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Never was there more at stake for the world-renowned farm and its syndication partners than when Donato Hanover went to the gate in the 82nd edition of the Hambletonian at The Meadowlands.
The decision to syndicate the precocious two-year-old in 2006 was the first time in the history of Hanover Shoe Farm that the farm management was directly involved with a Hambletonian champion prior to the horse actually contesting the race. The 120 shares in the $6 million syndication agreement, sold out quickly to 22 of the sport’s most prominent individuals and breeding farms as Donato Hanover ended his two-year-old campaign with a Breeders Crown victory that culminated in a Dan Patch year-end honors.
“Syndicating a two-year-old is a very dangerous business decision,” Hanover Shoe Farm President Jim Simpson said. “He had to have been a very special horse for us and the others to invest. Time will only tell if this was a solid investment. But he held up his end of the bargain as a true champion.”
The dominant Donato was trained by Steve Elliott, and drew unavoidable comparisons to another Elliott trainee, Valley Victory. The great Valley Victory recorded a career remarkably parallel to that of Donato Hanover -- until the week of the 1989 Hambletonian when the heralded trotter nearly died from an illness that prevented him from racing in the Hambletonian or ever again.
Nineteen years later Elliott was back on the Hambletonian trail. He kept Donato Hanover on familiar ground in the lead-up to the $1.7 million Hambletonian, easily annexing the Historic Dickerson Cup and the Stanley Dancer Memorial elimination and final. Another eerie coincidence to the 1989 Hambletonian emerged. That year’s event was billed as a battle of the sexes – Valley Victory vs. the great filly Peace Corps. When Valley Victory wasn’t entered and Peace Corps [who carried a 17-race win streak into the race] failed to fire and finished fifth and second in the preliminary heats, the result was an epic stretch battle between Park Avenue Joe and Probe that ended in the one and only dead-heat in Hambletonian history.
A battle of the sexes circa 2007 evolved after Bob and David Anderson entered their brilliant filly Pampered Princess against the boys instead of in the $850,000 Hambletonian Oaks. Both Donato and she played their parts to perfection, each winning their respective Hambletonian eliminations. The stage was set for a classic confrontation between the two defending divisional champions, with the element of foreign intrigue added from the third elimination winner, Swedish import Adrian Chip driven by Robert Bergh.
Connections of the three contenders chose their post positions by lot, a privilege awarded elimination winners. They lined up with Donato Hanover as post two, Adrian post three and Pampered Princess post four, prompting the morning line odds-maker to deem Donato Hanover an even money favorite.
Under sunny skies on a breezy afternoon that kept the crowd comfortable despite the 88 degree temperature, Donato Hanover got a drive worthy of a champion from Hall of Fame pilot Ron Pierce.
Pierce let others bid for the early lead and kept the eventual winner along the rail in third in the early going, on the way to a 28.2 first quarter. He moved Donato Hanover off the rail just before the quarter pole and quickly stepped to the lead, but slowed the tempo and sealed the outcome of the race as Donato Hanover led to the half-mile, timed in a soft 58.2.
The second choice, Pampered Princess and driver Tim Tetrick, joined the chase on the backstretch, and trotting fans around the globe got the contest they wanted as the pair raced side-by-side for an eighth of a mile.
At the start of the turn the filly actually had a brief lead, but Donato Hanover surged up on the inside, was able to reclaim the advantage and trotted off to win by an unthreatened 1-1/4 lengths. Adrian Chip, who raced in the pocket, trailing the dueling favorites by about three lengths on the final turn, gave his best effort to catch Donato Hanover in the stretch but finished second.
The 82nd Hambletonian, trotted in 1:53.2, was now a career defining victory and furthered Donato Hanover’s status among the greatest trotters of this era.
Laddie (Paul MacDonell) and Please Poppy (Brian Sears) came on late and finished third and fourth, respectively. Pampered Princess faded to seventh, before being placed up to sixth, when fifth place finisher Too Salty was disqualified and placed back to seventh for violation of the breaking rule.
“I honestly believed Pampered Princess had the ability to win the Hambletonian,” trainer Jimmy Takter said. “If Donato had been forced to take the trip my filly had to go in that race, I honestly believe the roles might very well have been reversed.”
Donato Hanover’s convincing victory, the lucky 13th in a row in his career gave the sophomore son of Andover Hall – D Train an insurmountable lead on Horse of the Year honors. Follow-up victories in the World Trotting Derby, Canadian Trotting Classic and Kentucky Futurity created a frenzied demand for the precious syndication shares that had been shopped the year before.
Following the win, trainer Elliott, who would be named the winner of the Glen Garnsey Award as Trainer of the Year for the second time in his career, echoed the thoughts of his rival and friend Takter.
