire Stakes Championship on July 13. He is owned by Burke Racing Stable LLC, Weaver Bruscemi LLC, and Stable 45.
Gingras teamed up with Takter once again to win the final elimination with Father Patrick, who will be looking to capture the Haughton trophy after his full brother, Pastor Stephen, was first-placed-sixth in the 2010 edition.
Father Patrick followed Nuncio through early fractions of :28.3 and :57.3 before before being flushed out as they approached the 1:26.3 third quarter mark. Father Patrick tucked back behind the leader around the final turn before out-sprinting the tempo-setter with a :27-second final frame to prevail in a photo finish. Father Patrick took a new mark of 1:53.4 while just missing the track record by one-fifth of a second.
Nuncio was second with the winner's entrymate, Song In My Heart, over 18 lengths behind in third after a break around the final turn. Kapow Hanover and Jj Alex earned the last spots in the final, finishing well back in fourth and fifth.
"I came out of the two-hole just to get things rolling a little bit and John [Campbell] has a nice horse [in Nuncio] as well," said Gingras. "He surprised me; at the top of the stretch I thought I'd go right by him, but his horse fought real game down the stretch and it came down to a slug-fest. Thankfully we got the jump on him tonight.
"With the winner picking their post you have to give these horses a chance. I think it makes a big difference. You know you'll get a spot you like and there's not going to be any nine or 10-hole. You don't want to kill them in the elimination, but I think it's important to give them a chance."
The popular Cantab Hall-Gala Dream colt, who is now two-for-three in his young career, is owned by the Father Patrick Stable. He paid $3.40 to win.
Gingras added that he will have to discuss his decision on which elimination winner to drive in the Haughton final with the colts' connections. In either case, he is hoping for a different result than he had with Father Patrick's brother three years ago.
"That one hurt a little bit," he said of the 2010 placing. "The judges and I didn't see eye to eye and they decided to take him down, which was very unfortunate. It is what it is."
A different result this time around may require a different strategy.
"This is a little different type of horse than Pastor Stephen," explained Takter while comparing the siblings. "This horse can do it up front. Pastor Stephen was dependent almost to go from behind."
Eliminations for Hambletonian Day stakes will continue tomorrow night (Saturday, July 27). Those planning to attend the races should be aware that the adjacent Met Life Stadium will be the site of a Jon Bon Jovi concert that will begin at 7:30 p.m. Post time for the races will be at 7:15 p.m.
To view Friday's harness racing results, click on the following link: Friday Results - Meadowlands Racetrack.