Hightstown, NJ — Voukefalas has given Michael Russo little reason to worry this year, and even after dealing with a back issue that flared up in mid-September, remains a bright spot for the New Jersey-based trainer as he prepares for his Governor’s Cup elimination for 2-year-old male pacers Saturday at The Meadowlands.
A homebred son of Lazarus N-Inittowinafortune owned by Michael Pagonas, Voukefalas has hit the board in six of seven races, winning three, and earned $241,088. His victories came in the New Jersey Sire Stakes championship, a division of the Arden Downs, and the New Jersey Classic ‘A’ final, and his fastest win time of 1:50 is tied for the fourth fastest by a 2-year-old male pacer this season.
“He’s a legit horse,” Russo said. “Regardless of whatever happens from this day forward, it’s not going to diminish what he is and what he will be for next year and the year after. I liked him from early on, and not in a delusional way. The horse showed you things. He’s a good horse. He’s a bright spot.
“Right now, if he doesn’t make another cent, we had a really great year with him and we have a horse worth a heck of a lot of money.”
Voukefalas finished third in his first two races, both preliminary rounds of the New Jersey Sire Stakes at The Meadowlands. He raced on the outside for most of the mile in his debut but came home in :26, then got caught behind a slowing horse in the second, when he sprinted the last quarter in :25.1 to make up more than four lengths.
Those efforts had Russo brimming with confidence heading to the NJSS championship on July 22 at The Big M, where Voukefalas won by 2-3/4 lengths over Handlelikeaporsche with his 1:50 score.
“I knew he was going to win, and I don’t think like that about any horse,” Russo said. “I didn’t have any anxiety over that race at all.
“Right until the day before the New Jersey Classic (on Sept. 16), I never had one moment where I was concerned about him or his performance because I know what kind of horse he is. I never had to worry about him. For a trainer to not have that worry or stress, that would definitely be the most enjoyable part of this.”
Heading into the New Jersey Classic, Russo thought Voukefalas was not quite himself, but he won gate-to-wire in 1:53.4 with a :26.2 last quarter, besting Handlelikeaporsche by a half-length. After the race, Russo discovered the colt’s back issue, which threw a wrench into the trainer’s plans for the remainder of the campaign.
“My plan was to stop with him and just bring him back for the Governor’s Cup, but since he was off, I couldn’t stop with him and just hope everything would be fine when he came back,” Russo said. “I wanted that break after the Classic, and I couldn’t take advantage of it. The last two months have been me trying to tinker around and get him back to normal.”
Voukefalas spent a month away from the races, then returned with a fourth-place finish in a division of the Simpson Memorial at Harrah’s Philadelphia. Eleven days later, he finished second in a qualifier, and this past Friday he was nipped at the wire by a nose by Handlelikeaporsche in the Home Grown Pace at The Meadowlands.
“Of course, I don’t like any horse to lose a race, but my horse really hadn’t raced in two months,” Russo said. “He had a start, but he was in an impossible position (in the Simpson). I can’t have any bad feeling about him getting beat last week. It took the whole length of the stretch for (Handlelikeaporsche) to get by him, and that horse is a lot tighter and has been racing a lot since the New Jersey Classic.
“No excuse, (Voukefalas) raced as good as he could, the other horse beat him. A very good horse beat me. But I feel like he was back to normal last week, and since last week he’s been acting good every day. In that respect, I feel good.”
Voukefalas and regular driver Jordan Stratton will start the first of Saturday’s two $20,000 Governor’s Cup eliminations from post six. The eight-horse field also includes Breeders Crown champion Ammo and Matron Stakes winner Act Fast. Ammo is the 5-2 morning-line favorite. Voukefalas is 6-1.
“His attitude is tremendous,” Russo said about Voukefalas. “He has such good manners. Everyone that has come in contact with him — a vet, a blacksmith — he just never gives you trouble. He’s playful, but he never tries to bite or get in the way. He doesn’t have any bad habits. He’s what you want in a horse. He has every good trait that you want to see.”
Handlelikeaporsche, a three-time winner on the Grand Circuit and worse than second only once in nine races, is the 6-5 favorite in the second Governor’s Cup elimination.
The top-five finishers from each elimination will advance to the Nov. 26 final.
Saturday’s Meadowlands card also includes single eliminations of the Valley Victory Stakes for 2-year-old male trotters and Three Diamonds Stakes for 2-year-old female pacers. Racing begins at 6:20 p.m. (EST). For free TrackMaster programs for all Meadowlands cards, visit the track’s website here.