“It makes you feel good to see them walk to the half and it's your race to win or lose,” Elliott said. “I before the race the trip would win the race; we were able to walk to the half and we won the race. If we would have been on the outside and had to come after the filly we might have been standing here and watching her in the winner’s circle.”
Though Donato Hanover faltered in the late November Breeders Crown, finishing third to Arch Madness, he cleaned up in the year-end honors, garnering 189 votes from the members of the United States Harness Writers Association while no other horse was received more than four ballots.
At the end of the season, Donato Hanover went back home to his birthplace, Hanover Shoe Farm, with the single season’s earning record of $2,336,190, [eclipsing that of Glidemaster set the year before] completing a career that included 19 wins, a second and two third place finishes in 22 starts and life earnings just short of $3 million.
Attendance on Hambletonian Day, 2007, with temperatures in the 90s was 26,115 against 29,531 in 2006. Total handle was $7,981,435 against $8,096,024 in 2006, with $2,525,120 of that coming on track.
In his Hambletonian elimination, Donato Hanover moved for the lead off the gate and dominated throughout the mile to capture his 12th straight victory by a length in a career best time of 1:53.1.
Steve Elliott is a Detroit native and veteran of New Jersey racing. He got his start with cousin Dave Elliott, and was stable assistant when Dave set a training record of 100 wins at the Meadowlands in 1983. Steve gained his own recognition when he won the 1987 Woodrow Wilson with Even Odds and then became one of very few trainers to campaign three divisional champions in the same year in 1988. He was voted Trainer of the Year for that accomplishment.
It was the first Hambletonian win for Elliott, 54, (November 4, 1953), whose stable has earned in excess of $17 million. The Elliott stable was well decorated at years-end. Besides Donato Hanover who took Three-Year-Old Trotting Colt, Trotter of the Year and Horse of the Year honors, Elliot also conditioned sophomore pacing filly Dan Patch winner Southwind Tempo and was himself voted Trainer of the Year and the W.R. Haughton Good Guy award by the Harness Writers.
This year, with Donato Hanover, Breeders Crown winner Artistic Fella [$674,640] and Southwind Tempo [$849,554], the Elliott stable hit an all-time high benchmark of $4.8 million.
Elliott became one of an elite group of trainers who won both the Meadowlands Pace and the Hambletonian in their careers. The others are Blair Burgess and W. R. Haughton [who’ve won each event twice], Ray Remmen and Chuck Sylvester.
It was the second Hambletonian victory for David Scharf of New York. Scharf’s initial interest in horse racing came about when he attended Roosevelt Raceway. He claimed his first horse, Flash Jack N, at the age of 18. An attorney whose specialty is corporate bankruptcy restructuring, was part of partnerships that owned the 1999 Hambletonian winner, Self Possessed and ENS Snapshot who finished seventh in 2002.
It was the Hambletonian debut for owner Paul Bordogna’s Golden Touch Stable. A real estate portfolio manager who resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, he’s been teamed up with trainer Steve Elliott for more than 20 years and owned standout Riverboat King. He and Scharf have been partners on many horses.
“David picked this one out,” Bordogna said of Donato Hanover. “He made me go look at him before the sale. I would say he’s not our typical purchase, but he has turned out to be a great one.”
It was also the first Hambletonian appearance for owner Steve Arnold, who along with his wife Robin Finder, resides in Purchase, New York. His father-in-law, Morton Finder, owned Pine Hollow Stud Farm, and was part of the syndicate that owned 1980 Meadowlands Pace winner Niatross. Arnold’s cousin is Triple Crown winning trainer Jerry Silverman.
It was the second Hambletonian driving victory for legendary Ron Pierce. It was his 10th Hambletonian appearance He won the 1993 Hambletonian with American Winner, and finished second with Like a Prayer in 2002 and Classic Photo in 2005 .
Driver Ron Pierce, 52, is a native of Livermore, California who now lives in Clarksburg, New Jersey, and was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2005. Pierce was the Driver of the Year in 2004 when he won a career-high 395 races and led North America with $12.3 million in purses. His career earnings top $137 million. Ÿ Donato Hanover retired the fastest 3-year-old trotter ever (1:50.1) and tied seven-year-old trotting mare Giant Diablo for the fastest trotter ever regardless of age.
No horse had come closer than one length to Donato Hanover at the finish of his 2007 races until his Crown elim. Than Arch Madness was only able to get a neck up on him.
Donato Hanover is the second foal from the Donerail mare D Train, who Scharf also owned. Her first foal was the world champion and multiple stakes winner Her first foal, Here Comes Herbie [by Credit Winner], sold for $47,000 and earned $365,541, finishing sixth in the 2006 Hambletonian.
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