The track's signature race, the Crawford Farms Meadowlands Pace, drew thirteen declarations resulting in a single ten horse $50,000 elimination race. The top seven finishers from that race will join Downbytheseaside, Classic Pro and Miso Fast, who were granted a bye into the $738,550 final on July 15.
Although Huntsville was offered a bye based on 2017 earnings, trainer Ray Schnittker chose to race his prize colt in the Pace elimination aiming to have him as sharp as possible for the final. Another perk is a clause in the conditions that rewards the elimination winner with drawing from post positions 1-6 for the final. He'll leave from post position one for driver Tim Tetrick on Saturday.
Huntsville was named last year's top freshman after a season that saw him win the PASS and Breeders Crown finals as well as the International Stallion Stakes at The Red Mile in a world record 1:49. He has returned in fine form at three, a winner in three of five seasonal starts, was a close second in the North America Cup final and comes in to the Pace fresh having bypassed Pocono's Hempt stakes.
The really big money this week comes in the form of twin $240,000 Graduate Series finals. These finals close out the series conceived to play a transitional role for four-year-old horses as they graduate from three-year-old competition into the Free-For-All ranks.
Trotters are up first in race nine where Marion Marauder returns to the scene of his greatest victory the $1 million Hambletonian, the first jewel in his magical Triple Crown season of a year ago.
He's been brought back purposefully by trainer Paula Wellwood with his first race of this season a win in the Tioga leg of the Graduate in mid-June followed by a closing third last week at Mohawk. He's drawn the far outside post nine for the final, challenging driver Scott Zeron to map out a winning trip. Marion Wellwood and Devin Keeling own the career winner of nearly $2 million.
The competition is led by Trolley, Broadway Donna and Dayson, all of whom won preliminary legs and have had a bit of a freshening leading into the final.
The Graduate Pacing final (race 11) is going to be fun to watch. It's a very even field of ten awfully good horses, many of them with an affinity for racing on or near the front. Something has got to give.
Dr J Hanover (PP#4, Doug McNair) won twice in three series starts including his epic 1:46.4 win in the Mohawk leg which is the fastest mile in the long and distinguished history of Canadian harness racing.
Trainer Tony Alagna used a qualifier to prep him with a bit of time between races and Dr J had to fight right to the wire with a 26-second last quarter to eek out a win, but he did it and that had to sharpen his edge.
Owners Brad Grant, Robert LeBlanc, Steve Wienick and Irv Samelman gave $280,000 for Dr J Hanover at the Tattersalls sale in January.
It is not going to be easy for Dr J Hanover with fellow leg winners Sintra and Check Six lying in wait, Boston Red Rocks poised to break from his bridesmaid role and speed merchants Lyons Snyder and Western Fame posted inside and out.
The $41,880 Mary Reynolds Memorial three-year-old filly trot opens the evening with six debutantes preparing for next week's Del Miller Memorial and later, nine fleet pacing mares square off in a $20,000 Preferred (race 7) led by Lady Shadow prepping for the Golden Girls stake on Pace night.
As if that wasn't enough, we will also get to see the enigmatic Walner make his first pari-mutuel appearance of his sophomore season in the second race conditioned trot. The winter book Hambletonian favourite has been vicious in morning trials and seems to have overcome those pesky obstacles on his Hambo trail. Owner Ken Jacobs and trainer Linda Toscano is likely as anxious anyone to see him race.
It all happens on Fan Appreciation night with fireworks after the live races. Early post time for this and next Saturday is 6:30 p.m.