Jimmy Takter woke up Saturday morning knowing he would have a big day at the Meadowlands. It's not that the trainer is cocky. It's more that he's a realist. And when your horses are just better than everybody else's it's easy to be confident.
In harness racing, Takter is the best at what he does. Think Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Bill Mott all rolled into one. The native of Sweden has the best bred horses, the fastest horses, the classiest horses and he's a masterful trainer.
His stable is so deep that when his big guns don't fire he can still come at you with another wave of ammunition.
That was the case yesterday at the Meadowlands on Hambletonian Day. Takter was supposed to win the Hambletonian with Father Patrick, a horse with so few flaws the trainer said he's as close to perfect as they get. But Father Patrick broke stride on the first turn and was out of it after that. No problem. Stablemate Trixton, with Takter driving, won the Hambletonian over still another Takter-trainee, Nuncio.
He was supposed to win the Hambletonian Oaks with Shake It Cerry. But she had a bad post and got caught up in a fast pace. Not a problem. Takter won the Hambletonian Oaks with 10-1 shot Lifetime Pursuit.
He also won a third stakes on the day, one worth $100,000.
From one of the most prominent families in harness racing in Sweden, where the sport is huge, Takter came here in 1981. He was young and unknown but not lacking in confidence. In a short time he established himself as one of the leading trainers in the U.S. and early on campaigned maybe the greatest trotter of the modern era, the mare Moni Maker.
Takter had already won two Hambletonians coming into yesterday, but never had he approached the race quite like this. Father Patrick was considered a superstar and if there were any horses out there with even a prayer of beating him they were Nuncio and Trixton. His entry looked so dominant on paper that the fourth choice in the race, Datsyuk, was 27-1.
"I think it's going to be hard for me to lose," Takter said earlier in the week.
He might not have felt that way when Father Patrick, the 2-5 favorite, broke stride. But both Nuncio and Trixton were on their games. Nuncio led on the far turn as the two pulled away from the rest of the field. With a quarter-mile to go he was going to win with one horse or the other.
"It was a long stretch, but I felt 50 yards before the wire I was going to win it [with Trixton]," he said. "Your head starts spinning, and then I'm by [Nuncio] and I know the only way I am going to lose is if something goes wrong."
It wasn't a perfect day for Takter as Father Patrick's defeat was a stunning one. Takter never thought that horse would lose and although the race was not indicative of his talent because of the break, it did sting. The Hambletonian is the Kentucky Derby for trotters and a horse that still looks like a great one will never get this chance again. But Takter didn't let Father Patrick's problem put a damper on his day.
"Not really," Takter said when asked if Father Patrick's performance in any way soured his day. "I finished first and second in the Hambletonian. How sweet is that?"
He still believes Father Patrick would have won if he didn't run on the first turn.
"If Father Patrick stayed flat he would have wound up behind me and come up in that position and he would gave blown by both of us in the stretch," Takter said. "And then we would have been first second and third. Things do not always work out way you hope. Don't get me wrong; I am on Cloud 9."
Harness racing has plenty of problems as it struggles for relevancy and to find new fans. But Hambletonian Day is the one day when the sport's struggles seem to momentarily evaporate. The stands at the Meadowland are full, the race is broadcast on national television and there is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. It's a bit like the good old days when they used to pack them in every night at places like Roosevelt Raceway and the Meadowlands.
Hambo Day is always a special day. On Saturday, Jimmy Takter made it extra special.