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Saturday, August 4
Melander owns, trains and drives Scarlet Knight

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For Swedish photographer-turned-horseman Stefan Melander, the $1 million Hambletonian was picture perfect.

Scarlet Knight won and Melander got to pose even before the race was over, waving his whip from the sulky to the crowd as he approached the finish line at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Saturday.

"I just wanted to make sure everybody had a good picture," Melander said through an interpreter after guiding Scarlet Knight to an impressive 1¾-length victory over Pegasus Spur in trotting's biggest race of the year.

Scarlet Knight trotted the mile in 1:53.4 in winning his ninth straight start this year. His first seven wins were in Sweden and the son of Pine Chip did not arrive in the United States until July 21.

"I wasn't sure how he would fit in coming from Sweden," said Melander, who did not take up racing on a full-time basis until 1990. "But I knew he was of top capacity."

Scarlet Knight proved that in his two weeks in this country.

The colt, who paid $3.40, $2.40 and $2.20, posted the fastest winning time in the eliminations for this race last week, and he just as good in the final.

"I haven't figured out why he is so incredible," Melander said.

Pegasus Spur, who got within a length of Scarlet Knight in the stretch, paid $3.20 and $2.60 after just failing to give veteran driver Bill O'Donnell his second Hambletonian victory.

"He was just a better horse," said O'Donnell, who won Hambletonian with Burgomeister in 1980. "My horse still got lots of money, but the best horse won."

Banker Hall, last year's 2-year-old trotting champion, faded to third after leading from the start to the top of the stretch. The Trevor Ritchie-driven colt paid $3.20 to show.

Brooke Nickells, the first woman trainer to get a colt to the Hambletonian final, got a piece of the purse as Lavecster and driver Mike Lachance finished fourth.

Cigar Bar finished fifth and was followed by Victory Sam, Choco Chip Hanover, Yankee Mustang, Laredo Kosmos and Amer I Can.

The victory was especially sweet for Melander, who also trains and owns the colt. He is the first owner-trainer-driver since 1975 to win the Hambletonian. Stanley Dancer was the last with Bonefish.

Although he is an accomplished driver in Sweden where he has a stable of 70 horses, many experts wondered whether the 42-year-old was making a mistake not letting one of the Meadowlands Racetrack's top drivers handle the colt in the biggest race of the year.

Melander, who won the International Trot at Yonkers in 1995 in his only other drive in the United States before this year, had no trouble in the elimination last weekend, and had an ideal drive on Saturday.

"You don't need a catch driver with Scarlet Knight," Melander said.

Ritchie, who drove Yankee Paco to victory in this race last year, sent Banker Hall right to the front from the No. 5 post. The pair went the quarter mile in 27.2 seconds and the half-mile in 54.4, leading by as much as four lengths. But they were out of gas by the stretch.

"Going past the band twice really got the horse heated up," Ritchie said.

Melander had noticed that in the pre-race warmup, so he let Banker Hall open up a big lead.

"My plan was to stay behind and come up on the outside," Melander said.

Melander, who had Scarlet Knight in third place most of the way, began to move to the leader on the far turn. It was obvious by the stretch that Scarlet Knight was going to take the lead.

Only Pegasus Spur came at Scarlet Knight, but he didn't have enough to prevent Melander from being a part of a couple of more pictures -- both before the finish line and in the winner's circle.

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