John Williamson has been in the harness racing business for more than 40 years, so it will be a special occasion when he watches his first Breeders Crown finalist--Urbanite Hanover--go behind the starting gate in Saturday's $600,000 Breeders Crown for 2-year-old male pacers at Woodbine Racetrack.
Where he watches the race, though, might be up in the air.
Williamson is scheduled to have hernia surgery on Friday. He hopes to be in attendance for the Breeders Crown the following evening.
"I don't know how, but I plan to sneak over,” the 65-year-old Williamson said, laughing. "It's OK. (Urbanite Hanover) is doing the racing, not me.”
Williamson is among four trainers in the race who are making their Breeders Crown debuts on Saturday. The others are Tony Alagna, who has 2-5 morning line favorite Captaintreacherous and Wake Up Peter, Corey Johnson with Captive Audience and Mark Austin with Fool Me Once. Danny Collins, with Twilight Bonfire, is making only his second trip to a Breeders Crown final.
"It's been a long time coming,” said Williamson, who lives in Waterdown, Ont., and shares ownership of Urbanite Hanover with Daniel Haist of Ridgeville, Ont. "But it's all for him. The nice thing for me is just having a horse of this caliber. I've really enjoyed him this year.”
Urbanite Hanover is winless in nine starts, with three second-place finishes, and $56,130 in purses. He finished fourth in his Breeders Crown elimination, which was won by Wake Up Peter in 1:51.1. Urbanite Hanover was beaten by 3 1/2 lengths and timed in 1:51.4, with a :26.3 last quarter-mile split.
He was driven by Tim Tetrick in his elim, but Tetrick will handle Captaintreacherous in the final. Ron Pierce picks up the drive on Urbanite Hanover.
"Tim really liked him; he said he was full (of pace) but just had nowhere to go,” Williamson said. "That's happened to him a few times this year, where he's been locked in.
"If he's right, he can come home good. The ‘Captain' might not be beatable, but I'd like to get behind him and take a shot.”
Prior to the Breeders Crown elim, Urbanite Hanover finished second in a division of the International Stallion Stakes at The Red Mile, with Pierce at the lines. A week earlier in a Bluegrass division, he went off stride because of broken equipment. He also had a rough trip in the Champlain Stakes on Sept. 8 at Mohawk, racing on the outside for the entire mile.
Urbanite Hanover is a son of Western Ideal, who won the Breeders Crown Open Pace in 2000, out of the mare Up Front Sassy. A bay colt, Urbanite Hanover sold for $11,000 at the 2011 Standardbred Horse Sale. His third dam is the mother of stakes-winners Tarport Hap, Tyler B and Cheery Hello, who was the Breeders Crown 3-year-old filly pace champion in 1989.
"He has a real strong family and he's a nice individual,” Williamson said. "It's really hard to fault him. He wasn't in the harness for three weeks when I thought I had something special. He's been easy from the get-go.”
Nicknamed "Shaggy,” Williamson hopes Urbanite Hanover, who is 20-1 on the morning line, looks sharp on Saturday night.
"Someone gave him the nickname because he was late losing his baby hair,” Williamson said. "But he's anything but shaggy; he's a gorgeous colt. He's the nicest looking colt in the barn.”
Austin's first trip to the Breeders Crown also has a medical angle, but this time it is for the horse.
Fool Me Once was fifth in his elimination last week. Afterward, Austin found the colt was sick. He trained Fool Me Once on Thursday morning and was hoping for the best.
"I just blew him out and he's got a little more life to him,” the 52-year-old Austin said. "I hope we got it cleaned up. He didn't really fire on the end of (the mile) last week and he had a perfect trip and a chance up the rail. But (as sick as he was) he should've been worse.
"I'd feel better if he was healthier and we didn't draw the best post. But it's still exciting. You take what you can get and hope for a little racing luck.
"Captaintreacherous looks like he's in a league of his own. It looks like the rest of us are racing for minor shares.”
Fool Me Once headed to his Breeders Crown elimination, which was won by Wake Up Peter, off two stakes wins at The Red Mile during the Grand Circuit meet.
Racing for the first time out of Canada, Fool Me Once captured his division of the Bluegrass Stakes by a half-length over Sir Richard Z Tam in 1:51.3 on Sept. 29 and then won his division of the International Stallion Stakes by a half-length over Twilight Bonfire in 1:51.3 on Oct. 6.
A son of Art Major-Fool That I Am, Fool Me Once has won four of nine starts this season and earned $127,226. He is owned by Austin and Daniel Smith, both from Ontario.
Fool Me Once is a full brother to multiple-stakes-winner Feel Like A Fool and was purchased under the name Foolish Fishman for $70,000 at the Standardbred Horse Sale. His family also includes millionaire I Am A Fool, who won the 2003 Breeders Crown for 2-year-old male pacers.
Austin typically trains a stable of 15 to 18 horses. He was introduced to harness racing by his uncle, Bud, and got into the sport full time after high school. He has averaged $586,000 in purses over the last seven seasons, including $605,944 this year.
"My uncle had one horse; he was a fireman and I used to go out and help him on the weekends,” Austin said. "That's how I caught the horse bug. I finished high school and went to work for a couple guys. I struck out on my own when I was 21 and I've been on my own ever since.” (Breeders Crown)