Hightstown, NJ — After defeating two past Dan Patch Award winners to capture a division of last week’s first leg of the Miss Versatility Series, the next task for Herculisa is equally daunting. The mare meets two more past award winners in Saturday’s (May 14) $40,000 opening round of the Graduate Series for 4-year-old female trotters at The Meadowlands.
Herculisa — who beat 7-year-old mare Atlanta by a neck in the Miss Versatility, with 6-year-old When Dovescry finishing third — faces six foes in the Graduate this weekend. The field includes 2020 Dan Patch Award winner Anoka Hanover and 2021 honoree Bella Bellini, whose triumphs last season included the Hambletonian Oaks. Also among the group is Katie’s Lucky Day, last year’s Kentucky Filly Futurity champion.
Last Friday, Herculisa won in 1:52.1 over a sloppy track for her second triumph in two starts in 2022. She trotted her final quarter-mile in :25.4, a time unsurpassed by any horse in the 13 races that night at The Meadowlands. Only one horse equaled the clocking, Atlanta.
“It’s unreal,” said Steve Finkelstein, who owns Herculisa under the name Jesmeral Stable. “I know she’s a good trotter, but I didn’t think she could go and do that. She raced unbelievable. I know it was Atlanta’s first race, but I don’t know how much faster they could go; they came home in :25.4.
“It doesn’t get any easier on Saturday, with Bella Bellini and that group. But we’ve had a great start, we just have to see where it goes from here. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Herculisa, who has won 14 of 22 career starts and last year became the fastest 3-year-old trotter in history on a half-mile track with a 1:52.3 score in the Ohio Sire Stakes championship at Northfield Park, almost wasn’t entered in the Miss Versatility. Virgil Morgan Jr., who trains Herculisa, convinced Finkelstein to give it a go.
“I was thinking I wanted to race her at Yonkers most of the time, just let her grow a little bit and see if she was good enough for the big girls,” Finkelstein said. “Try to stick to the half-mile big races, that kind of thing. But Virgil said the Miss Versatility final is on a half-mile (at the Delaware County Fair in Ohio), and he really wanted to do it, so I went with it.
“When I saw the purse was $30,000 and I was in with When Dovescry and Atlanta, I said, oh, this is great,” he added with a laugh. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be proven wrong.”
Herculisa, a daughter of My MVP-Herculotte Hanover, had one career start under her belt when Finkelstein bought her in June 2020. She won her debut at the Paulding County Fair for owner-trainer-driver Ed Greeno Jr., then qualified with Brett Miller in the sulky at Northfield prior to Finkelstein’s purchase of the 2-year-old.
“The funny thing is, I never buy horses that I don’t get to train or jog,” Finkelstein said. “But it was Covid, and I wasn’t going anywhere anyway, so I figured what the heck, I’ll take a shot. Brett Miller said she was the real thing, so I bought her.”
Herculisa won five of six races at 2, with her only setback coming in the Ohio Sire Stakes final, when she went off stride. Last season, she won seven of 14 starts. She had six victories and a second in a seven-race stretch from June to October, capped by a Grand Circuit triumph in a division of the Bluegrass Stakes.
Finkelstein then supplemented Herculisa to the Kentucky Filly Futurity for $50,000, but she went off stride behind the gate and was not a factor. She had the outermost starting spot in her next three races — an elimination and final of the Breeders Crown and the Matron Stakes — and finished second, fourth, and sixth.
“Until the end, I thought she was great,” Finkelstein said about 2021. “She broke my heart a little bit in Lexington, but that’s just part of the game. I can’t complain one bit with her. She’s been nothing but fun.
“Obviously, she is coming back unbelievably (this year). So far, it’s amazing.”
Finkelstein’s fun is not limited to Herculisa. Among his other horses is Leonidas A, an older male pacer who has won seven of 10 races this year and finished second in the $549,000 MGM Borgata Series final.
“It’s such an unbelievable good feeling right now,” Finkelstein said. “I’ve been in this game all my life, and I’ve had nice horses through the years, but never two like this. I’m having a ball.”
Herculisa is the 5-2 morning-line second choice in the Graduate Series opener, with David Miller in the sulky, starting from post seven in the seven-horse field. Bella Bellini, who made her 2022 debut last week and was second by a neck to Next Level Stuff in the other Miss Versatility division, is the 9-5 favorite.
Racing begins at 6:20 p.m. EDT at The Meadowlands. Saturday’s 13-race card also includes two $25,000 first-round divisions of the Graduate Series for 4-year-old female pacers. Mikala is the 5-2 favorite in the first division, with Hot Mess Express the 3-1 second choice from post nine in her seasonal bow, while defending Horse of the Year honoree Test Of Faith gets the 9-5 nod in the second.
TrackMaster past performances for all Meadowlands cards can be found at the track’s website here.