Sunday, May 7, 2023

A big-time Meadowlands Pace player has emerged.

After a pair of qualifiers that saw him finish second after a final quarter in :24.4 before a win with a :25.2 kicker, respectively, there was much expected of Voukefalas in a $30,000 division of the New Jersey Sire Stakes Saturday night at The Meadowlands.

And the Mike Russo trainee delivered in a big way.

Rather than be the pursuer, Voukefalas played the role of the one being pursued in the 3-year-old colt and gelding pace as driver Jordan Stratton put the son of Lazarus N-Inittowinafortune on the lead while parked at the quarter in :27.4.

“I told Jordan don’t worry about anything,” said Russo. “Sit first, sit last. I don’t care. He is controllable. And he just wants to go.”

Voukefalas cut out fractions of :56.3 and 1:24.3 as 9-5 second choice Handlelikeaporsche was making up ground on the rim after racing in the four-hole to the half. Handlelikeaporsche appeared to threaten on the far turn, but once they straightened up, it was ballgame over.

A :26 final quarter resulted in an easy 2¼-length score in 1:50.3. Handlelikeaporsche finished second with Lifes A Puzzle third.

“That was special,” said Russo, who has his eyes on the (June 17) North America Cup and (July 15) Big M Pace. “While Jordan was taking him off the track, Voukefalas is still in his race bike and bridle and his nostrils weren’t even moving. He doesn’t like to go slow at all. He was getting annoyed around the last turn that Jordan was trying to go slow with him. He’s done a lot of maturing since last year and he knows how strong he is.”

As the 4-5 public choice, Voukefalas returned $3.80 to his backers in winning his seasonal debut. He’s won half of his eight lifetime starts for owner Michael Pagonas.

In the first of two $30,000 NJSS splits for 3-year-old pacing fillies, Two Pistol Annie delivered at odds of 1-20 in 1:52.1. The daughter of Lazarus N-Magical Bestern was driven by Dexter Dunn and is trained by Nik Drennan.

Ucandoit Blue Chip was up at the wire in a three-horse scrum to take the other $30,000 filly pacing division. The 4-5 public choice was driven by Scott Zeron and hails from the Linda Toscano barn. A daughter of Keystone Velocity-Molly Can Do It, Ucandoit Blue Chip completed the mile in a lifetime-best 1:50.4.

‘SCHOONER’ TAKES DOWN ‘BELLA’: The $40,000 opening leg of the Miss Versatility series for open mare trotters resulted in a surprise, as 2022 Hambletonian Oaks winner Fashion Schooner went wire-to-wire to defeat 2022 Dan Patch Trotter of the Year Bella Bellini in 1:51.4.

Sent to the gate as the 2-1 second choice, Tim Tetrick put Fashion Schooner on the point and never looked back, cutting out fractions of :27.4, :57, and 1:25.1 before kicking home in :26.3 to beat ‘Bella’ by three lengths.

Bella Bellini, the 1-5 public choice who was making her seasonal debut, raced gapped out in fourth to the half, set out after the leader from there, but never threatened. Ghostintheshell S was third.

“The way Bella looked in her qualifier (a win in 1:56.2 over a sloppy track), and being a 5-year-old,” said winning trainer Jim Campbell. “I thought in order to beat her, we had to get real lucky. She’s got such a strong finish to her.”

That’s true, but on this occasion, Tetrick had managed to put too much real estate between his horse and Bella Bellini, who had too much to do in the latter stages.

“When Timmy got a nice breather in the second quarter,” said Campbell, who is getting his mare ready for the June 10 Armbro Flight at Woodbine Mohawk Park. “I knew Schooner would come home in :26.”

Fashion Schooner opened the year with two defeats at the hands of the now-retired Primadonna Deo (who’s in foal to Chapter Seven) in the New Jersey Breeders Maturity, but Campbell didn’t think those efforts were bad ones.

“I wasn’t disappointed in those races,” said Campbell of the off-the-pace tries. “She trotted home in :26.1 in those races. It was just a reverse scenario tonight.”

Owned by Fashion Farms, Fashion Schooner, a 4-year-old daughter of Walner-Broadway Schooner, returned $6.20 to win. She’s now won nine-of-19 lifetime starts and banked over $700,000.

34 IN A ROW: With a 10th race that saw total betting top the $400,000 mark serving as the catalyst, The Big M extended an already impressive run as the track’s streak of $3-million handles lived on.

There have been 34 Friday and Saturday night programs contested at the mile oval during 2023 (not counting one that was canceled after seven races due to bad weather), and each one has seen betting bust the $3-million barrier.

All-source wagering on Saturday’s 14-race card was $3,621,862.

During 2022, there were a total of 85 race cards contested at The Big M, with 23 exceeding the $3-million mark.

A LITTLE MORE: Hillexotic, a 6-year-old Muscle Hill-Exotic Destination gelding, held off a late-closing Ambassador Hanover by a head to take the overnight feature, a $27,000 Open 1 for trotters. The 1-5 favorite was piloted by Yannick Gingras and trained by Ron Burke and completed the wire-to-wire mile in 1:50.2, equaling the track record for an aged gelding. … Dunn led the driver colony with four winners while Burke trained a pair to victory lane. … Racing resumes Friday at 6:20 p.m.

PHOTO: Voukefalas and driver Jordan Stratton take the New Jersey Sire Stakes for 3-year-old pacing males Saturday night at The Meadowlands. (Credit: Lisa Photo)