Zanesville, Ohio's Richard and Joyce McClelland have owned harness horses for decades and can usually be found at one of the Buckeye State's county fair ovals, or in the Scioto Downs or Northfield Park winner's circle. On Aug. 8, however, the McClellands saw their years of dedication and love for the Standardbred horse come to fruition when their 3-year-old trotter Pinkman stepped into the winner's circle at the Meadowlands. The sophomore gelding had just won harness racing's greatest trotting event, the $1 million Hambletonian, with Brian Sears driving for renowned trainer Jimmy Takter.
"We've been in the horse business for 35 years and we've never had anything like this,” Joyce admitted. "We're just overwhelmed right now.”
While this is not the McClelland's first foray into the national spotlight -- they owned two-time Breeders Crown champion Call For Rain p,4,1:49.3 ($1,065,919) and have a slice of the great trotting mare Maven 4,1:51.4h ($1,756,996)--this was the Hambletonian, the trotting race everyone strives to win.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet,” acknowledged Richard, Chairman of the Ohio Standardbred Development Fund. "Winning the Hambletonian is great for Ohio people like us who don't have a big stable on a national level.”
Pinkman's Ohio connections run deep and his story actually began in the fall of 2011, when Midland Farms' Jake Mossbarger was looking for a few, well-bred trotting broodmares. A Capitol University graduate who had spent several years working at Woodland Run Equine Facility in Grove City, Ohio, Jake had a keen eye for horseflesh and he liked what he saw in the Angus Hall mare Margie Seelster 6,1:55.1s ($247,483).
"The fact that she was an Angus Hall meant that you could breed to any Valley Victory line; that was something we were looking for,” said Midland's Jay Mossbarger, Jake's father. "There are good horses in her maternal line and she was a mare I thought we could make money with, so we contacted her breeder and bought her for $25,000, in foal, in November 2011.”
When the bay colt arrived into this world on March 20, 2012, he was the first foal out of his dam. His sire, the Cantab Hall stallion Explosive Matter, earned $1,510,542 with a 3-year-old record of 1:52.3 and had finished second in the 2009 edition of the Hambletonian, which curiously, was won by Muscle Hill with Brian Sears driving.
Pinkman -- then known as Traffic Jam -- spent his early days romping through Midland's lush paddocks in Bloomingburg, Ohio. He was definitely a colt with a mind of his own, Jay recalled.
"He was a sharp foal and turned into a much better horse as a yearling,” Jay stated. "He had certain quirks -- if you went to trim his foretop, for instance, he wanted no part of it, and he would rear up and strike at you.
"He was a horse who always had his head up and had that look about him,” Jay continued. "He could get aggressive, but basically was very laid back until you wanted him to do something he didn't want to do. He always took care of himself, and spent a lot of time relaxing in his stall. He'd lie down, get up to eat and then go lay down again.”
Jay never underestimated the youngster's pedigree, which was certainly an indication of Pinkman's hidden talent.
Fast forward to Oct. 2, 2013, and the colt -- now a sturdy yearling -- is purchased by the McClellands and four partners for $77,000 at the Lexington Selected Sale in Kentucky, selling as hip number 207.
"To sell for $77,000 as a yearling was a big surprise for us,” Jay admitted. "I thought he'd bring around $45,000 or $50,000. Having Dick and Joyce McClelland owning part of this horse makes the Hambletonian all that more special.”
Renamed after a character in the hit TV program Breaking Bad -- Pinkman was a bit cantankerous early in his training, but not in a mean way, Richard explained. He simply didn't seem that excited about training or racing.
"Jimmy (trainer Takter) only called me twice with, shall we say, not so good reports about the horse,” Richard revealed. "The first time he called me was to tell me he thought it was best we geld him. With these well-bred colts it's not always what you really want to do, but he thought it best, so I said go ahead.”
Unfortunately for the young Pinkman, the gelding process hit a snag, resulting in an infection that caused him to lose both weight and his fitness level.
"He became a horse that wasn't real high on Jimmy's list of those to continue with and he suggested we sell him,” Richard noted. "But then he took him to Lexington for one last try, and he raced alright and was second.”
That was the beginning of a dramatic change in Pinkman's racing style. He went from trotting miles in 2:00 or slower to a determined 1:57 clocking in that Red Mile overnight on Sept. 11, 2014. And therein began a journey for the McClellands and their partners that culminated in last Saturday's stunning victory in harness racing's biggest event.
