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as of 02/27/2015
A perfect end to the Breeders Crown’s 30th birthday bash!
That the highlight of the 2014 Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands Racetrack came at the end makes for perfect poetry for the championship series on its 30th birthday.

When the stunning 11-year-old European invader Commander Crowe finally vanquished the North American trotting hordes in the 12th and final Breeders Crown of the $5.4 million weekend, even Tom Charters became a fan boy.

“It moved me to go out to the farm the next morning and get my picture taken with the horse,” said the executive director of the Breeders Crown. “I’m not supposed to pick favourites, but I do take delight in that horse, for sure.”

Considering tremendous effort has gone into recruiting overseas horses to compete in the Breeders Crown — and Commander Crowe finally won one in his third straight kick at the can — Charters’ partisanship is both understandable and shared by Crown publicity director Moira Fanning. “I think Commander Crowe made the night,” she said of the Orjan Kilhstrom-driven, Fabrice Soulay-trained chestnut beauty, who overcame the nine-hole in $500,000 open trot and held off the lone mare, Maven, by three-quarters-of-a-length in 1:51 to surpass $5 million in world career earnings.

It was the first time in five years that the Breeders Crown was held at the Meadowlands and the championship event came just in time to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the sleek new grandstand at the celebrated East Rutherford, NJ oval.

That the Meadowlands played host to the 12 Crown over two nights — four on Friday, Nov. 21 and eight on Saturday, Nov. 22 — came at the behest of track owner Jeff Gural.

“My biggest reason was to generate more revenue and I thought that by having it on both nights I would get more wagering on Friday and probably a little less on Saturday,” Gural said. “I thought I would also do much better on food and beverage on Friday, which we did. So, it was purely designed to maximize revenue… I thought it was a success.”

On Saturday, just shy of $4.1 million was wagered on a night with temperatures hovering around 37 degrees. Friday’s chilly 13-race, 29-degree card topped the $3 million mark, meaning the two-day wagering total was some $7.1 million.

“That’s the most important number no matter what,” said John Campbell, the leading driver in Breeders Crown history. “You want to have people come, but the bottom line is we want gamblers. We want people betting on these races.”

Charters said the Breeders Crown is still analyzing whether a one-night, all-12 Breeders Crown such as has been contested at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs (2010 and 2013) and Woodbine Racetrack (2011 and 2012) makes the best sense for the series. Woodbine will return to the 12-in-one-card Breeders Crown format in 2015, but the Meadowlands is scheduled to play host to the series again in 2016 before Hoosier Park takes its first turn at host in 2017.

“I still believe that one night has a bigger impact and doesn’t dilute the brand. People love the one night. That being said, we agreed with the Meadowlands to do it over two nights. That’s what I want to look at is the impact of two versus one,” Charters said.

Gural said he thought the two-night format worked best.

“I personally thought it was better as a two-day event because I don’t think people can stay for 12 races. It’s a lot of races… I thought it was a better guest experience not to ask people to wait around for the 12th race, for the best race (on Saturday).”

The open trot was race 11 of a 13-race Saturday card that pushed the new facility to its limit. Fanning said the new Meadowlands is definitely a good stage for the Breeders Crown, though, “there’s some growing pains there trying to fit everybody into the building.”

“We held our own,” Gural said. “It was clearly the biggest crowd we’ve ever had because for the Hambletonian it was warm and people could go outside… I thought it was crowded, but not that crowded.

“I think the one thing I’ve felt good about with this whole thing is I think the facility is the right size. I put a lot of time and effort into trying to make it the right size.”

Fanning said she hopes the 30th Breeders Crown will be remembered for being the first time social media played a major role in its presentation.

“I would say social media has really brought a very welcome and different dimension to the event,” Fanning said of the constant stream of photos and tweets and posts about most of the 115 Crown finalists brought an intimate, behind-the-scenes flavor to #Crown14.

“I credit the caretakers the most with it because they’re out there cataloguing their day from the time they get on the trailer, off the trailer, washing the horse, running for the winners circle,” Fanning said. “It’s just a much more three-dimensional experience now if you can’t be there… I think it helps fill that void of wishing you could see what was going on in the back.”

Campbell said the on-track product delivered. “There was some exciting races,” he said. “Some horses won on the front, some won as closers. It was kind of a mixed bag and that’s what makes it exciting when people don’t know what to expect.”

