Trenton, NJ — Yannick Gingras has won numerous Grand Circuit stakes, including 23 Breeders Crown finals, in his career. That can only be done with some great horses.
Thus, it’s an impressive declaration when Gingras says of Tall Dark Stranger, “He’s the most complete horse I’ve ever driven.”
“For pure blazing speed, maybe I’ve driven horses that are a bit quicker than him; not a lot, but a bit quicker,” he added. “But for a horse that can absolutely do it all, I don’t really think I’ve driven one like that and I don’t think many other people have, either.”
Gingras will have perhaps his final chance to drive harness racing’s No. 1-ranked horse Saturday in the $500,000 Breeders Crown final for 3-year-old male pacers at Harrah’s Hoosier Park. In September, Hanover Shoe Farms announced that Tall Dark Stranger will join its stallion roster for the 2021 breeding season.
Tall Dark Stranger will start the Breeders Crown final from post one and is the 3-5 favorite on the morning line. A Breeders Crown winner at age 2, Tall Dark Stranger is looking to become the first male pacer to add a trophy at 3 since Artiscape in 1997-98.
“I don’t mind the pressure,” Gingras said. “If I did, I’d be in the wrong business and maybe being a driver wouldn’t be the right thing to do in my life. This week, he’s the horse to beat and everybody knows that.
“I think that’s what makes it fun. I’d rather have the pressure of having the best horse than not having any pressure.”
Owned by Crawford Farms Racing, Marvin Katz, Caviart Farms, and Howard Taylor, Tall Dark Stranger is trained by Nancy Takter and has been driven by Gingras in every lifetime start but one. He enters the race with 11 wins in 12 starts and $1.19 million in earnings this year; and 19 wins and one second in 21 career starts with $1.90 million in earnings.
Sired by Bettor’s Delight out of Precocious Beauty, Tall Dark Stranger is the only horse to ever win the Metro Pace and Breeders Crown as a 2-year-old and the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup as a 3-year-old. He was the Dan Patch 2-Year-Old Colt Pacer of the Year in the U.S. and earned the same honor in Canada.
“He’s the total package,” Gingras said. “It would be hard to pick just one thing I liked. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s got heart. He can do it all, there’s really no flaws in his armor.”
Those qualities were not completely apparent as a baby, but Takter and Gingras have cultivated all the potential over two years.
“I really loved him from the start but to say he was the most complete horse, I’d be lying if I was saying that at the beginning,” Gingras said. “I think he’s developed to be that. When I baby raced him I absolutely loved him. He showed then he had tremendous speed and he had a great gait to him.
“But until you really test them once or twice you don’t know what the heart is. You could have an idea whether they’re going to be game or not. Two-year-olds, they’re a little dumb in a way. They do things sometimes that they physically can’t, but their brains are not telling them not to do it. That’s why you have to be careful not to ask a 2-year-old to do too much really early.
“We took it easy a little bit on him in the beginning, but when it was time to put the money on the line we raced him and he showed up every single time. He’s proved to be a tremendous, tremendous horse.”
Coming off his Dan Patch-winning year, expectations were obviously high for Tall Dark Stranger. But not so great that he couldn’t go even higher.
“It would be hard to say he didn’t surpass expectations,” Gingras said. “Of course I was super confident in the horse, I thought he could win it all and he hasn’t lost a race of any major importance. Every big race Nancy put him in the box, he’s won them all. It would be hard to say he could do anything more than he’s done so far. Now the Breeders Crown is the last little check mark.”
Gingras feels the colt’s breakout race was last year’s Metro Pace, when he got out in front and held off a late challenge from Papi Rob Hanover.
“He just exploded,” Gingras said. “Up until that point we really hadn’t raced him too hard. We didn’t have to dig until then, and that’s when I actually raced him pretty hard. That’s when I knew he was better than just a very good horse, he was a great horse, and he hasn’t disappointed me since.”
As for Tall Dark Stranger’s best race, Gingras opted for the Meadowlands Pace, when the horse overcame an off day.
“He wasn’t maybe at his best, there were other races where he’s been a little sharper than that,” the driver said. “That day he really had to dig deep. Papi Rob took it to him. That day he just showed all the grit I knew he had, and he showed the world how tough of a horse he was.”
In fact, it is emblematic of how Tall Dark Stranger likes to race. He can get out in front or come from behind, but seems content to always make it a battle.
“He likes to fight,” Gingras said. “He’s not a horse that’s going to come home at :25 flat like some of the others. He likes to race, he likes the fractions to be fair. I don’t think he’s quite the sprinter that many others can be.
“Other than that, this week if they mix it up fast the first three-eighths, I could definitely come first up, second over or I could be in the front, and have no worries. I’m not looking to be too far back, so he’s going to be put in play one way or the other.”
In looking at the field, Gingras feels that Cattlewash, Warrawee Vital and Captain Barbossa are among the horses that can give Tall Dark Stranger a challenge. Cattlewash, trained by Ron Burke, won the other Breeders Crown elimination in a track-record 1:47.2 and has a world-record-equaling 1:46.4 mile to his credit.
“It’s definitely not a one- or two-horse race,” he said. “It’s a complete field of horses and it goes to show how great of a horse he is because he’s beaten them every time.”
And he will look for one more victory to cap a memorable career.
“It actually got into my head about two starts ago, once I got to Lexington. I thought, you know what, there’s not much left,” he said. “Realistically this weekend could be his last lifetime start. There’s a chance he goes to TVG, but it’s not official, it depends on how this weekend goes and how he comes out of the race.
“I’ve enjoyed the run, but I think he would be a tremendous aged horse. He’s the kind of horse that keeps getting better and tougher. If he came back at 4 and 5, I think he would dominate. Selfishly, I’d love to have him for a couple more years and I think the fans would love to have him. But I understand the breeding part of the business. I totally get it. I know the horse is worth a fortune as a sire.”
He has already been worth fortune in memories.
Harrah’s Hoosier Park hosts four $600,000 Breeders Crown finals for 2-year-olds on Friday. The remaining eight finals, for 3-year-olds and older horses, are Saturday. Racing begins at 6 p.m. (EDT) both nights.
The 2020 Breeders Crown, presented by the Libfeld-Katz Breeding Partnership, is the 37th edition of the $6 million event. Harrah’s Hoosier Park will provide a free live high-definition streaming of the races on YouTube.
Following is the field for Saturday’s Breeders Crown 3-year-old colt-and-gelding pace final.
1-Tall Dark Stranger-Yannick Gingras-Nancy Takter-3/5
2-Manticore-Jordan Stratton-Bruce Saunders-20/1
3-Cattlewash-David Miller-Ron Burke-5/2
4-Warrawee Vital-Tim Tetrick-Robert Fellows-6/1
5-Save Me A Dance-Andrew McCarthy-Andrew Harris-20/1
6-No Lou Zing-Dexter Dunn-Nancy Takter-8/1
7-Captain Barbossa-Joe Bongiorno-Tony Alagna-20/1
8-Sandbetweenmytoes-Scott Zeron-Jim Campbell-30/1
9-The Greek Freak-Matt Kakaley-Ron Burke-30/1
10-Elver Hanover-Chris Page-Ron Burke-30/1
Elver Hanover starts from the second tier.