Cajon Lightning looked well-spotted when he drew the inside post position for his Yonkers debut Jan. 20. Trainer Eric Ell entered the gelding in a $30,000 overnight off a win in the Open Handicap at Dover Downs the previous week and hoped Cajon Lightning would show speed and control the race.
But while Cajon Lightning was shipping up from Delaware, Ell received a disappointing phone call: the truck had broken down on the highway, putting Cajon Lightning in jeopardy of missing the race.
"When he called me and told me he broke down, I got another truck real quick and started up that way, but then I started making phone calls and I tried to find somebody closer that could grab him and get him up there, but I couldn’t get it done as hard as I tried," Ell said. "It took me an hour and a half to get to him and switch trucks. Then I sat with the broken-down truck and waited for a tow truck and sent him on his way."
Despite Ell’s best efforts, Cajon Lightning arrived at Yonkers 25 minutes late, resulting in a transportation scratch. Although he missed a coveted opportunity to race from the rail on the half-mile track, Cajon Lightning will get another chance to compete at the Hilltop Oval this week when he starts as the 5-2 morning line favorite in the $40,000 Open Handicap Pace on Saturday (Jan. 27).
Cajon Lightning established himself as a force in the winter series at Woodbine in 2015 and 2016 when he swept the Autumn Series and finished second in the Valedictory final, the Ontario Boys final, and the WEGZ final for Richard Moreau. Cajon Lightning came to Ell’s stable that spring, but found it difficult to adjust to the warmer climate.
"He’s just not a real good horse in the summer time, he likes cold weather," Ell said. "When I brought him down from Canada, it was starting to get hot here. He was OK, but wasn’t what we thought he would be. When it started cooling off at Dover, he got really good as a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old and this year, even better. He’s just a killer this year. He’s got some allergy trouble and stuff that bothers him in the summer, but he’s a much better horse in the winter months."
Now a 6-year-old, Cajon Lightning is sharper than ever. He’s posted four wins at the Open level at Dover since Nov. 16, including a lifetime best 1:49.4 victory in a dead heat with Sicily Dec. 7. In addition to his speed, Cajon Lightning has also shown versatility in his recent wins, scoring on the lead and from well off the pace. The son of Mach Three is 20-for-80 in his career with $265,570 in earnings.
"He’s rounded into a real, real nice racehorse now and you can do anything with him," Ell said. "He’s a pleasure. There’s not one thing he does bad. Perfect gentlemen, working around him in the barn, he ships good. He’s lazy warming up, he’s not a grabby horse. You put him behind the gate and you can sprint off the gate a quarter in :26 or you can take off the gate with two fingers. He’s just an all-around perfect racehorse. Nice horse to have around."
Although Ell says Cajon Lightning may be better on a big track, he decided to take his chances at Yonkers when the top classes at Dover struggled to fill consistently. He already ships barn standout Soto to Yonkers to race, so adding Cajon Lightning to the trailer was a no-brainer.
"He’s a great big horse, better on a big track, but I raced him at Harrington some and he was good there and that’s a tight half-mile too, so I think he’ll be OK at Yonkers. We’re going to hope anyway," he explained.
Although a winter storm altered Cajon Lightning’s training schedule ahead of his first race at Yonkers, Ell thinks he will be ready for his test against rivals Orillia Joe, who rides a two-race win streak into this week’s Open Handicap, but starts from post seven, and Gokudo Hanover, who won three straight at Yonkers before finishing second as the favorite in last week’s pacing feature.
"I train on a half-mile farm track and the day I really wanted to train him, I got him out and jogged, but that’s about all I could do," Ell explained. "I got him trained the following day and I couldn’t go a real big mile, but he trained good and he was very eager, wanted to do it, and felt good. I just couldn’t give him as much as I wanted to. It doesn’t take him a lot. I think he’ll be OK."
If Cajon Lightning handles the competition and takes to the racetrack, he could prove to be peaking at the right time as the George Morton Levy Series is quickly approaching.
"I’m curious to see how he’s going to fare up there. We’re going to put Soto back in the Levy if he gets a little sharper. He’s not at the top of his game right now. I’d like to see how this horse gets around the half. He’s sharper than Soto right now, but we’ve got to see how he handles the half. He’s an all-around nice horse and I can’t wait to get him up there and see what happens."
First post time Saturday is 6:50 p.m. Click here to view entries for the card.--By Brandon Valvo/Standardbred Owners of NY