Pet Rock ready; Feeling You feeling good; USTA Driving School
Timing is everything for trainer Virgil Morgan Jr. as he gets Pet Rock ready for his 4-year-old campaign.
Pet Rock makes his seasonal debut in Saturday’s second round of the TVG Free For All Championship Series for older pacers at the Meadowlands Racetrack. Pet Rock starts from post No. 2 in the field of 12, with driver Simon Allard at the lines for Morgan.
“He couldn’t be doing better, physically or mentally,” Morgan said. “He’s made the transition from (age) 3 to 4 very good; a lot of horses struggle with that transition. I didn’t want to start him too early because it’s a long year. With all the horses coming back this year, it’s going to make for a long and vigorously demanding year.
“Once we saw the stakes schedule, we thought waiting a little was the right thing to do. You want your horse to peak at the right time, when the most money is on the line. They’ve only got so many starts at 1:48 or 1:47 in them. Hopefully we’ll be around at the end.”
Golden Receiver, starting from post seven, is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line. The Ron Burke entry of Sweet Lou and Hillbilly Hanover is next at 5-2.
The TVG Free For All Series features nine preliminary rounds with a $500,000 final on Nov. 30 at the Meadowlands. Golden Receiver and Fred And Ginger, who starts Saturday’s race from post one, won first-round divisions on May 11 at the Big M.
Morgan, who has won more than 4,800 races as a trainer, good for the top spot in harness racing history, is best known for conditioning two-time older male pacing division champion Mister Big.
“This isn’t like racing overnight horses, where if you have a bad race one week you get another chance the next week,” Morgan said. “There are no do-overs when you’re going for $500,000 or a Breeders Crown. You want to do everything possible to prep and be ready.”
Last year, Pet Rock won the Art Rooney Pace and Windy City and finished second in the Meadowlands Pace, Battle of the Brandywine, Messenger and Cane Pace. He earned $934,518 for owner Frank Bellino.
For his career, he has won 10 of 27 starts, hit the board a total of 23 times, and banked $1.01 million.
“He’s a very consistent horse,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if anyone has made a million dollars quietly, but it seems like that’s what he did.”
Morgan qualified Pet Rock four times heading into this season, twice at Scioto Downs and more recently at the Meadowlands. He won three qualifiers, with his time dropping steadily from 1:56.1 in his first start at Scioto to 1:50.2 on May 25 at the Meadowlands.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Morgan said. “I can’t say enough about Frank and (his son) Joe and the role they played in letting me bring (Pet Rock) along and not rush him. We always do what’s best for the horse and hopefully it works out in the long run.”
Following is the TVG Free For All Championship Series field in post position order, with listed drivers and trainers: 1. Fred And Ginger, Ron Pierce, Ron Burke; 2. Pet Rock, Simon Allard, Virgil Morgan Jr.; 3. Modern Legend, Andy Miller, David Drew; 4. Hurrikane Kingcole, John McDermott, McDermott; 5. Sweet Lou, Yannick Gingras, Burke; 6. Dancin Yankee, Allan Davis, Gary Green; 7. Golden Receiver, Tim Tetrick, Mark Harder; 8. Hillbilly Hanover, Marcus Johansson, Burke; 9. Dynamic Youth, Corey Callahan, Aaron Lambert; 10. Warrawee Needy, Mark MacDonald, Carl Jamieson; 11. Dial Or Nodial, Mike Lachance, Jim Campbell; 12. Bettor’s Edge, Pat Berry, Linda Toscano.
BUTER FEELING GOOD PRESSURE WITH FEELING YOU
Feeling You still might be a little “goofy” but there has been nothing silly about her performance so far this year.
The 6-year-old pacing mare appeared in the No. 4 spot in the season’s first Hambletonian Society/Breeders Crown poll on Tuesday and was the top-ranked female horse in the ratings. For the year, Feeling You has won seven of 12 starts, including the $285,000 Blue Chip Matchmaker Series final after winning three preliminary rounds.
