‘The Guru’ reflects on trio of Hambletonian wins

by Kimberly Rinker, for Hambletonian Society/Meadowlands Racetrack

East Rutherford, NJ — Only one Hall of Fame trainer in harness history has conditioned three Hambletonian winners using the same Hall of Fame driver, in the same decade, at the same racetrack.

Astute harness racing and Hambletonian fans know that can be none other than Ron Gurfein, racing’s “trotting guru.”

The 2005 Hall of Fame inductee harnessed Self Possessed, Continentalvictory and Victory Dream to win trotting’s biggest event during the last decade of the 20th century, and each diagonally-gaited equine was steered by 1995 Hall of Fame inductee Mike Lachance at the Meadowlands.

Gurfein, 71, admits that winning the Hambletonian is not easy.

“A lot of guys go to that fountain but it’s very, very hard to drink out of that fountain,” he stressed. I’ve seen a lot of great trainers try to win that race, and it’s just not as easy as they perceive it to be.”

Gurfein first stepped into the Hambletonian winner’s circle at the Meadowlands with Victory Dream in 1994. It was also Lachance’s first win in the classic.

“Victory Dream was a really, really good trotter — the best of 1994, despite having had an issue as a 2-year-old,” Gurfein recalled. “He raced in the Historic, and came out of it with an avulsion fracture — a very healable thing — but it cost him the rest of his 2-year-old season. An avulsion fracture is where the suspensory ligament attaches to the cannon bone and pulls a piece of the bone away. It healed and he came back fine as a sophomore.”

The highly-regarded son from then first-crop sire Valley Victory had won five consecutive starts prior to the $356,500 Beacon Course (now the Stanley Dancer), contested just a week before that year’s Hambletonian.

“He was pretty dominant going in to the Beacon Course and I really didn’t think he could lose,” Gurfein admitted. “But for whatever reason, he just raced a little flat and finished fourth to Whiteland Image. Up until that time, his road to the Hambletonian had been pretty easy.”

Gurfein had little reason to worry further, however, as Victory Dream took his Hambletonian elimination with ease, grabbing the lead at the :56.1 half and winning by 2-1/2 lengths over Smasher in 1:53.4. Whiteland Image, who had bested the youngster in the Beacon Course, went off stride just before the half and failed to qualify for the Hambo final.

“I always believed in that horse; he had a ton of talent,” Gurfein said.

In the final, Mr Lavec and Jimmy Takter (winner of the second elim) left hard and took the field to a :26.3 opening panel — the fastest first quarter in Hambo history up until that time. Lachance sent Victory Dream after the leader, snatching away the top spot at the :56.1 half, and went on to win by 2-3/4 lengths in 1:54.1, unchallenged.

Victory Dream went on to earn $992,662 that season, taking a career mark of 3,1:53.2 that fall at Lexington. He pushed his career earnings to $1,016,537 and was voted 3-year-old Trotting Colt of the Year.

“The thing that stymied me in all my roads to the Hambletonians was the Beacon Course,” Gurfein said reflectively. “Victory Dream was fourth in it; Continentalvictory sat in a hole for the first time and finished third and MB Felty got locked in and finished fifth. I probably burned more money in the Beacon Course than any trainer in history.”

Continentalvictory was one of the early favorites to win the 1996 Hambletonian. A winner of $432,810 and ten races as a 2-year-old, the daughter of Valley Victory-Intercontinental had been christened the 1995 freshman filly Trotter of the Year.

Continentalvictory had won all four of her 1996 starts prior to the $334,500 Beacon Course — including the Yonkers Trot on July 6 — the first leg of trotting’s Triple Crown. But in the Beacon Course on July 27, she sat uncharacteristically in the two hole and finished third, beaten three-quarters of a length by rival Lindy Lane.

“Mike (Lachance) and I were having lunch after that at Il Villagio and he told me he was going to drive Lindy Lane because he thought he had raced better in the Beacon Course,” Gurfein remembered. “I had another horse in the Hambletonian — Mr Vic — and I pestered Mike until he agreed to drive either Mr Vic or Continentalvictory.”

For the 71st Hambletonian, Lachance chose Continentalvictory, who easily captured her elim, stopping the clock in 1:52.1 against five rivals. That mile tied the existing sophomore world record set by Mack Lobell in 1987 and was a world record for 3-year-old fillies. It also broke the Meadowlands track record for 3-year-olds of any gender and was the fastest pari-mutuel race at the East Rutheford, N.J.-one miler, regardless of age.

“I’m fairly cool, but that final heat got me un-nerved,” Gurfein confirmed. “Act Of Grace made breaks behind the gate and caused two recalls, and I was a nervous wreck when that kept happening.”

When the wings of the gate finally sprung for the Hambo final that steamy August afternoon, Continentalvictory, seemingly untroubled by the recalls, snared the lead, snapping off fractions of :28.1, :55.4 and 1:25.1. Lindy Lane and his driver Bill O’Donnell challenged the black filly down the lane, but Continentalvictory used a :27.3 brush to hold off her determined rival by a half-length for the win, timed in 1:52.4, with her tail held high.

“I’ll never forget that afternoon,” Gurfein said. “All of those recalls is what prompted the Hambletonian format to change from heats to eliminations, I think because it interfered with the television broadcast. Those are the kinds of things you never forget.”

