The battle for supremacy in the 3-year-old male pacing division moves to The Meadowlands on Saturday night as two of the top three contenders will hook up in the $738,550 Meadowlands Pace.
For just over a year, Huntsville and Downbytheseaside have gone head to head. They were the best 2-year-old pacing colts last year, with Huntsville taking home Dan Patch honors as the top dog, and they entered 2017 as the logical favorites for all of the big dances on the schedule.
As the scene switches to New Jersey on Saturday in the third major race for sophomore pacers, the competitors find themselves battling to see who the No. 1 contender is behind clear-cut leader Fear The Dragon, who is skipping the Meadowlands Pace.
Since June of their rookie season, Huntsville and Downbytheseaside have met up seven times. Each pacer has won thrice, with Huntsville counting the Breeders Crown and Downbytheseaside the Governor's Cup as their Grand Circuit victories, both in 2016.They have finished first and second in every matchup except the 2017 North America Cup at Mohawk where Fear The Dragon won and Huntsville finished second ahead of Downbytheseaside.
With the record deadlocked at three wins apiece and the rivals certain to be the most popular betting options on the toteboard for the ninth race showdown, something has to give.
Huntsville comes into the Pace Final off an easy qualifier-like 1:48 4/5 win in last Saturday's elimination where the top seven finishers earned a spot on the starting gate this week, joining Downbytheseaside, Miso Fast and Classic Pro, who all accepted byes directly into the Final. The victory afforded Huntsville a chance to draw for an inside post position and that was key according to trainer Ray Schnittker.
"I didn't want to take the risk of getting stuck in the 10-hole," said Schnittker, who sends out Huntsville from post four as the even money morning line favorite with driver Tim Tetrick.
"I thought he raced pretty well," he continued. "He had been off a couple of weeks and I'm not a training maniac [doesn't work horses hard between races]. I kind of liked the last 100 feet [of the elimination win] because he was pacing more there than anywhere during the mile."
Perhaps the only negative from the elimination victory was Huntsville's inability to steer straight during the mile. Driver Tim Tetrick could visibly be seen grabbing a tight hold of the left line trying to keep the colt from bearing out.
"He's not on a line any more than he was last year or any of his other starts," said Schnittker. "I have one tonight [at Pocono earlier in the week] that is going to be on the left line on the straightaway and the right line on the turns. I just deal with it."
Huntsville will be making his seventh start of the year in the Final, with four wins and two seconds on his card for owners Schnittker, Ted Gewertz and Steven Arnold. A placing of fourth or better would move him over $1,000,000 in career earnings.
Also looking to join the millionaire club is Downbytheseaside (4-1 m/l). The Brian Brown trainee is a second-place finish away from that milestone as he starts from post five just to the outside of Huntsville with Brian Sears at the controls.
While the son of Somebeachsomewhere has picked up five wins in seven starts for owners Country Club Acres, Joe Sbrocco, Richard Lomabrdo and Diamond Creek Racing, things haven't exactly gone the colt's way over the last month.
After winning his North America Cup elimination, Downbytheseaside brushed to the front in the fastest half-mile clocking (52 1/5) in Canadian history before fading to third. He would come back with a very impressive elimination victory to advance to the Max Hempt Final at Pocono, but would set the pace on a track that was tiring for early speed and weakened to fifth after leading into the stretch.
"He's been caught in some bad spots," said trainer Brown. "In Pocono he drew the eight-hole and of all nights it rained. Pocono is usually a speed track, but he gets parked almost three wide to the quarter on a sticky track. On a normal night at Pocono I don't think that would have bothered my horse. He still wouldn't have won but maybe he would have been third or fourth if the track wasn't sticky. It just kind of wore him out. Plus he scoped bad that night. He had a lot of mucus. We weren't crying or making excuses for the horse. The trip and everything worked against him and that's just the way it goes."
Downbytheseaside did get a change of luck when 13 horses entered the Meadowlands Pace elimination. That gave Brown the chance to give his horse a week off, something the trainer said would clearly benefit his chances after racing four straight weeks against the top 3-year-olds in the sport.
Due to the Meadowlands' rule stating horses must stay within 150 miles of the track, Brown has been separated from Downbytheseaside since the Hempt Final on July 1. Following a couple of days of turn-out time at David Miller's farm, he went to White Birch Farm and is being watched over by trainer Richard 'Nifty' Norman and caretaker Toni Dale Hollar since Brown is stabled in Ohio.
"Nifty has been jogging and training him. It is where I was last year for the Breeders Crown and for the Rooney [at Yonkers raceway] this year," said Brown. "Right now we put flip-flops on because his foot was a little sore. The next day his foot was better. He'll switch back to his normal shoe probably Tuesday (7/11) and he'll train, I wouldn't say stiff, but he'll probably train under two minutes."
While both Brown and Schnittker voiced their respect for the competition, the New York native Schnittker appears to have a bit more outward confidence.
"I think if everything is equal [Huntsville] is probably the best horse, but that is why they race them," said Schnittker, who clearly has a personal connection to the Meadowlands Pace. "When I was a kid we used to drive down from Buffalo to watch the Meadowlands Pace. I was there when Nihilator and On The Road Again won it. It is probably the most important race for me since I'm from the New York area.
Brown was a bit more diplomatic in assessing his chief rival.
"If my horse gets a trip, I don't say he has to have a perfect trip, but I think with a trip that benefits him he can win the race. I'm not going to come out and say I'm going to win," said the always affable Brown, who downplayed Huntsville's tendency to drift out during the mile. "Even though he ran out in the stretch he raced very impressively. Being on the left line doesn't bother me as much as if he was really on the right line. But I've only raced against him and Ray and Timmy know him better than I do."
When the gates swing open for the $738,550 Final at 9:40 p.m., Huntsville and Downbytheseaside won't be the only horses seeking to take home the 50 percent winner's share. Blood Line (post 1, 5/1) will look to better his elimination runner-up position for the team of driver Mark MacDonald and trainer Jimmy Takter. Miso Fast is the only horse to beat divisional leader Fear The Dragon and he will look for another upset from post 6 for Matt Kakaley and trainer Ron Burke, who also sends out Filibuster Hanover (post 7), a willing sixth with a 26-second final quarter in his elimination for driver Yannick Gingras. Both Burke horses are 10-1 on the morning line.
Regardless of who wins on Saturday, Fear The Dragon will be waiting at The Meadows next Saturday for all comers in the Adios Pace elimination.
Will Huntsville or Downbytheseaside separate themselves from the other this Saturday? If so, can they slay the 'Dragon' in the July 29 Adios final?
The answers to these questions will be revealed in the coming weeks.