Free-Legged: 447 named to Big M juvenile jackpots

by Dean A. Hoffman

Some 241 trotters and 206 pacers have been nominated to the four rich races for 2-year-olds that the Meadowlands hosts in early August.

Among the trotters, the Merrie Annabelle for fillies drew 121 nominations while its male counterpart, the Peter Haughton Memorial, drew 120 entries.

With the pacers, 108 freshman fillies were nominated to the Sweetheart while only 98 boys were entered in the Woodrow Wilson.

These events are estimated to carry purses from $375,000-425,000 and a horse only has to win this race to make its entire career successful. The importance, however, of these events has waned in recent years as the purses have waned and other rich events have gained prominence.

These events for freshman stars were initiated by the Meadowlands soon after its opening in the mid-1970s, and they have long been the early-season target for the most precocious colts and fillies in the sport. In 1984, the Woodrow Wilson was contested for a record purse of $2,161,000.

The Sweetheart has had a million-dollar purse three times and twice the Peter Haughton Memorial has been raced for $1 million. In recent years, however, purses have been smaller, but they still make for a lucrative opportunity for early season’s stars.

In those years, the winner of one of these events often called it quits for the year as the owner and trainer preferred to “keep some gas in the tank” for the sophomore season.

In such cases, the season of a 2-year-old champion was over almost before it began.

The season became more balanced when the Breeders Crown was started in 1984, offering rich purses late in the season to crown the champions in each class.

A few years later Garden State Park in New Jersey began offering its own quartet of juvenile jackpots in the Governor’s Cup, Three Diamonds, Valley Victory, and the Goldsmith Maid. These were always contested late in the autumn.

No longer was it necessary for a top 2-year-old to be pointed for the early bonanzas at the Big M. There was plenty of money to be made later in the year.

In the 11 seasons from 1980-90, the Woodrow Wilson carried a purse of at least $1 million ten times. By contrast, for the past two years, the Wilson purse has averaged under $400,000.

Still, these events are almost irresistible to owners and trainers with a horse that learns quickly and comes to its speed immediately. Dreams of winning a big race at the Meadowlands are what sustain many owners.

To nominate to the quartet of races in 2007, the owners of the 447 2-year-old hopefuls had to make a $300 nominating payment by Feb. 15. Each event carries subsequent sustaining payments that will fall in March, April, and May.

To declare a horse into each event costs $2,500, but if a horse qualifies for the final, it has a shot at fame and fortune.

Last year’s Peter Haughton Memorial winner, Donato Hanover, was named the champion of his class in 2006 and he is the overwhelming favorite for this year’s Hambletonian. He must overcome a noteworthy jinx, however, as no Peter Haughton Memorial winner has gone on to win the Hambletonian the following year.

Isabella Blue Chip won the Sweetheart pace for trainer George Teague, Jr. and driver David Miller and she was voted the tops in her division last year.

Fox Valley Barzgar won the Woodrow Wilson in a wire-to-wire performance to win by open lengths in 1:50.2, making him the second fastest freshman of last season.

Some owners who invested heavily in carriage-trade yearlings last fall have kept them eligible to these races in hopes of making a quick return on their investment.

Satin Pillows, a $350,000 yearling purchase by Jeffrey Snyder last fall, is among those eligible to the Merrie Annabelle. The daughter of Conway Hall was bred by Valley High Stable and was the second highest-priced yearling of 2006. She is out of the mare Bold Dreamer, dam of Was It A Dream ($713,441) and Pampered Princess ($626,244) in her first two foals.

Vinnys Dance, a $230,000 Andover Hall colt sold last fall, is among the hopefuls in the Peter Haughton Memorial. He is out of Dance Girl Dance.

Although they lack some of the luster and lucre of years past, these four Meadowlands races are still coveted goals for many owners and trainers.

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