On Saturday night, Feeling You will compete in the first of two divisions of the Golden Girls at the Meadowlands Racetrack. She faces five rivals in the $90,450 race and is the second choice on the morning line, at 3-1. She starts from post No. 1 with driver Tyler Buter.
Anndrovette, who starts from post six with Tim Tetrick driving for trainer P.J. Fraley, is the 6-5 favorite in the first division of the Golden Girls. Economy Terror, who won last Sunday’s Betsy Ross Invitational at Harrah’s Philadelphia, is the 5-2 favorite in the second split.
Amber Buter, who trains Feeling You, was delighted to see her mare receive recognition in the Top 10. Well, at least mostly delighted.
“It’s very exciting, but it’s also nerve-wracking at the same time,” Buter said, laughing. “You don’t want a lot of pressure put on you. You always want to have the best interest of the horse in mind and sometimes it’s not going to pan out. I guess you can’t worry about what other people think of you, you just have to go out and do your job.
“It’s a good pressure to have, I suppose. Not a lot of people get to have it.”
Feeling You is coming off a seventh-place finish in the Betsy Ross. She started from post seven in the eight-horse field, raced on the outside the entire mile and was forced three wide on the final turn.
“We drew the outside, there were a bunch of nice mares in there; it’s just one of those things,” Buter said. “You’ve got to take the good races with the bad races. But she came out of it fine.”
Last season, Feeling You won 12 of 33 starts and banked $273,830 while competing primarily in the opens at Yonkers and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. She was acquired by the Buters in April and now races for them, Stephen Oldford and Oldford Farms. For her career, she has won 27 of 77 races and earned $626,983.
In September, Feeling You set the track record for pacing mares at Pocono Downs when she won in 1:49.1 from post eight. The record lasted only two weeks as Put On A Show lowered the standard to 1:49, but Feeling You’s performance was one reason her connections felt good about staking her this year.
“You don’t really know what you’ve got, but as the year progressed, she progressed,” Buter said. “Tyler drove her a lot and said he thought she could go with these mares, so we decided to stake her pretty heavy this year. For the most part, she’s held her own and done a nice job of it. She definitely bumped it up.”
While raising her game, Feeling You has lowered her anxiety level, at least a bit.
“She’s much more mellow, more even keeled,” Buter said. “She’s still a little goofy; she’s just not all there sometimes. But she’s more mellow at the farm anyway.
“Things used to scare her. She would jump out of her skin at weird things. She’s more calm and cool and collected in the barn. She’s not a very personable horse when it comes to other horses, but we now have a horse next to her that she seems to get along with, for the most part.”
Buter thinks Feeling You can continue to perform at the top level the remainder of the season.
“I think so,” she said. “She’s good gaited. She’s got gate speed, she can close hard. She’s just a nice mare.”
USTA DRIVING SCHOOL ATTRACTS PARTICIPANTS FROM AROUND COUNTRY
Photos by Ken Weingartner/Harness Racing Communications/USTA
Rick Hare of Kent, N.Y., jogs a horse out of the Ray Schnittker Stable at Historic Track on Friday morning.
Goshen, NY — From Adios Harry to hello again harness racing.
Christopher Lyons’ roots in harness racing go back decades to the world champion Hall of Fame pacer Adios Harry, who was owned by Lyons’ family and driven by his grandfather, Luther. Lyons, while attending school for a career in law enforcement, was with Adios Harry when he died in 1982.
Now as Lyons ponders his retirement from police work – he is the chief of the three-man department in Marlborough, N.H. – he is thinking about training harness horses. So Lyons is attending the U.S. Trotting Association’s Driving School in upstate New York to learn more about the care and training of trotters and pacers.
“I’m seven years from retirement, and as we know, time travels fast,” Lyons said. “I recently got to drive a horse and it put a big smile on my face. I really liked it. A Harley Davidson doesn’t compete.
