Sunday, September 10, 2023

With a return to the level where he was dominant earlier this year, Voukefalas got to be the bully of the playground again Saturday night at The Meadowlands, taking one of two $150,000 New Jersey Classic finals for 3-year-olds on the pace.

After starting the season with a three-race sweep of the New Jersey Sire Stakes, hopes were high for the Mike Russo-trained son of Lazarus N-Inittowinafortune, but facing the very best of the 3-year-old colt and gelding division during the ensuing weeks did not bring the type of results his connections had hoped for: a fourth in the North America Cup, an eighth in The Meadowlands Pace and a fifth in the Cane Pace.

Back in with New Jersey-bred males on Saturday, everything was easy once again.

“He was great tonight. He feels very similar (to earlier in the year),” said winning driver Jordan Stratton. “He’s kind of overachieving being a Jersey-bred (when) on the Grand Circuit, but he’s holding his own and he’s one good trip away from a big win on the Grand Circuit.”

Leaving from post three, Stratton waited for some traffic to unsnarl and remained parked as the quarter went in :26.2 with Gallie Getaway leading. Voukefalas, who had yet to see the rail, continued on toward the top, and finally had it at the half – albeit while parked – in :54.

“I got used a little hard, but the rest of them got used hard trying to keep up, too,” said Stratton. “So, I was able to grab a little breather around the last turn and he did the rest from there.”

It wasn’t much of a breather, as Peppermint Man shook some fear into the chalk players with a bold attack on Voukefalas heading to three-quarters, but ‘Vouk’ shrugged off that challenger before going on to a convincing 2¼-length victory in a lifetime-best 1:49.2. Stay Grounded, superb in victory in winning the lone elimination a week ago, was superb again, closing well for second. Vici finished third.

Voukefalas’ win was his first since taking the NJSS final on May 27, and is now seven-for-17 lifetime with earnings of $568,750 for owner Michael Pagonas. He paid $2.40 to win as the 1-5 favorite.

Stratton wasn’t done quite yet, as the pilot who annually resides at or near the top of the driver standings at Yonkers Raceway, completed a sweep of the NJC finals by guiding filly Odds On Cinamon to a 1:50.2 upset of even-money public choice Ucandoit Blue Chip, who beat Stratton and ‘Cinamon’ one week ago in the event’s lone elimination for females.

Needing more patience than he did earlier in the night, the 36-year-old reinsman handled Odds On Cinamon perfectly, floating around the first turn before taking a brief tuck as Light And Tight led at the quarter in :27. Back outside once the field straightened up for the march to the half, ‘Cinamon’ went after the front three of Southwind Bella, Light And Tight and Ucandoit Blue Chip heading to the half, eventually picking up cover from Ucandoit Blue Chip, which turned out to be the winning move.

“(Last week) I thought (Odds On Cinamon) was going to go right by and Ucandoit Blue Chip fought back tough,” said Stratton. “I was a little cautious. I stayed on her helmet a little longer tonight and I didn’t know if I was going to get by because usually Scotty’s horse [UBC] fights when there’s one at [her] throat latch, but she was really good tonight and paced strong to the wire.”

Odds On Cinamon tipped off UBC’s cover in mid-stretch before powering off to a three-quarter-length win in a lifetime-best 1:50.2. Ucandoit Blue Chip was second with Southwind Bella third. Odds On Cinamon, a daughter of Lazarus N-Cinamony who is trained by Virgil Morgan Jr., returned $11.00 to win as the 9-2 third choice in the wagering. She now has four wins from just 10 lifetime starts, good for earnings of $107,850 for owners Odds On Racing.

A LITTLE MORE: Scott Zeron led the driver colony with three winners. … All-source wagering totaled $2,368,924 on the 14-race program, which experienced a delay before the 12th race due to nearby lightning strikes. … Harness racing at The Meadowlands now takes a five-week break. … Live Thoroughbred turf racing comes to The Big M for the next five Friday and Saturday nights. Post time is 7 p.m. … The next live harness card at the mile oval is on Friday, Oct. 20. Post time is 6:20 p.m.

PHOTO: Voukefalas and driver Jordan Stratton win the New Jersey Classic final for 3-year-old colt and gelding pacers at The Meadowlands Saturday night. (Credit: Lisa Photo)