Special Pacer: Tall Dark Stranger Wins $1 Million Pepsi North American Cup

By John Furgele

A few weeks ago, driver Yannick Gingras decided to head to Canada because he wanted to drive Tall Dark Stranger in the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup.

A year ago, that wouldn’t be news, but because of COVID-19, Gingras had to follow the protocols. Once he arrived in his native Canada, he had to quarantine for 14 days and only after those two weeks, could he start driving at Woodbine Mohawk Park to prepare himself for the track’s signature event.

Tall Dark Stranger Horse

Tall Dark Stranger – Photo Courtesy of USTA

The effort was worth it as Tall Dark Stranger dominated to win the race in a time of 1:48.2. How good has this colt been? In two years, he has won the Metro at Woodbine, the Breeders Crown Juvenile, the Meadowlands Pace, the Cane Pace and now, the richest pacing race in North America.

“He’s the best pacing colt I’ve ever driven,” said a teary-eyed Gingras. “He’s just stronger than the others.”

The only colt that had a chance was Tattoo Artist, who shot out from the seven hole to grab the early lead, speeding through the opening quarter in a sharp 25.4 seconds. Gingras, though, seized command shortly after and from there the outcome was never in doubt.

“I have all the confidence in the world in this colt,” Gingras said. “I didn’t want to hold him back tonight and I told Nancy (trainer Nancy Takter) that I was going to let him get to the front and roll him.”

Because of the strict entry requirements into Canada, Takter had to watch from afar, but she had to have a big smile on her face seeing how smoothly Tall Dark Stranger was cutting easy fractions.

In the stretch, the game Tattoo Artist tried one more time to challenge the colt called “TDS,” but Gingras and the colt were never threatened and the emotional victory was complete.

“It’s been a tough couple weeks,” he said, “but right now, I couldn’t be happier. This is a special colt.”

It was Gingras’ first win in the Pepsi North America Cup, doing it for owner Marvin Katz, who was able to join Gingras in the winner’s circle.

“This colt has done some extraordinary things,” Katz said. “Think about what he has done in 2019 and 2020. The Metro, the Breeders Crown, the Meadowlands Pace and now the North America Cup.  That’s something the great ones like Somebeachsomewhere have never done. He rates up there with the best horses I’ve ever owned.”

It was the sixth win of 2020 and 14th of his career. He is tall, he is dark but he is no longer a stranger.

New Jersey threatens $20 million cut to horse industry

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a pretty good year for harness racing. Once tracks re-opened, protocols have been followed and for the most part, races have gone on with very few hitches. Most of the negative news has occurred off the track.

With casinos in New York still closed, Yonkers announced that they will end their season early, on Sept 12, with the hopes that things can return to normal in 2021.

Saratoga Casino Hotel, another track that relies on casino revenues to help fund purses, looks like they can keep racing through October with the hopes that casinos could open before that. Their season normally ends the third weekend in December.

The most distressing news came out of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s office. Last year, state lawmakers agreed to give New Jersey’s three horse racing tracks—Monmouth (thoroughbred), Freehold and the Meadowlands $20 million to help increase purses and fund breeding programs in the Garden State. In Murphy’s preliminary budget, the $20 million has been cut and Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural is pleading with members of the legislature to get the funding restored.

“That money has helped us tremendously, and we need it to continue,” Gural said, “I can’t tell you how devastating it would be if that money was cut. Even with it, we’re behind those states that have casino revenues, but this would really hurt.”

Gural is encouraging the public to reach out to their local legislators to prevent the cut. Of course, this is only a proposal and it shouldn’t come as a great shock. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all states, especially New Jersey. Murphy knows that the state has a budget shortfall and it’s his job to trim where he can.

The hope is that the lawmakers will see the progress New Jersey has made in horse racing and will restore the funding. There is time, and negotiations will take place. If you’re a fan, you’ve seen all three tracks bounce back nicely in 2020, and you’d hate to see them take a step back if the cut becomes reality.

Murphy is an ally of horse racing. When he campaigned for office, he promised to help and so far, he has delivered. In 2019, the legislature passed a five-year, $100 million subsidy to both harness and horse racing, subject to renewal every year. Things were looking good, but then, the pandemic hit and governments are now scrambling to make cuts and balance budgets.

Now for some good news

Since racing resumed in May, the horses have been fired up and once again that proved true on Saturday (Aug. 22) when Dragon Striker became the fastest horse in the history of Northfield Park after tripping the wire in 1:48.4 in an $8,400 conditional pace. Wow!

He left from the gate and dominated, becoming the first to dip under 1:49. The win was the fourth in 12 2020 starts and the 15th of the 6-year-old’s career. The horse has earned $145,971, but the $4,200 from the Aug. 22 race will be remembered for years.

More good news

Some that believe Pompano Park wants out of harness racing. Not true, for now.

The track recently hired Gabe Prewitt as director of racing and a 126-night season will run from Nov. 8-May 21, 2021.

And, if you’re a competing racehorse, your stall rent is free.

“We’ve been getting a very high number of inquiries for the upcoming season and we expect to be completely full as we get close to post time,” Prewitt said.

Joe Morris oversees the racing for Caesar’s Entertainment and he is looking forward to season No. 57 at The Pomp.

“We have in place a very strong team at our tracks and there is a new aura of enthusiasm at Pompano,’’ he said. “We’re very excited to get going.”