Expect wide-open Hambletonian
Chuck Sylvester believes heat racing will make the $1.2 million Hambletonian a wide-open affair.
And the 73-year-old should know. He has trained four winners in trotting's biggest race and will be going for a record-tying fifth on Saturday when he sends out Spider Blue Chip in the third and final heat at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Saturday.
The top three finishers in the heats and the fourth-place finisher with the most earnings will return later in the afternoon in the final, where the winner can claim the Hambletonian.
This marks the first time since 1996 that the Hambletonian Society has reverted to a heat format. For the past 17 years, eliminations were held the week before the final.
Now, stamina may be as important as speed.
''It wouldn't surprise me if a different horse wins the final than the three eliminations,'' said Sylvester, who try to join Bill Haughton, Stanley Dancer and Ben White as the only trainers to win five times. ''I'm sure in between heats there are going to be a lot of changes made with the horses, including mine probably. You're going to see shoes mainly, maybe a few bits. You're going to see some guys pull shoes all together and take a shot in the final with no shoes.''
Royalty For Life, Wheeling N Dealin and Corky were the favorites in the three eliminations. Twenty-three 3-year-olds were entered.
''I think Royalty For Life will be the favorite,'' he said. ''But it's going to be interesting. Anybody that has a good day can win.''
Sylvester likes his colt's chances. Spider Blue Chip has won 4 of 7 races this year and earned $182,113, finishing in the top three all but once.
''Right now, he's happy and sounder and in pretty good shape,'' Sylvester said. ''He's been racing good out of the pool. He trained Tuesday, swam Wednesday and moved through a workout schedule that includes swimming on a regular basis.''
Sylvester won this last Hambletonian in 2002 with Chip Chip Hooray. His other winners were Mack Lobell (1987), Park Avenue Joe ('89) and Muscles Yankee ('98).
Fellow trainer Jimmy Takter is also going for multiple wins in the Hambletonian on Saturday. He will have three colts entered in his bid for a third victory, led by Corky, the favorite in the third heat.
Takter also has High Bridge in the first heat and Dontyouforgetit in the second.
''They're all in good shape and they're all different,'' Takter said. ''It's going to be a very competitive race, and I think there's one main target, Royalty For Life. He's the only one who may have a slightly higher ability than the others.''
High Bridge drew post No. 4 in the first elimination heat. The colt equaled his lifetime mark of 1:54 3/5 last time out.
''He could be my sleeper, though,'' Takter said. ''He's a goofy horse who kind of doesn't know what's going on. He's raced well all year.
Dontyouforgetit is a 7-2 choice in the second heat despite a disappointing fourth in the Yonkers Trot as a heavy favorite.
''He's a little guy and going two heats may be too much,'' Takter said. ''I wasn't planning on putting him in, but when I saw some of the other horses entering, I thought I'd give him a shot.''
Corky has won four of his last five races with Dave Miller in the bike, including the $500,000 Earl Beal, Jr. Memorial at Pocono Downs. He trotted a career best 1:52 4/5 in the Beal elimination.
''I don't know if Corky is really my best hope going into Saturday,'' Takter said. ''Yet, you've got to love his consistency. If he brings his `A' game like he did at Pocono Downs, then he'll be a very serious contender.''
Takter's Hambletonian wins were Malabar Man ('87) and Muscle Massive in 2010, the year in which Sylvester finished second with Lucky Chucky.