Little Brown Jug highlights midweek racing
Both thoroughbred and standardbred racing fans are accustomed to seeing the best horses of all ages in their respective sports compete at major ovals on weekends. But one of the biggest races in harness racing is actually held annually on a Thursday on a small oval in the middle of a county fair and yet it easily outdraws similar events in much more populated areas.
Tomorrow afternoon more than 50,000 spectators will cram into the Delaware, Ohio County Fairgrounds for the 70th renewal of the $675,000 Little Brown Jug, the third jewel of pacing's triple crown in standardbred racing. The 'Jug' is not held at a major oval or in a bustling metropolitan area, yet it is annually one of the biggest attractions - if not the biggest - for harness racing fans.
Perhaps what makes the Jug something special beyond the purse and the prestige is the simple fact that it is one of the few remaining heat races, a genuine throwback to what separated standardbreds from their thoroughbred counterparts. While thoroughbreds are known for speed, standardbreds were one heralded for their durability and stamina.
Many of the harness races that once required heats have been reconfigured so that the eliminations are one week before the final. The Hambletonian, the sport's most prestigious race for three-year-old trotters, has recently reverted back to conducting the elims and final on the same day, but it still differs from the Jug in one major sense. A horse does not have to win twice on Hambo day in order to be declared the champ.
Thursday's twelfth race is the first of two, $108,000 first-heat eliminations for the Little Brown Jug. The top four finishers in each heat return for the second heat, where the winner of that race is not necessarily the Jug champ. If one of the two first heat winners takes the second heat, the race is over but if a third horse prevails in the second heat then all three will return for a third heat with that race winner being deemed the official Jug champ.
Among the seven sophomores that will go behind the gate in the first heat, first elim are several horses that have been racing amid the upper echelon all season. Lost For Words (David Miller) draws the coveted rail, with Rockin In Heaven (Trevor Henry) alongside him in post two, followed by Yankee Bounty (Yannick Gingras), Dude's The Man (Corey Callahan), Trading Up (Scott Zeron), Cooperstown (Matt Kakaley) and Split The House (Tim Tetrick).
Although Lost For Words is listed as the 2-1 morning line favorite from the rail, the most accomplished horse in the field is Dude's The Man. A winner of three of 13 starts this year, Dude's The Man captured the famed Adios at the Meadows near Pittsburgh - another race that was formerly decided in heats - and he was second to Wiggle It Jiggleit in the $750,000 Meadowlands Pace final in July.
Dude's The Man proved that his runner-up effort in the Meadowlands Pace at 38-1 was no fluke when he came back to win the Adios. He has since finished third in both the Cane Pace, the first jewel of pacing's triple crown and the Battle of the Brandywine and was most recently second in the Messenger Stakes, the second jewel of the triple crown.
But Dude's The Man will have considerable work to do in order to capture the final jewel of the crown. He has drawn post four in his elim and has three quicker rivals to his inside. Lost For Words will certainly be reluctant to yield the advantage from the rail and he has ample gate speed to carry the field a long way.
Rockin In Heaven has performed well in New York Sire Stakes events on the smaller ovals and he also owns an open stakes score, but the main threats in here should be Yankee Bounty and Split The House. Yankee Bounty was among the best two-year-old colt pacers last year and he has performed well this season in various spots, so do not be influenced by his one win from 15 starts and he has post three and enough speed to get away well.
Split The House looked like a budding star when he shipped down from Canada to capture the New Jersey Classic in 1:48.3, but he has not maintained that good form and has shown signs of regression in three straight losses. He also drew post seven and will have to hope for a wicked early pace in order to rally late and possibly earn a berth in the second heat.
Then in the second division of the first heat, much of the attention will be focused on Wiggle It Jiggleit (Montrell Teague), the top-rated horse of any age or either gait in the latest USTA poll. Wiggle It Jiggleit has won 16 of 18 starts and earned over $1.4 million this year for owner-trainer George Teague, Jr., including handy scores in the Meadowlands Pace, Milstein Memorial at Northfield Park and Battle of the Brandywine at Pocono Downs.
Wiggle It Jiggleit will leave from post five as the 3-5 favorite in this elim, although he will not a cinch to secure the victory. Railbound Artspeak (Scott Zeron) was last year's champion two-year-old colt pacer, but his form this year has been subpar and few would have a tough time placing him among the top five sophomore pacers this season.
Artspeak ended a prolonged drought when he won the $170,000 Simcoe Stakes at Mohawk last weekend for his fourth win in 12 starts this year. He draws the rail for this elim and this Tony Alagna has enough speed to secure the pocket behind Wiggle It Jiggleit early and maintain a two-hole trip throughout. But he will have to be more like the Artspeak of last year than the current one in order to upset the sport's top horse.
A glimpse at the other contenders shows a pair of legitimate horses in My Hero Ron (Yannick Gingras) and Revenge Shark (Brett Miller), who will start from posts four and seven, respectively. My Hero Ron won an Adios elim before settling for fifth in the final, but he was a good second to Wakizashi Hanover in the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes final at Pocono Downs.
Revenge Shark has enjoyed a quietly successful campaign for Alagna, having won the Messenger Stakes at Yonkers in his most recent start. Six weeks ago he finished a solid second behind Split The House in the New Jersey Classic and then came right back to win the Geers. While Yankee Bounty is among the contenders for Maryland-bred horse of the year, Revenge Shark has already secured the title of Virginia-bred harness horse of the year whether or not he returns to the Jug final.
Among the 15 pacers that go postward in the two divisions of the first heat of the Jug, only eight will return for the second heat and that event is not an open draw. Each division winner from heat one will draw for posts one and two, the runner-ups post three and four and then the third-place finishers will get five or six and the fourth-place finishers seven or eight.
In a sense, winning the first heat is almost of paramount importance, both in the short term and the long term. If either of the first heat winners captures the second heat the race is over, but if a third horse joins the mix then a third heat will be required and that will prove taxing on that trio of combatants and could be detrimental to their long term goals of capturing the Breeders Crown, the Matron Stakes and the Progress Pace.