EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rick Zeron, an admitted crier, had reason to well up Saturday after the 93rd Hambletonian.
Not only had the veteran horseman won the trotting classic in his first try. His son Scott was in the sulky to make it a family affair, and the high point of a 43-year-old career.
And he got the job done with a filly, the very determined Atlanta.
“This is a dream come true,” said Rick Zeron. “That’s my specialty, trotters. I live and breathe to train a trotter, especially a filly. It’s more satisfying for me to train a filly to get where I am today, to win what I did today, than with a colt. It’s a bigger challenge.”
Atlanta won the $1 million Hambletonian on Saturday, becoming the 14th filly to capture the famed trotting race for 3-year-olds.
It was an emotional victory for the father-son team from Oakville, Ontario.
The filly won the Hambletonian the hard way, setting the pace and holding on gamely in the lane.
Scott Zeron employed those tactics earlier in the day in the first of two eliminations, and got Atlanta beat after setting a wicked pace.
Remarkably, Atlanta regrouped quickly after the punishing mile.
“I spoke to my assistant trainer Ernie Henry who has looked after since she was 18 months old,” said Rick Zeron. “He said it took her about 7 to 10 minutes longer than usual to get her wind back. After that, she was absolutely perfect. He said we were good to go.”
That was an understatement.
In the final, Atlanta was again on the lead. This time, Zeron did a better job of rationing her speed.
Atlanta responded by kicking away from challenger Tactical Landing at the top of the stretch to open a 3-length advantage.
She trotted strongly to wire, winning by 1 length over 29-1 shot Met’s Hall.
“I’ve said it to a few people close to me,” said Scott Zeron. “She’s the best horse I ever drove. Everything is so fluid and effortless. The mile (in the elimination) just got away from me. I was mad at myself. That’s not how I wanted to head into the final. If she was a champion, she would bounce back and she did.”
The time was 1:50 4/5 for the mile.
It was the second Hambletonian victory for Scott Zeron. He was at the lines when Marion Marauder won in 2016.
Atlanta, the 2-1 second choice, paid $6.40, $4.20 and $3.60.
Mets Hall returned $19.40 and $7.60. Tactical Landing paid $3.40 to show.
Crystal Fashion was fourth as the 9-5 favorite followed by Evaluate, Alarm Detector, Classichap, Patent Leather, Hat Trick Habit and Fashionwoodchopper.
The win was worth $500,000 for the ownership team of Rick Zeron, Crawford Farms, Holland Racing, Howard Taylor and Bradley Grant.
The Hambletonian kicks off the Triple Crown for trotters. The series continues with the Yonkers Trot on Sept. 1and Kentucky Futurity on Oct. 7.
There were two $100,000 elimination heats earlier on the card with the first five finishers in each advancing to the Hambletonian final.
Crystal Fashion nipped Atlanta in first elimination, trotting the mile in 1:50 1/5 and paying $10 to win.
Wolfgang, the 6-5 favorite, was sixth and missed the cut.
Tactical Landing took the second elimination in 1:52 1/5 in a 6-1 upset, beating 74-1 shot Patent Leather by 1¼ lengths.
Six Pack, the 2-5 choice, finished fifth but was disqualified for stretch interference and placed sixth.
BIG CROWD AT BIG M: A total of 18,252 came out for the on-track Hambletonian experience, despite bad weather early in the day.
“I’d like to thank our fans, owners, drivers, trainers, grooms and employees for supporting what is not only our biggest day here at the Meadowlands, but harness racing’s biggest day,” said Jason Settlemoir, the track’s chief operating officer and general manager.
HAMBO HIGHLIGHTS: Tim Tetrick swept the late double and finished the day with four driving victories. Scott Zeron and Yannick Gingras won three apiece. … Trainer Jimmy Takter had five winners on the day. … The first 14 races on the card saw only one winning favorite, before Tetrick finished the day with the all-chalk double at odds of 3-5 and 7-5. … On-track handle was just short of $1.1 million, with all-source wagering totaling $5,669,720, smashing the previous 2018 industry-best (established on Meadowlands Pace Night) by $1,586,330. … Harness racing returns to the Big M on Oct. 12.
PHOTO: Atlanta and driver Scott Zeron take the 93rd Hambletonian Saturday at the Meadowlands. (Credit: Lisa Photo)