Hambletonian Notebook: LeBlanc anxiously awaits race with Pilot Discretion
ALL PHOTOS BY Mark Hall USTA
In past years, when Robert LeBlanc went to The Meadowlands to watch the Hambletonian, he always thought how cool it would be to have a horse in the race. This year, he finds out.
LeBlanc, a retired vice president at IBM who has partnered on horses in trainer Tony Alagna’s stable for three years, is among the owners of Pilot Discretion. The colt competes in the second of Saturday’s (Aug. 3) two $70,000 Hambletonian Stakes eliminations at the Big M, where the top-five finishers from each division return for the $1 million final later in the day.
Pilot Discretion will start from post three with Andy McCarthy in the sulky. He is 10-1 on the morning line. Greenshoe is the 4-5 favorite in the division.
The Hambletonian Day card begins at noon. The Hambletonian, the sport’s premier race for 3-year-old trotters, and $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks, restricted to 3-year-old female trotters, will be featured during a live 90-minute broadcast on CBS Sports Network from 4-5:30 p.m. (EDT).
“As an owner, this is our race,” said LeBlanc, a Canadian who now resides in Austin, Texas. “Everybody wants to be in the Hambletonian. Having a horse that’s good enough, it may never happen again. But I’m enjoying the ride. Tony and the team have done an amazing job with him. Tony has managed him very well and he just keeps getting better and better.”
Pilot Discretion has won six of eight career races and never finished worse than third, earning $174,029. He was 2-for-2 in 2018 but saw his season end because of sickness. The son of Muscle Hill-Self Indulgent won his first four races this season, including the Goodtimes Stakes, before finishing second to Greenshoe in a division of the Stanley Dancer Memorial and third in a division of the Tompkins-Geers Stakes.
“We raced him in the Tompkins-Geers just to get him another race because he’d had a month break between the Goodtimes and the Dancer,” Alagna said. “We wanted to race him and give him last week off. We raced him off the pace; we didn’t want to put him on the front again in his last start since we put him on the front in the Dancer. He closed very well, :26.3.
“He seems great. He’s very fresh. Even the night I warmed him up his last start at the Meadowlands, he was bucking and playing and kicking just going his first trip. He hasn’t done that in the last couple starts. So, I think he’s as fresh as a horse could be going into it.”
For LeBlanc, who owns Pilot Discretion with Dave Anderson and John Fodera, it’s been difficult to wait for Hambletonian time to arrive.
“I’ve got no more fingernails, I’ve bitten them off,” LeBlanc said. “It’s been a buildup every week. I’ll be pretty wound up by Saturday. I’ll be super excited. I’ve already told my wife that I have to watch the race outside (the grandstand) because I’ll be the one screaming the loudest.
“If you see a lunatic screaming if he’s coming down the stretch with a shot (to win) you know it will be me. Every owner will be a lunatic, absolutely. That’s the fun of it. This is what makes this game so much fun.”
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Ake Svanstedt, who won the 2017 Hambletonian through disqualification with Perfect Spirit, will send two horses into Saturday’s event. Marseille is 5-1 in the second elimination, where Greenshoe is the 4-5 favorite, and Soul Strong is 8-1 in the first elim, where Gimpanzee is the 2-1 choice.
Svanstedt trains both horses and will drive Marseille, who is owned by Svanstedt, Stefan Balazsi’s Order By Stable, and Howard Taylor. Dexter Dunn is listed to drive Soul Strong, who is owned by Cees Faber’s Stable Why Not.
Marseille upset Greenshoe to win the Earl Beal Jr. Memorial on June 29. For the year, he has won three of five races and never been worse than third. The son of Muscle Hill-Order By Wish heads to the Hambletonian off a career-best 1:51.4 victory in a division of the Tompkins-Geers on July 20.
“He raced good the last time and he is training normal,” Svanstedt said.
Marseille was limited to four races last year because of soreness. When he returned this year, his behavior left much to be desired. The connections considered gelding Marseille but decided to hold off and gave the colt another opportunity to show improvement. He finished second in a qualifier and then won his seasonal debut, which ended the discussion.