"After that Lexington performance, I asked Jimmy if he'd bring the horse to Delaware during Little Brown Jug week and he did,” Richard offered.
Pinkman rattled off another 1:57 performance, breaking his maiden in the $59,445 Standardbred Stake for freshman trotters over the Delaware half-miler.
"Jimmy laughed after that win and said, ‘Let's step him up a bit now and race him in a Grand Circuit event at Lexington,'” McClelland recalled. "So we took him to The Red Mile and he won, and then we took him to Canada and he won there too.”
Pinkman captured a $77,120 International Stallion Stake division on Oct. 3, 2014 in 1:53.3, then shipped to Woodbine where he captured the $463,690 Valley Victory final final in 1:55.4 on Oct. 24, 2014. He followed that up with a victory in the $500,000 Breeders Crown 2-year-old trot final, timed in a stakes-record-equaling 1:53.2 at the Meadowlands.
For his efforts, the durable gelding was honored with a Dan Patch Award as 2-year-old trotting colt of 2014 after earning $566,960.
"He's a very durable horse, easy to get along with and he doesn't win by much but he's always there,” Richard said.
Pinkman's sophomore campaign began in mid-May of this year, as he began a three-race win streak in Pennsylvania Sires Stakes competition. The only blemish on his otherwise spotless 3-year-old season came in a $25,000 Beal elimination on June 27 when he finished second by a half-length to Wicker Hanover at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono.
"His blood count was a little low after that race,” Richard explained. "It wasn't anything serious but enough to take the edge off him.”
Pinkman rebounded one week later to capture the $500,000 Beal final in front-stepping style, timed in 1:51.3. He won the $157,250 Stanley Dancer Memorial at the Meadowlands in 1:52.2 on July 18, then stormed to a 1:52 triumph in the $370,000 Zweig Memorial at Vernon Downs on July 26.
Then came Aug. 8 at The Meadowlands and trotting's biggest event of the year. The McClellands, along with Pinkman partners Christina Takter, John and Jim Fielding, and Herb Liverman, watched the Hambletonian eliminations with nervous excitement, never doubting their trainer's confidence in the young gelding.
"We have the majority of our horses with Jimmy or his daughter Nancy,” Richard acknowledged. "We've been with them nearly nine years and currently have 12 horses in training with them.”
The McClellands did have one previous Hambletonian contender -- the Cantab Hall colt High Bridge -- who finished third in his elimination but a disappointing seventh in the 2013 final to the Brian Sears-driven winner Royalty For Life.
Saddled with post ten in his elimination, Pinkman, with Yannick Gingras in the sulky, left hard from the outside, took the lead and then settled into second position behind stablemate The Bank (Johnny Takter), following him through fractional splits of :26.2, :54.3 and 1:23.2 before posting a :27.4 final brush. The final time of 1:51.2 equaled the world record for a 3-year-old gelding on a mile oval.
The second Hambletonian elimination saw Gingras pilot the Ron Burke-conditioned filly Mission Brief to victory in a front-stepping 1:51.3, besting her rivals by nearly five lengths, with apparent ease. That triumph put Gingras in an enviable, yet frustrating position of having to choose between his two elimination winners. When he chose to drive Mission Brief in the final, it opened the door for Brian Sears to climb behind Pinkman.
"I tried to tell Yannick he was making a great mistake,” Takter said. "Pinkman is such a fighter. He's not impressive, but he gets the job done every time. And I thought the filly didn't look as strong finishing as my horse did.”
Takter knows horseflesh and he obviously knew what Pinkman was capable of that steamy afternoon in East Rutherford, as the gelding easily held off the hard-trying Mission Brief in the final by three-quarters of a length -- preventing her from becoming the first distaff to win the Hambletonian since Continentalvictory accomplished that feat in 1996.
Pinkman's time of 1:51 in the final was also the third fastest clocking in Hambletonian history.
The win gave Takter his fourth Hambletonian victory and his second straight -- he won this race last year as both the driver and trainer of Trixton.
The Hambletonian victory pushed Pinkman's lifetime earnings to $1,737,925 and gave the gelding his eighth win of 2015. He now has 14 wins and two seconds in 17 career trips postward for his Ohio, New Jersey and Canadian connections.
"We'll have to wait and see what's next on his plate,” Richard said of Pinkman. "The fact that he's a gelding does allow us to contemplate a lot more years of racing than if he was a colt. Right now we're just enjoying the ride.”--By Kimberly Rinker/Ohio Standardbred Development Fund