When it comes to Saturday’s $286,650 John Cashman Memorial for free-for-all trotters on Hambletonian Day at The Meadowlands, trainer Eric Ell is hoping experience, passion and desire are enough for JL Cruze to overcome his elder statesman status, not to mention a starting spot in the second tier.
Ell’s 7-year-old gelding drew post 11 for the Cashman in a field that includes 2017 Horse of the Year Hannelore Hanover, 2016 Trotting Triple Crown winner Marion Marauder, and this year’s Maxie Lee Memorial champion Will Take Charge. JL Cruze is the oldest horse in the 12-horse field, which will race 1-1/8 miles rather the traditional mile because of the size of the group.
Hannelore Hanover, a 6-year-old mare who is undefeated in six races this year, is in the 9-5 morning-line favorite and starts from post 12 while 5-year-old gelding Will Take Charge is 4-1 from post one. JL Cruze is 5-1 and 5-year-old stallion Marion Marauder is 8-1.
"I know he’s a 7-year-old now and he’s racing against a lot younger ones, and that’s going to be tough for him," Ell said. "But if he’s hitting on all cylinders, he’s got a big heart and wants to do it. He loves doing what he does.
"I wish he could have had his nose on the gate this week, but maybe it will work out. We’re following a good one; (Will Take Charge) is a nice trotter. We’ll try to keep up. He’s raced from off the pace before and raced well. We’ve got to keep our fingers crossed and see what we get."
One plus entering the race is that JL Cruze is as healthy as he’s been in a career that’s seen him win 29 of 72 races, earn $1.26 million, and capture the 2015 Dan Patch Award for best older male trotter. Three years ago, he trotted 1:49.4 to win the Graduate Series championship, a mark that is tied for the fastest trotting mile in Meadowlands history.
In 2017, JL Cruze won the Spirit of Massachusetts and finished second in the Maple Leaf Trot and Maxie Lee Memorial. He took third in his Breeders Crown elimination in October, but suffered a suspensory injury and was unable to race the rest of the year. He returned to the races last weekend and won the Preferred Handicap at the Meadowlands by three-quarters of a length over Tuonoblu Rex in 1:51.2.
"He’s as sound right now as I’ve had him, probably in his career," Ell said. "Every year I’ve raced this horse he’s always had issues. If it wasn’t his feet, it was knees and stifles --- just everything. He always had trouble trotting the turns so I tried to keep him on the bigger racetracks, at least five-eighths. (His former driver) John Campbell texted me after the last race and said it was about as good as he’d ever seen him trot a turn. I think it was."
Ell hoped JL Cruze would be back in action in time for this year’s Maxie Lee, which was at the end of May, but his recovery required more time. But the horse is on target to compete in the division’s remaining top stakes for owners Ken Wood, Bill Dittmar Jr. and Steve Iaquinta.
"I was going to have him ready a little earlier than I had him, but the suspensory wasn’t quite healed enough," Ell said. "I had to give him a little bit more time. He missed another month and then we got him to the races. But knock on wood it looks very good right now.
"He’s carrying more weight this year than he did previously, but other than that, not much has changed. He loves being turned out every day in his paddock. He’s very, very good. He’s the same old boy."
And the old boy is trying to show the youngsters he’s still a horse to be reckoned with. (Ken Weingartner/USTA)