Bella Bellini in ‘Nifty’ spot for Hambletonian Oaks

East Rutherford, NJ — Trainer Nifty Norman didn’t think he’d be in a spot like this.

His Bella Bellini is the 3-1 morning-line favorite leaving from post position five for Saturday’s $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks for 3-year-old trotting fillies at The Meadowlands. In fact, Norman’s pleasantly surprised Bella Bellini amounted to much of anything.

Bella Bellini is the 3-1 morning-line favorite leaving from post position five for Saturday’s $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks. USTA/Ken Weingartner photo.

As a 2-year-old, the daughter of Bar Hopping-Bella Dolce had zero victories from seven starts. Hardly the type of beginning that would see a trainee blossom into one of the horses to beat in the biggest race on the sophomore trotting filly calendar.

“Last year,” said Norman, “she could never get comfortable on the turns. She never matured. But she showed some speed, and being a homebred, (owner) David (McDuffee) decided to keep her and give her a shot. Thank God he did.

“What could we have been hoping for after last year? It’s the biggest turnaround I’ve seen with a horse I’ve had.”

Bella Bellini started her 2021 season with a 15-1/4 length domination of her foes in a division of the Weiss at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono to earn her first-ever trip to the winner’s circle. And she’s been outstanding in all nine starts since.

Entering Saturday’s Oaks (post time, 5:42 p.m.), despite having been beaten in each of her last two outings, Bella Bellini was installed as the early favorite nonetheless, given her season’s record of six wins and four seconds from 10 starts, which includes a lifetime-best 1:52.1 score at The Big M on July 3 in an open for 3-year-old fillies.

On July 16, she was a fast-closing second to Yonkers Trot winner Johan Palema at The Big M in an overnight, while a week ago in her Oaks elimination, she went parked for a little more than the final half-mile to come up just a head short of a super-game Lady Chaos.

“(Two starts back) was more of just a prep for last week when she was second to Johan Palema,” said Norman. “We wanted to be conservative with her. Last week, I don’t think Dexter (Dunn) gave her as good a drive as he’s given her. I think had he made a quarter move (to the lead) or waited before out-speeding (Lady Chaos) in the stretch (the outcome might have been different). Anyway, it just doesn’t matter.”

Since elim winners Lady Chaos and Awesome Trix got to draw for post positions one through five, Norman was a tad nervous at the prospect that his filly could have drawn a bad starting berth.

But the post-positions gods were good to the 60-year-old Norman, who’s won just under 300 races and earned just over $10 million over the last three years.

“I think (post five) is a really good spot,” said Norman. “I don’t think my filly was at her best last week. I think she’ll be a lot better this week. I think it could be a real good race for us.”

The $1 million Hambletonian, as well as the Hambletonian Oaks, will air live from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. Post time for the first of 16 races on The Big M card is noon.

The field for the 51st edition of the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks for 3-year-old trotting fillies, that takes place Saturday (Aug. 7) at The Meadowlands, with post position, horse (driver, trainer) and morning-line odds:

1. Darlene Hanover (Brian Sears, Brett Bittle), 10-1
2. Flawless Country (Ake Svanstedt, Ake Svanstedt), 15-1
3. Awesome Trix (Scott Zeron, Christopher Beaver), 9-2
4. Lady Chaos (David Miller, Linda Toscano), 7-2
5. Bella Bellini (Dexter Dunn, Nifty Norman), 3-1
6. Piper Hanover (Andy McCarthy, Tony Alagna), 8-1
7. Hot As Hill (David Miller, Ron Burke), 15-1
8. Contested Hanover (Scott Zeron, George Ducharme), 15-1
9. You Ato Dream (Jeff Gregory, Jeff Gregory), 8-1
10. Iteration (Brian Sears, Marcus Melander), 6-1

Note: Driver changes will be available at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Elimination winners Lady Chaos and Awesome Trix drew for posts one through five.

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