Verlin Yoder came to the big dance with no expectations and left singing a happy tune.
Yoder's Natural Herbie, a standout on the Indiana circuit, won Saturday's $75,000 Vincennes Invitational for older trotters at the Meadowlands, besting Southwind Pepino and Master Of Law by more than a length in a career-best 1:51.4.
The victory, before a Hambletonian Day announced crowd of nearly 21,000 fans, came in Yoder's first-ever drive at the Big M. The 40-year-old Yoder, an Indiana native, has won 110 races in his career. The Vincennes field included four Hall of Fame drivers not to mention three others that previously won the Hambletonian.
"It still hasn't sunk in,” said Yoder, who spends the race season in Indiana and winter in Florida. "It was an honor just to be in with those guys, let alone win. That means a lot. I've got a lot of respect for those guys.
"Everybody (at home) is very excited. That was cool. It's a big deal to go from Hoosier to the Meadowlands. You don't get to go to the big city for a dance many times. For somebody to go out to the dance and win it, that's something. If you have a good horse, it makes you look good. I give the horse all the credit, not me.”
Yoder trains and owns Natural Herbie, who headed to the Meadowlands off three consecutive wins in the Invitational Handicap at Hoosier Park, each in a track record clocking. The 4-year-old gelding, a son of Here Comes Herbie out of Ljanearl, is a two-time Indiana Sire Stakes champion and has won 19 of 38 career starts, good for $494,941.
"We've known the horse was a nice horse,” Yoder said. "He was racing here in Indiana and he was doing pretty good. He did real good last year. But I never knew if he was going to take that next step as a 4 year old, because that's a pretty big step.
"It was nice to have an opportunity to race (in the Vincennes). I had no expectations. I drove the horse all his life, and I like the horse, and it's in his hands, not mine. I was excited to be there that day. He was going to show me if he was going to go faster there or if he had enough heart to go with those guys. He stepped up to the plate and was big.”
Although Yoder had never driven at the Meadowlands, he was familiar with racing's big stage there. In 2008, Yoder's Azur was in the Hambletonian, but finished fifth in his elimination and failed to advance to the final.
A former factory worker who used to build RVs, Yoder has been involved in harness racing since 2004. It started as a hobby, but turned into a fulltime pursuit. He enjoyed his best year in 2013, when he conditioned not only Natural Herbie but Indiana Sires Stakes 3-year-old female trotting champion Lady Blitz.
"I quit with both of them after the Sire Stakes finals in September and turned them out for 10 weeks,” Yoder said. "I wanted to see if it would help them in later years and it looks like it was the right choice.”
Yoder bought Natural Herbie just prior to the start of his racing career as a 2 year old.
"I took him to the fairs and in his first start I thought he might be a little something,” Yoder said. "But it took me about six or eight weeks before he started showing me he had high-end speed. Then he just kept getting better. He's really developed into a nice horse.”
Yoder is uncertain when Natural Herbie will race next. The gelding is not staked to many races, other than the Indiana Sires Stakes in October.
"I always said if he's that kind of (top) horse I can nominate him as a 5-year-old,” Yoder said. "Four-year-old, it's a big step. He doesn't owe me nothing.
"I'll start him out here in a couple weeks or something. He'll be off this week, and next week we have a break at Hoosier. I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I'll get something figured out. I might end up taking him and (Lady Blitz) out east somewhere. I'll just play it by ear right now.”
And maybe listen for the music of another big dance. (HRC)