Yankeeland Legacy Leaves Deep Imprint on the Hambletonian History
by Jay Bergman
The Hambletonian, to be raced for the 90th time on Saturday, has a rich family heritage. Page through the pedigrees of today’s finest horses and you can take a trip back in time and find the greatest trotters of the last century. Family means everything when it comes to equine pedigree and it means even more to those heavily invested in the sport.
Charlie Keller III, the recent Hall of Fame nominee, helped guide the fortunes of Yankeeland Farm, a breeding operation in Maryland begun by his father in 1955. Though the farm has closed operations, Keller III hasn't lost his urge to find a quality trotter and compete at the highest level. On Saturday, Muscle Diamond, a horse he owns in partnership with his son and nephews, is among 19 looking to capture the $1 million Hambletonian.
Ironically it was Keller that went back in time to pluck the yearling by Muscle Hill from the 2002 Hambletonian Oaks winning Windylane Hanover for $40,000 in the fall of 2013.
“I just fell in love with the pedigree,” said Keller. “I mean he had Yankeeland blood all over on both sides.”
On the dams side was Windylane Hanover, a daughter of Lindy Lane owned by Yankeeland and ironically a mare that was sold off. A close look at the production information surrounding Windylane Hanover lets you believe she was an absolute early failure as a broodmare.
“She actually had a foal that won a $100,000 race in Europe,” said Keller. “I believe that happened before this colt (Muscle Diamond) sold.”
Windylane Hanover had been bred to Andover Hall and his son Donato Hanover but the breeders elected to go with Muscle Hill and the combination has clicked.
“I loved Muscle Hill,” said Keller. “He’s got a tremendous amount of Yankeeland blood himself.”
Indeed Muscle Hill, the 2009 Hambletonian winner is by the 1998 Hambletonian champion Muscles Yankee. Muscles Yankee was bred by Yankeeland and sold for $200,000 as a yearling. Hall of Famer Chuck Sylvester developed Muscles Yankee.
“We sold him as a yearling and then we bought shares in him after his racing career ended,” said Keller.
Yankee Blondie, a daughter of Yankee Bambi is the dam of Muscle Hill. Yankee Bambi was a sister to Yankee Bambino, runner-up to Bonefish in the four-heat 1975 Hambletonian at DuQuoin. Yankee Bambino was named after the legendary Babe Ruth. Yankee Duchess, the dam of Yankee Bambi was a foundation mare for the Yankeeland Farms producing for more than 20 years.
Trainer, part-owner Brett Bittle wasn’t overly excited when he first looked at Muscle Diamond prior to the yearling sale. “There was nothing special about him,” Bittle said. “What impressed me was when I watched his video.”
Bittle, Keller’s nephew, was also the conditioner of Windylane Hanover when she won the Oaks in 2002. “Ronnie (Pierce) gave her a great drive that day,” said Bittle recalling the victory. Windylane Hanover had finished second in her elimination for the Oaks and her regular driver Mike Lachance opted for race favorite Cameron Hall for the final. Pierce had the mount behind the 25-1 Windylane Hanover and he worked out a perfect trip behind Cameron Hall to score the upset.
Unlike his dam Windylane Hanover, Muscle Diamond’s three-year-old season has been anything but smooth to date. A runner-up to Pinkman in last year’s Breeders Crown, Muscle Diamond was expected to be among the elite three-year-olds in North America this year.
Muscle Diamond was ready and on schedule but after his first start in New Jersey Sire Stakes action Bittle discovered an abscess in a hind foot that proved to be a minor setback. Then came a tendon injury while Muscle Diamond was out in a paddock that set the horse back another four weeks.
It’s hard to play catch up in the three-year-old trotting ranks but when you have a horse with Muscle Diamond’s talent you just have to take the bumps and move forward and that’s what Bittle has done. Finally going in the right direction Muscle Diamond made just his second start of the year on July 26 in the Zweig consolation at Vernon Downs. Hall of Fame pilot John Campbell put him on the front and the colt was a convincing 1:53 2/5 victor.
“John was very happy with the way he raced,” said Bittle of the Zweig.
While Campbell was a major part of the structure behind Muscle Diamond he won’t be able to drive the colt on Saturday. The Hall of Famer was injured in a qualifier on Friday, July 31 and will be sidelined.
“John’s been such a big part of this horse. It’s a shame he has to miss out,” said Bittle.
In his place will sit Tim Tetrick, a future Hall of Famer.
Tetrick’s assignment wasn’t made easy by the post draw as Muscle Diamond landed in the second $100,000 elimination on Saturday afternoon, race nine and the post position nine.
“I think he’s an easy horse to drive,” said Bittle, “There aren’t any quirks to him.”
Yet Bittle is clearly concerned about the catch-up game and whether the best in Muscle Diamond is ahead of August 8.
“At least he’s had 10 days to prepare after the Zweig,” said Bittle. “We were able to get some work into him and I think that will help.”
With the revised Hambletonian format Muscle Diamond will have to first qualify for the final heat by finishing in the top five in his division, a race that includes the sensational filly Mission Brief, then race a second time for the money.
“None of them have had to go two heats,” said Bittle answering the obvious question whether Muscle Diamond will have the stamina to return.
“I would have liked to have six starts in him. That was the plan,” said Bittle.
For Keller, Bittle and Yankeeland it has been a long bumpy road this year to reach the Hambletonian. It would be fitting for the legacy that a second son or daughter of Muscle Hill would capture the sport’s biggest prize and a bit more special if the name on the trophy said-Muscle Diamond.
Photos - Muscles Yankee in 1998 Muscle Diamond with John Campbell.