by Ken Weingartner, USTA Media Relations Manager
Hightstown, NJ — George Napolitano Jr. has won more races than any driver in the history of The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, but it was a second-place finish at his home oval that proved to be a winner in terms of punching Napolitano’s ticket to his first Breeders Crown final.
Napolitano guided Stella Jane to a runner-up finish behind undefeated Woodside Charm in their Breeders Crown elimination last week to advance to Saturday’s $600,000 championship for 2-year-old filly trotters at Pocono. Napolitano, who has won 11 driving titles at Pocono, drove Stella Jane for owner Crawford Farms Racing and trainer John Butenschoen. Crawford Farms also bred the filly, a daughter of Crazed out of Naughty Nana.
The 52-year-old Napolitano, a New York native who splits his time between Pennsylvania and Florida, has won 9,360 races in his career, ranking 21st in North American harness racing history, and was the North American dash champion in 2010 when he won 748 times.
All 12 Breeders Crown championships, with $6.4 million in total purses, will be raced Saturday at Pocono. Post time is 5:30 p.m. (EDT) for the first race.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Napolitano said. “I thought (Stella Jane’s elimination) was amazing. I was totally satisfied. She’s an awesome little horse to drive and she’s got a great trainer and great owners.”
Stella Jane has won two of 11 races and hit the board in eight of her most recent nine starts. Napolitano has driven the filly twice, winning a division of the Simpson Stakes on Sept. 27 at Harrah’s Philadelphia.
“The Crawfords have had luck with the horses that they own with George,” Butenschoen said. “He won with Stella Jane at (Philly) so I said let’s put him up. It’s his home track and maybe we can get some karma going. I guess it worked.”
He has won more than 500 races in nine consecutive years, including this year. He is on his way to another driving title at Pocono, which would be his seventh in a row, and is battling with Tim Tetrick for his fifth consecutive title at Harrah’s Philadelphia.
“I kind of stayed local,” Napolitano said. “I made an agreement with myself years ago and I’m happy with doing it this way, with this place, (Philly) and Pompano. That’s good enough for me.
“I think it’s a pretty big accomplishment doing the two tracks, here and (Philly). It’s a tough grind, but we’re getting it done. It’s a matter of having great people around you. Trainers that it would take forever to mention keep on consistently putting me back on horses. That is the difference right there. I have a lot of great owners that love me and I love them. It’s an awesome journey.”
So will Napolitano have a home-track advantage in the Breeders Crown?
“I think you’ve got to have a good horse,” he said with a smile. “That’s the biggest advantage.”
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Napolitano won’t be the only Breeders Crown newcomer driving in the 2-year-old filly trot. Bob McClure, Verlin Yoder, and Simon Allard also will be appearing on championship night for the first time. All three drove elimination winners.
McClure, a 28-year-old Canadian, piloted Champagne Jane to victory in her elimination. Champaign Jane is owned by Serge Godin’s Determination stable and trained by Luc Blais.
McClure is third in wins and purses in Canada this year. He led Canada in wins in 2017 and 2016 and was third in 2015.
“For the last four or five years I just drove the small tracks in Ontario,” McClure said. “I moved to Woodbine Entertainment Group last December and it snowballed from there. A lot of good stables have picked me up. That makes all the difference in the world.”
Champagne Jane, by Holiday Road out of Dicent No, broke her maiden with her elimination win. She has hit the board a total of seven times and entered the Breeders Crown off a second-place finish in the Ontario Sire Stakes championship for 2-year-old filly trotters.
“She’s been getting better every week,” McClure said. “She’s been battling some health issues, so the colder weather helps and Luc’s got her healthy. She’s always showed ability, she just lacked that last step. She seems to have found it at the right time.”
McClure, who has 2,207 career wins, also won a Breeders Crown elimination with Paula Wellwood-trained 2-year-old male trotter Smart As Hill.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” McClure said. “Hopefully it stays fun.”
Yoder is the owner-trainer-driver of Woodside Charm, who is a perfect 6-for-6 heading into the Breeders Crown final and won her elimination by 12-1/2 lengths over Stella Jane.
“We did what we had to do,” Yoder said. “She’s an absolute professional. We don’t know how or why, but we’re enjoying the moment.
“It’s pretty cool,” he added about appearing in the final. “It probably won’t sink in until we get there. It’s going to be a pretty neat experience.”
Allard drove When Dovescry, by Muscle Hill out of Cedar Dove, to a win in her elimination. She has won four of six races and never been worse than third. She is owned by Go Fast Stable, Yves Sarrazin, Kapildeo Singh, and Lawrence Dumain. Rene Allard is the trainer.
She won her elimination in gate-to-wire fashion after coming from off the pace in all but one other race.
“We were very patient with her, trying to teach her the right things, to come from the back,” Simon Allard said. “We didn’t really want to teach her to leave because we knew that she would have done that very easily.
“We were very confident she had explosive speed and knew all along she was a great filly.”
Following is the draw for the $600,000 Breeders Crown final for 2-year-old filly trotters. Elimination winners drew for post one through five in an order determined by lot.
1-When Dovescry-Simon Allard-Rene Allard
2-Woodside Charm-Verlin Yoder-Verlin Yoder
3-Champagne Jane-Bob McClure-Luc Blais
4-Cloud Nine Fashion-Tim Tetrick-Jim Campbell
5-Special Honor-Andy Miller-Julie Miller
6-Whispering Oaks-Yannick Gingras-Jimmy Takter
7-Miss You Kelly-Tim Tetrick-Bruce Lauer
8-The Ice Dutchess-Yannick Gingras-Jimmy Takter
9-Stella Jane-George Napolitano Jr.-John Butenschoen
- Unbeaten Woodside Charm leads Crown 2-year-old filly trot winners (Friday, October 19, 2018)
Woodside Charm further established her credentials as a superstar in the making when she won her $25,000 elimination of the Breeders Crown for 2-year-old trotting fillies Friday (Oct. 19) at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono in a startling 1:53 — almost a second faster than any divisional Crown final has gone on a five-eighths-mile track.
- Smart As Hill a pleasant surprise for Wellwood (Wednesday, October 24, 2018)
Trainer Paula Wellwood doesn’t mind Smart As Hill’s playful streak. His speed more than makes up for it. That speed has gotten Smart As Hill into Saturday’s $600,000 Breeders Crown final for 2-year-old male trotters, where he drew post No. 4 at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono. Curtis Salonick photo.