“I trail ride now in New Hampshire when I get a chance, but I’d like to see if I can do something with this. Once horses get in your blood it always stays there.”
Lyons is among 48 participants in this year’s Driving School, which is being held at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, Historic Track and the Mark Ford Training Center in Middletown. Students receive hands-on experiences at local stables as well as classroom sessions with trainers, drivers and veterinarians.
Trainers opening their stables to the group include Ray Schnittker at Goshen Historic Track, plus Mark Ford, Scott Blackler, Tyler and Amber Buter, Jean Drolet, Rob and Patty Harmon, Brandon Simpson and Allen Sisco at the Mark Ford Training Center.
Thursday’s classes included a driver strategy session with John Campbell and Jeff Gregory plus care and conditioning tips from Ford and Schnittker.
Driving School continues through Sunday, when participants can take the written portions of the trainer’s and driver’s exams. There also will be an exhibition race at Historic Track featuring several selected students.
Lyons was born in Delaware, but moved with his family to Connecticut at the age of 4. He returned to Delaware, though, during the summers and spent time at his family’s Sugar Hill Farms, which was home to Adios Harry.
“We didn’t have horses so it was difficult for me to stay involved,” Lyons said. “I don’t see myself having my own stable at this point, but I’d like to work for someone that’s established in the business.”
Working with horses is special to Lyons.
“Being around horses, brushing them and working with them, it’s therapy to me,” Lyons said. “I have a very stressful job and when I get around horses I lose all my stress.”
Krysta Verschure says it is easy to feel good around horses. The 19-year-old Verschure, from Richmond, Mich., is attending the USTA Driving School with an eye toward getting her driver’s and trainer’s licenses.
“When I’m in a bad mood or upset, I’ll always go to the farm and spend time with the horses and I feel better,” Verschure said. “It’s relaxing. They all have different personalities and they’re all fun to be around. I just love being around them.”
Verschure wants to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, Willis Clark, in becoming a trainer. She works as a groom in addition to being a welder. She owns one horse, as do her each of her parents, Heidi and John.
“I’ve always loved harness racing and I’ve wanted to get more into it,” Verschure said. “I’m always in the barn. I’d like to eventually have my own stable, if I’m going to be a trainer.”
Verschure enjoys working with her grandfather, who spends the winters at Pompano Park in Florida and the summers racing at Hazel Park in Michigan.
“He brightens right up every time he walks in the barn,” Verschure said. “It’s nice to see him having a good time. He’s been a huge influence.”
Andrea Liang never sat behind a racehorse prior to Thursday, but it didn’t take long for her to feel the need for speed. Liang, a freelance artist from Queens, N.Y., jogged 5-year-old pacing mare Grounded with assistance from owner/breeder Frank Calcagni from the Brandon Simpson Stable.
“I wasn’t nervous; I was enjoying it,” Liang said. “Frank wanted me to slow her down a little bit and I was like, ‘What for? No, this is great.’ I trusted him and I trusted the horse.
“I think I’m addicted to it already. This is just too much fun.”
Liang is attending the Driving School with her boyfriend, Jimmy Christo, who has owned horses since the early 1990s and races under the Ragin Cajun Stable banner. Christo, who works for the city of New York in the Department of Investigation, also jogged a horse for the first time.
“We’ve always been at the barn, feeding the horses and stuff, but never had any hands on experience,” Liang said. “Wow, this is great. This is day one and it’s amazing already. We’re really glad that we came. I love it.”
Christo and Liang are looking for a horse farm in central New Jersey, which is one of the primary reasons for attending the Driving School.
“I hope I get the knowledge of what it’s like handling the horses on a day-to-day basis,” Liang said. “We’d like to maybe one day get our own farm and bring our horses together. We hope that when we retire, this is what we’re going to be doing, so we want to prepare ourselves for it.”
Ken Weingartner Harness Racing Communications U.S. Trotting Association 732-780-3700 www.ustrotting.com