Continentalvictory became the first filly to win trotting’s top prize since Duenna had done so in 1983, and became the first filly to win the first two legs of Trotting’s Triple Crown. Her double-heat total time of 3:45 became the fastest in harness racing history — shaving more than a second off the previous standard.

The big black filly was denied her Triple Crown quest when she injured a suspensory ligament that fall and was scratched from the Kentucky Futurity at The Red Mile. She retired with $1,611,170 in career earnings and was named 3-year-old Filly Trotter and Horse of the Year for 1996.

The 1996 Hambletonian was also unique in that Continentalvictory beat a filly in her first elim and a colt in the final. It was also to be Hall of Fame trainer Stanley Dancer’s last Hambletonian (he trained Act Of Grace) and in the 16 years since that Hambo, no filly has been so dominant. It was also the last time traditional heat racing was conducted for the classic.

Self Possessed’s 1999 Hambletonian victory gave the Gurfein-Lachance partnership their third Hambletonian in six years. It was also sweet for Gurfein in that his star pupil was from the first crop of his previous Hambletonian winner, Victory Dream. Self Possessed became the first son of a Hambletonian winner to win the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands.

“He was the first horse that I raced in the different format — Continentalvictory and Victory Dream had both raced in heats on the same day,” Gurfein offered. “Self Possessed was probably the easiest of the three to race in that regard.”

After a freshman campaign that saw him earn a respectable $281,170 with a mark of 2,1:55.4 taken at Du Quoin, it was evident that Self Possessed would be one of the top contenders for the 1999 Hambletonian. He captured a $30,000 Open Trot on July 1 at The Big M in 1:52.2, then blew the doors off his competition in his $20,000 Beacon Course elimination on July 9, clocked in 1:52.2 and drawing off by 13-1/4 lengths.

However, once again, the Beach Course curse reared its ugly head in Gurfein’s direction in the $430,000 final as the colt made a nasty break at the wire, finishing fourth in 1:55.1.

“In the Beacon Course, Self Possessed switched over to the pace,” Gurfein acknowledged. “The track was stinging him pretty good that day. At the time, he wore a full swedge steel shoe, so for the Hambletonian I switched to a flip flop with a full swedge insert and it paid off. He was spectacular in his Hambo elimination.”

The son of Victory Dream-Feeling Great left nothing to chance in his Hambletonian elim on July 31, 1999, trotting in 1:53 wearing his new shoes and drawing away from his rivals by six lengths. Gurfein said the decision to change the colt’s shoes was based on his experience of over 20 years of racing and training at The Big M.

“I had trained horses at the Meadowlands since they opened and I had a pretty good handle on how to shoe a horse there,” he said. “If a trotter got a little bit sore or a bit pacey there, I could usually figure out pretty easily how to fix them, shoeing-wise. I raced at that track from 1976 on, so I probably had the chance to race a horse with every possible shoe there that you could imagine.

“Maybe I was smart or maybe I was lucky, but the outcome was great,” he laughed. “When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, my choices in regards to making a shoeing change to help that horse were a lot easier than if I had spent my days conditioning horses at another racetrack in another state somewhere.”

Gurfein’s experience and knowledge certainly paid off, as on Hambletonian Day 1999, Self Possessed carried the same self-assurance as his conditioner — posting the fastest trotting mile ever in harness racing history of 1:51.3 (a career best), a stakes, track and world record, with an effortless 5-1/2 length victory. The colt took the lead away from rival Angus Hall (John Campbell) at the :55.3 half and never looked back. His margin of victory was surpassed only by Mack Lobell’s 6-1/4 length margin in 1987 and it equaled Nevele Pride’s win margin set in 1968.

“Honestly, going into the final, I thought he’d have to have a stroke in order to lose that race,” Gurfein laughed. “He was special.”

Self Possessed went on to be named 3-year-old colt Trotter of the Year, amassing $1,346,390 in career earnings from 13 wins, six seconds and a third in 24 trips postward.

Gurfein also points to Self Possessed’s son Cantab Hall, who he conditioned to a second-place finish in the 2005 Hambletonian.

“Cantab Hall got sick right before the Hambo and he was lucky to finish second in there,” Gurfein noted. “Actually, he was lucky to have had the year he had, and he’s proved in the breeding shed that he’s a great horse. If I’d won the Hambletonian with Cantab Hall — from Self Possessed’s first crop — that would have been extra special.”

Cantab Hall has three colts vying in this Saturday’s Hambletonian — the most of any stallion. He previously sired Explosive Matter to finish second to Muscle Hill in the 2009 Hambletonian.

Gurfein has also started these Hambo finalists: Kajan Kooker (2008), Great Success (2007), Muscle Bound (2005), Rafaello Ambrosio (1999), Confident Victory (1998), Divinator (1997), Trustworthy (1995), and MB Felty (1991); and these contenders who raced in the elims but not the final: Living Image (2002), Experience Victory (2001), Ava (2000), Baltic Bet (1997), and Mr Vic (1996).

In closing, Gurfein admits he believes his Hambletonian horses have had a combination of winning elements. They were well-bred horses who were raised right and conditioned correctly.

“I think the edge I had was that I was racing horses that were raised at Brittany and Lindy farms,” he said firmly. “Pedigree and where horses are raised is a major key in winning the Hambletonian. I don’t think you could raise a horse in the back woods of Utah and get the same results that you can get with a foal who’s raised on Brittany or Lindy Farms soil. The guys who raise the horses are the guys who have the winners.”

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