Trainer Ron Burke always believed Atochia was capable of pulling off a big win. Having fulfilled that potential with his recent victory in the George Morton Levy Pacing Series Final, the 7-year-old gelding will try to win two biggies in a row by winning Saturday's Graduate at the Meadowlands.
Atochia drew four for the $180,000 Graduate for older pacers and will start between fellow Burke trainees Meirs Hanover, in post three, and Foiled Again, in post five. Foiled Again, who finished second by a head to Atochia in the Levy, is the defending Graduate winner.
This year's Graduate field also includes Rockincam, Bettor Sweet, OK Commander, Golden Receiver, Foreclosure N, Aracache Hanover, and Alexie Mattosie. Rockincam won last week's Graduate Elimination by 1-1/4 lengths over Golden Receiver, in 1:48.1.Foiled Again was third.
Atochia received a bye into the Graduate final, as did Aracache Hanover.
Prior to winning the $455,000 Levy Series Final on April 28, with driver Ron Pierce in the sulky, Atochia's only stakes final triumph came in the $150,000 Pennsylvania Sire Stakes Final in 2008. Since then, he was second in the 2011 Indiana Pacing Derby and third in the 2010 Ben Franklin Pace, 2010 Levy, 2011 Quillen Memorial, 2011 Molson, and two American-National Stakes (2010 and 2011).
"I've always been (Atochia's) biggest fan, so I was glad that way,” Burke said about the horse's breakthrough Levy victory. "That was cool. He's just getting better every year.Last year at the end of the year you could see a big difference. All of a sudden you were able to put him in races and race him aggressively.”
Atochia, a son of Dragon Again--Hot Shot Michelle, has won 27 of 126 career races and earned $1.65 million despite being renowned for his laziness prior to his recent turnaround. He has won four of six races and $308,900 this year and closed last season by finishing fourth in the Breeders Crown, second in the Indiana Pacing Derby (behind Foiled Again) and third in the Am-Nat (behind Foiled Again and Breeders Crown champ Bettor Sweet).
"He seems to get better; he tries a little bit harder,” Burke said. He owns Atochia with Weaver Bruscemi LLC, JJK Stables and M1 Stable.
"I wouldn't say by any means that he's given full effort yet, but he's probably up to 70 or 80 percent. I've always felt he was a more talented horse than Foiled, but Foiled is just the ultimate try-hard horse.”
In the Levy final, Atochia raced first-over for the final half mile to chase down Foiled Again in deep stretch.
"That's the kind of race he wouldn't have won a year ago,” Burke said. "I think those are the races that hopefully he'll win this year now.
"It was neat when they turned for home and you knew they were going to be one-two. As they were coming down the lane, either way I would have been happy.”
Foiled Again, who has won three of six races this year and 61 of 151 lifetime starts on his way to $3.62 million, will try to join Shark Gesture (2009-10) and Ball And Chain (1995-96) as the only horses to win the Graduate in consecutive years. The Graduate was first contested in 1978.
"I love the draw; my horses are all in the middle,” Burke said. "It makes it a hard choice for those outside horses. Basically, you have five horses inside that are all capable of racing either way. If you're coming out of there you better come prepared to go fast.”
Following is the field, in post position order, for Saturday's $180,000 Graduate Final at the Meadowlands, with listed drivers and trainers: 1. Rockincam, David Miller, R.Nifty Norman; 2. Bettor Sweet, John Campbell, Thomas Cancelliere; 3. Meirs Hanover, Andy Miller, Ron Burke; 4. Atochia, Ron Pierce, Burke; 5. Foiled Again, Yannick Gingras, Burke; 6. OK Commander, Jody Jamieson, Gregg McNair; 7.Golden Receiver, Brian Sears, Mark Harder; 8. Foreclosure N, Tim Tetrick, Chris Ryder; 9. Aracache Hanover, Douglas McNair, Gregg McNair and 10. Alexie Mattosie, George Brennan, Nikolas Drennan.--By Ken Weingartner/Harness Racing Communications