Akhenaton favored in French-American split
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"Something that helps me, I have some Scandinavians that work in my stable that have spent time in France racing over there," Kelley said. "For a while, I had a guy named Alexandre Dessartre. He was able to give us a little insight into what to expect in these French horses in terms of temperament and things like that."
Despite all the homework and foreign influence in Kelley's stable, when Akhenaton arrived, Kelley found him to be straightforward. Soon, the son of Nice Love out of the Corot mare Iena de Mosta settled into his new home in Kelley's Vernon Downs barn.
"We turn horses out a lot. He's got a paddock buddy, he's got a horse he goes out with, so he's happy about that," Kelley said. "He's really made a real easy transition. His appetite's been great. If you didn't know he was from France, you might think he just came over from New Jersey or Pennsylvania or something."
Although Akhenaton is new to the American style of racing and training, he has plenty of experience racing in France. He won five races and placed in 13 others from 62 foreign starts, earning €96,300 in the stable of Colette Chassagne. Forty-eight of his starts, and all of his wins, came in monte, or under saddle, races.
"The horses that we're dealing with now coming from France, they've been around a little bit. From my perspective, it's about trying to figure out what makes that horse happy, find that common ground where we can have the horse so he steers right, he's comfortable to drive, but at the same time, the horse himself is also comfortable with the equipment that you're put on him," Kelley said. "You just have to find that common ground. He's been racing monte and he's been pulling a sulky. I don't believe I can really teach him any new speed, it's more about finding a happy accord between the two of us and hope by doing that, we can bring out the best in him."
Akhenaton made his debut for Kelley in a qualifier at Vernon Downs July 13. With his trainer in the sulky, Akhenaton took his place behind the starting gate, but soon after the wings folded, the trotter made a break in stride. Far behind the field, he broke again late in the mile and failed to qualify. Kelley made minor adjustments to get the trotter back on track for the start of the series.
"I trained him a couple times prior to that unchecked; no overcheck, let him go with his head low and I thought he was really good gaited and pretty comfortable," Kelley said. "When I qualified him the first time at Vernon, I did have an overcheck on him, but it was flopping pretty good, I let him go with a real low head. He was really good behind the gate, but when the gate released, he took about three steps off the car and he just dropped his head and went into a break.
"I knew then that he needed something, that the overcheck was too long because he was a very good-gaited horse, I didn't think there was any kind of gait issues to be concerned with, just a matter of getting his bridle right," the trainer continued. "The first qualifier was a little disheartening, but we kind of figured that it was easily rectified because he didn't seem like a tricky horse at all."
Kelley qualified Akhenaton at Vernon Downs seven days later. With assistant trainer Rene Sejthen in the bike and with his new overcheck in place, Akhenaton completed the mile in 1:57.2 and posted a final quarter of :28.
Convinced the trotter was ready to race, Kelley entered him in a $7,250 overnight at Saratoga July 25. The start would be a test of how well Akhenaton could handle the half-mile racetrack he'll face at Yonkers. In addition, the Saratoga start meant Kelley could name Wally Hennessey to drive. Kelley craved the Hall of Fame driver's wisdom.
"When you can take a horse to Saratoga and have someone like Wally Hennessey take them, you're going to learn a lot more because you're going to get great feedback from Wally," Kelley said. "There's not too many guys in the business that can sit behind a horse and give you the real insight you might need to let you know that you're on the right track."
Bet down to the race's 7-5 favorite, Hennessey put Akhenaton in the race. He cleared the lead past the opening quarter and extended his advantage to 3 1/4 lengths at the end of the mile, earning his first win in a sulky in 1:57.2. Although Hennessey was pleased overall, the 61 year old offered plenty of advice to Kelley.
Akhenaton drives on the left line, meaning he has a propensity to bear out the whole mile. Kelley believes this is preferable to a horse who bears in, which makes it harder for the driver to negotiate the horse and to get him out and around the horses that he's following. Kelley raced Akhenaton with a line pole and Murphy blind to try to keep the trotter straight. Hennessey felt the line pole was enough.
"A line pole isn't very restrictive at all. It allows a horse to still kind of cock his head into that line pole a little bit, but there's enough there to keep him a little honest so he doesn't get too crooked," Kelley said. "Wally thought once the horse trotted off the car, the horse straightened up naturally on his own and he thought the line pole would be enough. With the Murphy blind, he can hear the competition coming, but he can't really see it. Sometimes, the horses can relax a little more when they can see what's going on. Wally just thought take the Murphy blind off and he'll be nice and straight without it."
Hennessey also recommended that Kelley remove Akhenaton's knee boots. Although knee boots help protect a horse's legs during a race, they also make the leg thicker and can make it easier for a horse to grab himself, Kelley explains. As Akhenaton also wears wraps, Hennessey felt the boots weren't needed.
"Not that he couldn't maybe touch a knee, but sometimes the knee boots stick out just enough where they can kind of trip a horse up, too," Kelley said. "Even though you're putting them on for protective purposes, they stick out just enough where a horse might touch it and it upsets his gait a little bit. Wally is a big proponent of trying to go with as little equipment as possible, which is something I like."
Off his successful U.S. debut and with the equipment changes made, Akhenaton will take on eight French-bred rivals in his division of the French American Trotting Club first leg in race three Sunday afternoon. Mark MacDonald will drive in the 10-furlong race.
Ursis Des Caillons will start from post six for Jenn and Joe Bongiorno off two impressive qualifiers; he won a 1 1/4-mile trial in 2:30.4 at Yonkers July 13 and qualified again at the Meadowlands July 21, finishing second to Hambletonian entrant Fourth Dimension. He was individually timed in 1:53 with a :26.4 final quarter.
Very Very Fast drew just inside Akhenaton for Bob Bresnahan and enters off a 2:29.4 qualifying win going 10 furlongs at Yonkers July 13. Ray Schnittker's Aladin Du Dollar finished second in two qualifiers at Yonkers July 7 and July 20 and drew post one. Chaperon Felin, Vas Y Seul, Verdi D Em, Bamako Du Bocage, and Undici complete the field.
Sunday's card also features a $54,800 Open Handicap Trot in the first race and another division of the French American Trotting Club in race two. First post time for the all-trot card is 12:30 p.m. For entries to the races, click here.
The second and third legs of the French American Trotting Club series will be held Aug. 19 and 26, respectively, and the $100,000 final is set for Sept. 2. For more information, click here. (SOANY)