Wilkes-Barre PA — The 2019 harness racing season at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono begins this Saturday night (March 16), as the first of 134 cards planned for the northeast Pennsylvania five-eighths-mile oval contains 14 races, with a scheduled first post of 7 p.m.
The two horsemen who have been dominant in the trainers and drivers rankings at Pocono over the last few seasons, driver George Napolitano Jr. and trainer Rene Allard, look likely to get off to a fast start again this season, at least by a look at the past performances for opening night.
Napolitano, going for his eighth straight year of having the most sulky success at The Downs, was named on no fewer than 40 of Saturday’s 121 entrants and is slated to compete in every race. In three races he was put down on five horses and in three more he was listed on four entrants, so seeing which horse George decides to drive in those contests can go a long way in helping a player’s handicapping take a turn towards the profitable.
Allard, leading trainer at Pocono in five of the last six years, has eight entrants scattered throughout the program. Any regular Pocono player knows that Team Allard (Rene and driver/brother Simon) are often very tough when sending out a new acquisition to the barn, and amazingly, in every one of Saturday night’s five claiming contests, a horse will be debuting for the Allards. And in their last 25 starts combined (the last five races of each of the quintet), they show 12 wins, three seconds, and three thirds before moving into their new home.
One such new member of Team Allard is Ruffle Up, who draws the rail in a field of nine in the top purse event on the card, a $20,000 contest for claimers valued between $30,000 and $35,000. Allard Racing Inc. and co-owner Earl Hill Jr. took the winner of more than $200,000 after he recently posted two wins and a second in conditioned company at The Meadows, and he is entered back in for his $30,000 price of claim for the Pocono inaugural.
Ruffle Up may make good use of his early speed from the rail, but so may Polak A, an 11-year-old winner of $730,000 who will start just to the right of Ruffle Up for trainer Hunter Oakes, last year’s percentage champion in the Pocono training ranks. Polak A shows winning in Open company at Pompano Park, but the combined factors of a two-month absence and his adjusting to northern climes after wintering in Florida may weigh in the mind of George Napolitano Jr., who is named on the horse but also on four others, with good paper credentials, in the tenth race headliner.
The top conditioned pace of the evening comes a race later, with $17,500 on the line for eight starters in race 11. One of three horses George Napolitano Jr. is listed on is Epaulette A (post two), another Hunter Oakes trainee and another Florida climate changer, but this one at least does have one start under his girth since a recent mini-vacation.
The Allards are represented by Maxdaddy Blue Chip (post six), who took his lifetime mark of 1:49.1 here at Pocono in 2017, and who would break the $250,000 plateau in lifetime earnings with a good finish in this tough grouping.
After Saturday, Pocono will next race on Tuesday (March 19). The following week, the trotters and pacers will go over the red surface on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday; and the week after that (March 30-April 2), Pocono will shift to its regular seasonal racing schedule of Saturday through Tuesday. Post times for 2019 will be 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and 4 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, looking to take advantage of the “simulcast bridge” gap between the end of daytime and nighttime simulcast cards.
One more set of pre-season qualifying races will be held at Pocono, on Wednesday at 10 a.m.; at noon that day, there will be a gathering for the press to present a preview of the 2019 season at The Downs.