Yonkers, NY — What would it mean to you to win the International Trot?
Conni Lugauer pondered the question in silence for some time Saturday morning (Sept. 21), hours before his trainee Alegra B won the Breeders Crown Mares at Trabrennbahn Mariendorf in Berlin, Germany. Finally, Lugauer conceded.
“This is a really good question,” he said. “I’m always thinking about victories, but I didn’t think about victory in the International Trot. The question is too big. I don’t know.”
Come October 12, Lugauer may be in a better position to answer the question. The German-born trainer will send Norton Commander to represent his homeland in the $1 million Yonkers International Trot. Although Lugauer hoped to secure an invitation to Yonkers’ premier race for trotters for months, his aspirations seemed crushed as the initial list of 10 probables didn’t include Norton Commander. However, after the defection of Sobel Conway on Sept. 18, Norton Commander’s invitation arrived.
“It was my opinion to put him in the race because he’s now arrived at the top. He’s been racing this year against good competition and he almost beat them quite often. It was my plan to get him into this race, actually,” Lugauer said. “We are proud of course and happy because we are a stable who wants to race in the big races. It’s impressive to race in America. It’s the next step in my vision. We are really proud about it.”
“First of all, the history. It’s one of the most famous international races in the world that we have. If you look at the winners of this race, they are mostly really famous racehorses. It’s the biggest point, I think,” Lugauer said. “It’s always nice for the European horses to race in America. And the last point is the prize money.”
A native of Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany, Lugauer grew up in a harness racing family. His father, Johann, was a successful trainer and Lugauer became fascinated by the horses at a young age. At age 16, Lugauer drove his first winner and two years later in 1992, he became a professional trainer. He moved his stable to Sweden in 2004 and has been there since.
Lugauer’s stable is now about 90 horses strong and in the midst of its best year to date. Lugauer has trained winners of 108 races from 397 races so far this season, good for 12.9 million Swedish Krona. In addition to Norton Commander and Alegra B, his stars include Ferrari Sisu, who finished second in the Group 1 Swedish Travderby.
“This year is our best year in my career. We have some quite good horses,” Lugauer said. “I feel extremely confident and it’s a lot of fun at the moment.”
Owned by Ulrich Mommert, Norton Commander came to Lugauer as an unraced 2-year-old. The tall chestnut sported white socks that reached his knees and a blaze that began just below his forelock and widened down his face to fully engulf his nose.
“First of all, he’s a really beautiful horse,” Lugauer said. “He sticks out in the field because of the nice color and he’s a big one. He has the white socks and he has the really long legs. I felt quite early this horse had the future before him.”
Norton Commander qualified at Lugauer’s Jägersro base Sept. 1, 2017, and won eight of his first twelve races from Sept. 11, 2017, through Sept. 19, 2018. After Norton Commander won a class 1 trial for 3-year-olds worth 125,000kr on Dec. 26, Lugauer knew big things were ahead.
Norton Commander is 3-for-7 in 2019. His first win this year came in a class 1 trial at Åby on the Olympiatravet undercard. Norton Commander next raced at Solvalla on Elitloppet weekend, taking the class 1 final over 2,140 meters on the Saturday card. Norton Commander ran his win streak to three when taking a 45,000€ trot at Vincennes in a 1:10.9 kilometer rating for the 2,100 meters.
Although Norton Commander enters the Yonkers International Trot off three straight losses, the 5-year-old hasn’t missed by much. Lugauer tried the Gift Kronos son in Group 1 company for the first time in the Jubileumspokalen at Solvalla Aug. 14.
Norton Commander started from the inside post and Lugauer kept the trotter three back along the pylons throughout the 2,140-meter race while favorite Who’s Who tracked cover to his outside. Up the backstretch the final time, rival Vincero’ Gar pulled the pocket and Norton Commander followed the move, shifting to the outside.
The cover took Norton Commander to the top of the stretch, where he dived back inside for a clear path. However, he couldn’t outkick Who’s Who and Milliondollarrhyme, who each stormed down the center of the track to take the top two spots, respectively. Norton Commander finished third a half-length behind Who’s Who.
“He was racing against the best 5-year-old horses in Europe in the Jubileumspokalen,” Lugauer said. “He was third and he was a little unlucky because I (kept him inside) for quite a long time in the race and didn’t come out early enough. He won at Vincennes in a time of 10.9 over 2,100 meters quite easily, so he has now arrived at the top.”
Lugauer thinks racing at Yonkers will suit Norton Commander. While many trotters are faster without shoes, the trainer feels Norton Commander is just as fast with them, which plays to his favor on the Hilltop oval. In addition, Lugauer thinks the race flow will work to Norton Commander’s advantage.
“He doesn’t have to go without shoes and I think at Yonkers, it’s better you go with shoes, so that’s a little plus for him. We are really looking forward to it, because I don’t think those horses will be running away from him,” he said.
“I think also the racing system in America, how they drive the races, is also a plus for my horse because he likes a strong tempo and he’s also really strong in the end, so if he gets a good post, I’m almost sure he’ll do a good race and get some money,” Lugauer continued.
Although confident in his training and in his horse, Lugauer respects the competition Norton Commander will face in the 1-1/4-mile Yonkers International Trot. His nine rivals will include defending champion Cruzado Dela Noche (Sweden) and 2018 Hambletonian winner Atlanta (U.S.). Guardian Angel AS will also represent the U.S. and Marion Marauder will race for Canada. The other European invaders are Bahia Quesnot (France), Lionel (Norway), Zacon Gio (Italy), Slide So Easy (Denmark), and Uza Josselyn.
“Atlanta and those horses, they are really famous and really fast,” Lugauer said. “I’m really interested in how my horse handles those horses. But the European horses are also quite fast and maybe a little stronger for the distance.”
Like most of the European connections, Lugauer’s main concern is the mandatory quarantine faced by the foreign horses. The European contingent for the International will be stabled at Yonkers for the week leading up to the International Oct. 12 and will spend most of the time in their stalls, with exceptions made for training and grazing in the track’s infield.
“The quarantine, in my opinion, is the biggest challenge,” Lugauer said. “I don’t know how he’ll handle that because he’s normally out in the field a lot. That won’t be happening for 10 days before the race, so I don’t know how he’ll handle that, but normally, he’s quite uncomplicated, so I trust in him. I think he’ll manage it.”
Although Lugauer won’t be in New York to see Norton Commander race in the Yonkers International firsthand, the trotter will be in good hands. Lugauer’s 25-year-old son, Marc Elias, will drive in the International as Lugauer must take the lines behind trainee Campo Bahia in the Group 1 Grand Prix de l’UET at Helsinki the same day. Elias has driven Norton Commander in four of the trotter’s 12 wins. Lugauer is optimistic.
“It’s a dream come true because this is one point in my career that I want to do, race in America. This is extremely big for us, but now we will see what happens.”
The $1 million Yonkers International Trot is slated for Saturday, October 12 at Yonkers Raceway. The card will also feature a pair of $250,000 invitationals, the 1-1/4-mile Harry Harvey Trot and 1-mile Dan Rooney Pace. For more information on the event and its participants, click here.
Yonkers Raceway features live harness racing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. First post time is 6:50 p.m.