by John Pawlak, marketing director, USTA
East Rutherford, NJ — Those whispering “great” when talking about Donato Hanover can start talking out loud: The freshman colt champion repelled a bold challenge from the filly champion of last year, and won the 82nd Hambletonian in 1:53.2 on Saturday at the Meadowlands to prove that he may, indeed, belong among the greatest trotters of this era.
Winning driver Ron Pierce let others bid for the early lead and kept the winner along the rail in third in the early going, on the way to a :28.2 first quarter. He moved him off the rail just before the quarter pole was passed and quickly stepped to the lead, but slowed the tempo and led to the half-mile pole, timed in :58.2.
The second favorite, the filly Pampered Princess (Tim Tetrick), joined the chase on the backstretch, and the world’s trotting fans were watching while the pair raced side-by-side for one-eighth mile. At the start of the turn the filly actually had a brief lead, but Donato Hanover, having the inside, was able to reclaim the advantage and came clear to win by 1-1/4 lengths.
Adrian Chip, who raced in the pocket, trailing the dueling favorites by about three lengths on the final turn, was able to come out of the pocket and finished second, while Laddie (Paul MacDonell) and Please Poppy (Brian Sears) came on late and finished third and fourth, respectively. Pampered Princess faded to seventh, before being placed up to sixth, when fifth place finisher Too Salty was disqualified and placed back to seventh for violation of the breaking rule.
There was no doubt that a :30 second quarter-mile helped the winner, and when they raced to the three-quarters, timed in 1:26, the colt began to draw away from the filly.
“It makes you feel good to see them walk to the half and it’s your race to win or lose,” trainer Steve Elliott said. “I said this week the trip would win the race; we were able to walk to the half and we won the race. If we would have been on the outside and had to come after the filly we might have been standing here and watching her in the winner’s circle.”
Driver Ron Pierce said winning his second Hambletonian (American Winner, 1993) was special: “Steve and I were kids, rubbing horses in the ‘70s, and winning this race for him was a real thrill. This is like ‘right here’ (in terms of all-time thrills); it’s as good as my first Hambo and all the (Little Brown) Jugs; it’s like my wife having a healthy baby.
“Speed hadn’t held here today, and I didn’t want to come from the back,” Pierce said about how the race unfolded. “I knew what I had. I did tap him twice — not that I had to — but I wanted to keep him trotting.”
The victory touched off the inevitable comparison with Valley Victory, who 18 years ago was trained by Elliott, but who never made it to the Hambletonian after having become ill after winning the Yonkers Trot, but who did go on to be an outstanding sire.
“It’s hard to compare different eras; (Donato Hanover) is a lot bigger and smarter than Valley Victory. He’s sure professional about everything.”
The NBC-TV cameras caught Elliott wiping a tear away from his eyes moments after Donato Hanover won. The son of Andover Hall will return to the place of his birth, Hanover Shoe Farms, where he will stand at stud at the close of his career.
David Scharf, who owns the 82nd Hambletonian winner with Paul Bordogna’s Golden Touch Stables and Steven Arnold said, “This was an anxious week; the expectations made it difficult. Steve did a great, great job with this horse.”