The story of 4-year-old mare trotter Perfect Alliance, who enters Saturday's $266,000 Armbro Flight final with 11 wins in 11 starts this season after winning a total of just two of 18 races at ages two and three, would seem farfetched if it didn't sound so familiar.
Perfect Alliance races out of the stable of Julie and Andy Miller, who five years ago took an unheralded 4-year-old male trotter named Lucky Jim and helped lead him to an award-winning season.
Lucky Jim joined Team Miller with a total of just two wins in 20 career races. He won his first eight starts that season, including two winter series at the Meadowlands, before tackling the sport's top older trotters.
He didn't slow down, winning seven more races in a row before finishing the campaign with 17 victories in 18 starts. His triumphs included the Breeders Crown, Nat Ray, Maxie Lee Memorial and Cutler Memorial, and he received the 2009 Dan Patch Award for best older male trotter.
Whether Perfect Alliance can write the same ending as Lucky Jim remains to be seen, but the first few chapters of her story are strikingly similar. She won two winter series – one at the Meadowlands and one at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs – before challenging the top female trotters in the game.
In her first try against the big girls, in a division of the Miss Versatility Series at Woodbine, Perfect Alliance won in 1:51.2, equaling Classic Martine's world record for the fastest mile ever by a 4-year-old female trotter. Incidentally, Lucky Jim shares the world record of 1:50.1 for the fastest mile ever by any trotter on a one-mile racetrack.
Last weekend, Perfect Alliance won her elimination for the Armbro Flight by 6 1/2 lengths in a track-record 1:51.4 at Mohawk. She starts the final from post four with Yannick Gingras at the lines and is the 6-5 morning line favorite.
"It's hard to believe we could ever do that again – and she hasn't done it yet – but the way she started out is a lot like the way we campaigned [Lucky Jim] because she fit some of the winter series,” Andy Miller said. "She got a lot of confidence out of those series and just kept progressing and getting better and better.
"Now she's as brave as a horse can be. Now that she's facing the better mares, she thinks she can tackle anything.”
Miller drove Perfect Alliance in her first seven starts, but has been sidelined since mid-April because of injuries sustained in an accident. In her second race this year, Perfect Alliance won from post 10 at the Meadowlands despite being stuck on the outside for most of the mile and getting a flat tire on the final turn.
"She still dug in and won the race,” Miller said. "When she did that, I thought it was something special. I didn't know if she would go (onto record-setting performances) but I knew there was a lot there.”
Perfect Alliance is owned by New Meadowlands Racing chairman Jeff Gural's Little E LLC, Meadowlands Racetrack general manager Jason Settlemoir, David Stolz and Arthur Geiger. She is a daughter of Credit Winner out of the mare Yalta Hanover and was purchased for $75,000 under the name Perfect Deo at the 2011 Lexington Selected Sale.
Her mother is a half-sister to stakes-winners Yursa Hanover, He's Spooky and Scary Good. She is a three-quarter sister to Thistle Dhu, who ironically edged Perfect Alliance last season by a nose in the $40,000 Zweig Memorial consolation for 3-year-old filly trotters.
"Last year (Perfect Alliance) was hot on the gate and had a few little issues, just immaturity,” Miller said. "I think the time off and bringing her back this year she's just matured so much. The second time I qualified her, I covered her up a bit and put some earplugs on her and when I popped them she responded. I knew there was a lot there, but how far it would go, I didn't know.
"It's worked out good. With these types of horses, you just hope you don't do anything wrong. She kind of takes care of herself. She does everything we ask and we just try not to mess it up.”
As for Miller, he received a positive report from his doctors recently as he continues his recovery from vertebrae surgery, but still is several months from returning to action.
"He said everything looks good,” Miller said Monday while watching qualifiers at Gaitway Farm, where he and wife Julie Miller are stabled. "He said in six weeks I can probably get rid of the (back) brace, but as far as doing anything, it'll be a couple months yet.
"I was hoping I could do a little bit of work. Hopefully in six weeks I'll get a little more clearance, but I'm sure it will be a couple months before I can really do much.”
Miller said it was "frustrating” to be on the sidelines, but he is still active in watching horses train and race and providing his input. Miller has won 8,054 races in his driving career and nearly $101 million in purses, with both totals ranking among the top 25 in North American harness racing history.
"Eventually, I'll get back out there, but I'll just take my time,” Miller said. "I'm so thankful that I can be here and watch them and give my input on them training.
"There haven't been any setbacks and if I didn't have the brace on, you wouldn't know anything is wrong with me. I can get around pretty good; I'm not running sprints, but everything is as good as it can be.” (HRC)