“Maybe he heard what we were talking about,” Svanstedt said, smiling. “After he qualified and started racing, his head changed totally. He is not a stud when he comes to race. He has focus. He is a real racehorse and he wants to race. He is all business.”
Soul Strong was winless in eight races last year but has won three of six starts in 2019. He finished second to Marseille in the Tompkins-Geers.
“He was not so good gaited when we started but his gait is better and better,” Svanstedt said. “He was always a little sore and it was a balance how much we could train and race. But he has a good heart and has gotten stronger and stronger. We gelded him over the winter, and he is better now. He is older and stronger. He is going to be faster and faster.”
Svanstedt, like many others, considers Greenshoe the horse to beat.
“Greenshoe is No. 1 but behind him it’s wide open,” Svanstedt said. “In the Hambletonian, there is good money behind the winner also. Of course, I want to win. But I must be realistic.
“It’s tough to be (in the Hambletonian). Everything must be a hundred percent perfect that day. When all the horses are on the same level, it can be the post position and the horse must be a hundred percent that day. Everything must be good.”
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Team Miller — the wife-husband duo of trainer Julie and driver Andy — has hit the board in the past three Hambletonians and is hoping for more of the same on Saturday with Summit In Sight. The colt is 20-1 on the morning line in the first elimination, where Gimpanzee is the 2-1 favorite.
“He is a longshot for the race but we’re going to give him a chance,” Julie Miller said. “We think we’ve got him sharp and ready. Basically, we need a lot of luck and hopefully he puts his best foot forward.”
Summit In Sight, owned by Natalia Stroy’s Stroy Inc. and the Andy Miller Stable, was limited to two races in 2018 after suffering a bout of colic in the spring. He began this year with a sixth-place finish before putting together a streak of six starts where he finished either first (four times) or second. The string was broken when he went off stride and finished eighth in the Beal Memorial final. He heads to the Hambletonian off a fifth-place finish in a division of the Dancer.
“We shut him down thinking he could be a nice 3-year-old,” Julie Miller said about the son of Muscle Hill-Bluff. “We got him ready early and he flashed some talent. He had some unfortunate luck in the Beal with how the fractions of the race went; we really thought we had a good chance in there.
“I trained him at the Meadowlands on Saturday just to get a good mile in him. I’m hoping I’ve got it all into place. He really developed from (age) 2 to 3 maturity wise. His gait got more extended and he grew up mentally as well. He’s a more manageable horse, so however Andy chooses to drive him, suits him.”
Team Miller’s past three finishes in the Hambletonian were a second by Met’s Hall in 2018, third-placed second by Devious Man in 2017, and fast-closing third by Sutton in 2016.
“Hopefully we can keep that momentum going,” Julie Miller said.
Hambletonian Elimination One
1-Cantab Fashion-Dexter Dunn-Jim Campbell-6/1
2-Summit In Sight-Andy Miller-Julie Miller-20/1
3-Swandre The Giant-David Miller-Ron Burke-7/2
4-Soul Strong-Dexter Dunn-Ake Svanstedt-8/1
5-Mr Vicktor-Tyler Buter-Jennifer Lappe-15/1
6-Osterc-Yannick Gingras-Per Engblom-15/1
7-Gimpanzee-Brian Sears-Marcus Melander-2/1
8-Green Manalishi S-Tim Tetrick-Marcus Melander-5/2
Hambletonian Elimination Two
1-Forbidden Trade-Bob McClure-Luc Blais-12/1
2-Gerry-Orjan Kihlstrom-Marcus Melander-20/1
3-Pilot Discretion-Andrew McCarthy-Tony Alagna-10/1
4-Reign Of Honor-David Miller-R. Nifty Norman-20/1
5-Greenshoe-Brian Sears-Marcus Melander-4/5
6-Don’t Let’em-Yannick Gingras-Nancy Johansson-4/1
7-Super Schissel-Scott Zeron-Per Engblom-10/1
8-Marseille-Ake Svanstedt-Ake Svanstedt-5/1
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