A couple of notable comeback victories were also recorded. Bee A Magician — who had trouble in 2014 repeating a fantastic, undefeated 2013 campaign that earned her the Horse of the Year Award in Canada and the United States — held off a furious charge to win the Breeders Crown mare trot. And driver Andy Miller piloted Traceur Hanover to victory in the Breeders Crown two-year-old colt pace in a triumphant return following a seven-month layoff to recover from two broken vertebrae suffered in a racing accident in April.

The one constant from previous years was the potency of the Breeders Crown to determine year-end awards, particularly in the United States.

“We had a good mixture of winning favourites, which you always like to see for year-end settlement,” Charters said.

Six of the 12 Breeders Crown winners ended up with year-end awards, including undefeated two-year-old pacing filly JK She’salady who was voted divisional champ and Horse of the Year. Sophomore trotting filly Shake It Cerry won her division and the Trotter of the Year award. McWicked was named the three-year-old pacing colt of the year. Pinkman and Mission Brief won the freshman and colt and filly trotting divisions, respectively. Father Patrick, whose Crown win redeemed the break in stride he made off the gate in the $1 million Hambletonian in August at the Meadowlands, was named the three-year-old trotting colt of the year.

Yannick Gingras, the unanimous choice for Driver of the Year, won four Crowns — Father Patrick and Pinkman on Saturday and Mission Brief and $62,500 supplement Sayitall BB (in the three-year-old filly pace) on Friday.

Ron Burke, who sent a whopping 27 horses to the gate in Breeders Crown finals, trains Mission Brief and Sayitall BB.

Jimmy Takter fielded 19 horses in six Crown events, won three (Father Patrick, Pinkman and Shake It Cerry) and was later named Trainer of the Year.

Takter is the leading trainer in Breeders Crown history with 21 victories, five more than former leader Bob McIntosh, who added his 16th Crown to his resume when Thinking Out Loud, the ultimate homebred, triumphed in the open pace. McIntosh owned and raced both of Thinking Out Loud’s parents — sire Ponder and dam Los Angeles.

“It was nice to see Bob McIntosh win. He told me at the press conference that he didn’t know if any of them would be as much fun as winning with Sunset Warrior,” said Charters, referring to McIntosh’s first Breeders Crown victory 28 years ago in 1986. “It’s special when people tell you, ‘Twenty years ago I was in this and loved it.’ It’s even better sometimes when people tell you, ‘Twenty years ago my horse finished third or fifth and I’ll never forget that.’ I hope we’ve made that kind of impact with some people.”

Campbell also added to his outstanding Breeders Crown resume, winning the open mare pace with Shelliscape for trainer PJ Fraley and also teaming up with his old friend McIntosh to win with Thinking Out Loud.

“We go back to when we both started out in Windsor,” Campbell said of McIntosh. “I drove for him one of the first horses that he ever had. So, it’s been fun. The last few years he’s been very good to me to put me on his best horses throughout the year. So, it feels pretty good to do well for him.”

Campbell’s two victories were his 46th and 47th Breeders Crown wins. He also was second in the two-year-old colt trot by a half-length with Muscle Diamond for trainer Brett Bittle, third with Nuncio in the sophomore colt trot and fifth with Go Daddy Go for McIntosh in the rookie colt pace.

Campbell leads the all-time Breeders Crown driver standings by a wide margin in wins and money, with nearly $22 million made in series history. Runner-up Ron Pierce added his 30th Crown victory in 2014 with Shake It Cerry and has Crown earnings approaching $13 million.

Shake It Cerry is owned, in part, by John Fielding of Toronto, who has shares of 10 Breeders Crown finalists — all trained by Takter. Fielding, who sits second on the all-time Breeders Crown ownership list behind Brittany Farms’ George Segal, won three Crowns in total. He owns shares of Father Patrick and Pinkman, as well.

Fielding also was part of a large Canadian parade to the Breeders Crown winner’s circle. Canadian-connected horses made up one-third of the finalists, but won seven of the 12 races, cashed 29 out of a possible 37 checks and collected 60 per cent of the total available purses. The Canadians also turned up in droves.

“We certainly had tremendous support from the Canadian owners. I thought I saw almost all of them there,” Gural said.

Yet, in the end, it was a much-traveled, French-sired, Swedish-connected gelding that stole the show from the North Americans. The 11-year-old wonder, known affectionately as "Le Grand Blonde", became the oldest horse to win a Breeders Crown.

“In the context of his career it’s very fitting,” Charters said of Commander Crowe’s Breeders Crown victory. “I would not be surprised if he returns next year. It’s awfully hard to walk away from having a great horse and seeing him retire. He appears to be as fit and well managed as he ever was. He’s wonderful.”

 

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