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Less than eight weeks ago, their owners were accepting O’Brien Award trophies for their accomplishments in their two-year-old years. Suddenly, it’s March, and Canada’s champion freshman trotters, one filly and one colt, are gearing up for the biggest year of their lives.


On the distaff side, all eyes will be on the Angus Hall filly, Elusive Desire. Last year, her trainer Mike Keeling endured a lot of jokes about the winner’s circle being elusive, before Elusive Desire finally found her groove in late October in the Ontario Sire Stakes Gold elimination at Woodbine. She came back from the OSS “elim” to score by more than four lengths in the Gold final on November 7, and then blew her competition away in the November 15 OSS Super Final.


“She was tremendous in her last three starts, just a gorilla,” Keeling says.


His faith in Elusive Desire confirmed, Keeling, who is based in Cambridge, Ont., is looking forward to her sophomore debut. “She wintered in North Carolina, and we brought her back at the end of February. She’s just started back jogging.


“She has grown a couple of inches in the last few months. She’s long in the body but not particularly tall in the legs. She did put on a lot of muscle. She’s always been a ‘good converter’ anyway. We never saw a rib on her last year.”


Keeling says Elusive Desire, a daughter of Angus Hall owned by Bob Fasken and Charlie Armstrong, isn’t blazing the track in her training right now. That doesn’t concern him. “She has never been a great trainer. She tends not to pay attention and wanders all over the track. But when there’s money on the line, she puts her head down and gets serious.”


Keeling is trying to get her ready for the first Ontario Sires Stakes elimination on May 10 at Mohawk.


“We’re going to focus on the Ontario program this year. She’s got a pretty busy dance card at Mohawk right through July, starting with the Elegantimage and the Casual Breeze.


“We have made her eligible to the Hambletonian Oaks, though. It’s always fun to think about the Oaks and it would be nice to go play on that day.”


Not far from Keeling’s farm, another 3-year-old trotter is warming up for a potentially stellar sophomore season: Jeff Gillis trainee, Federal Flex, who last year earned $560,818 while racking up five wins, two seconds, and a third in nine starts, including wins in the Champlain, Bridger and the Valley Victory Stakes.


Federal Flex underwent a partial change of ownership last year when Al Libfeld and Marvin Katz purchased an interest in the colt mid-season. Gillis retains a 25 percent interest, and driver Jody Jamieson, who has piloted the colt in all of his races, owns the remaining 30 percent.


The Muscles Yankee colt also made a move from Carl Jamieson’s shedrow, to Gillis’s, in the wake of the William Wellwood final at Mohawk, which was Federal Flex’s only really lacklustre performance of the year.


“He came out of the Wellwood very sick,” Gillis explains. “The chart shows he made a break in the stretch, and that’s very uncharacteristic of him, but it was really irrelevant to the result. His white (blood cell) count was sky-high after that race and he had two weeks off while we struggled to get his white count down. Finally we took him to the University of Guelph for a chest x-ray and a lung lavage. When those came back clean we knew he had it beat, and he went back into training.”


‘Flex’ enjoyed about nine weeks of rest and relaxation after his third place finish in the Breeders’ Crown, and has been back in work since January 25, though he has yet to be asked for any speed.


"He has matured,” Gillis says. “He’s not a lot taller, but he’s filled out quite a bit. He’s jogging and going very well. The colt’s main focus will be the Goodtimes Stakes in June at Mohawk, then the Stanley Dancer and the Hambletonian, the sport’s marquee event,
at the Meadowlands.


"We opted not to keep him eligible for the World Trotting Derby, since we have the Canadian Trotting Classic right here (at Mohawk) and we don’t want to over-use him. Deweycheatumnhowe tried to do both last year and went down in defeat for the first time in his life, so we’ll try to learn from other’s mistakes.”


Gillis admits, “I’m expecting big things from him this year. I don’t tend to say this kind of thing, but I really believe he’s very, very close to the best of his crop, if not THE best. I’ve never had one in my barn quite as nice as him. Flex is pretty special.”