The United States' Marcus Miller emerged with the early lead in the standings after driving a pair of winners during the 2017 World Driving Championship opener on Saturday (Aug 12) at Century Downs Racetrack & Casino in Calgary, Alta. while Canada's James MacDonald also doubled up to finish the five-race leg in second-place.
The North American reinsmen dominated the first of five WDC legs hosted by Standardbred Canada, with Miller accumulating 57 points and MacDonald earning 50 points while Australia's Shane Graham put forth a consistent showing hitting the board in three of the races to secure third position in the standings, trailing MacDonald by just two points. Sweden's Bjorn Goop was the other first leg winner and finished in fourth-place with 43 points.
"I'm very happy," said Miller early on in the competition featuring 11 top international drivers. "There's a lot of races to go yet so I'm just going to try to hang in there and keeping doing the same thing."
Miller opened the 2017 World Driving Championship with a victory in the first race aboard 2-1 second choice Ashlynn Grace ($6.20) to take the early lead in the point standings. He secured a pocket trip with Ashlynn Grace, who started from the trailing tier in post 10, behind the inside leaver and found room between horses in the final turn to come through for the two-length victory, timed in 2:05.3 over the extended 1-1/16 mile distance.
The United States reinsman then sent 9-5 favourite Kavola ($5.60) three-wide from the outer flow approaching the third quarter mark to take over command in the third race and held off a wall of closers to win by one and a quarter lengths in 2:07.3.
"It's unbelievable. I know everybody at home is watching," said Miller of representing his country. "It's something else, this is one of the most exciting times in my life as far as harness racing goes."
MacDonald was victorious in the second and fifth races. In his first win, he cleared to command from post eight after the first quarter and held off the competition for the victory in 2:03.1 aboard Lucky Lucka ($19.70). His second victory came aboard Barossa Blue Genes ($6.70), tipping three-wide off cover approaching the third quarter mark and drawing clear in the stretch to win by two and a half lengths in 2:03.3.
"It's a whole different ball game and I've never been involved in anything like this," said MacDonald of the international tournament. "I'm really excited to be doing it and thankfully having a little bit of success."
The drivers will head to MacDonald's home track at Mohawk Racetrack in Campbellville, Ont. for the second WDC leg on Monday (Aug. 14).
"At Mohawk, I'll know all 11 horses in the race and I'll know their tendencies, not to say that's what they're going to do that given night, but I'll have a little bit of information," said MacDonald. "Every little bit you have ahead of someone else helps."
Goop's victory in the fourth race was his first in Canada as he made a power move in front of the grandstand sending Newport Min ($40.90) three-wide to the lead and then prevailed in a three-way photo finish in 2:07.1.
The opening WDC leg at Century Downs was the culmination of the First Annual Calgary Racing Festival. The week-long event, running through to Saturday, included an Industry Day, Mid-Summer Classic card, Charity Bowling and Charity Golf tournaments, and a Charity Gala.
After the next leg at Mohawk, the drivers will head to Georgian Downs in Innisfil, Ont. on Aug. 15. The action then moves to Trois-Rivières, PQ. on Aug. 16, where Hippodrome 3R will host the fourth leg before the drivers head to Prince Edward Island's Red Shores Racetrack and Casino at Charlottetown Driving Park for the fifth and final leg of the Championship on Aug. 18, one of the major highlights of Old Home Week.
The reinsmen will earn points based on their finishing position in each race and the top point-earner at the end of the five-day competition will be declared the 2017 World Driving Champion and win $25,000 in prize money.
The World Driving Championship -- along with the 25th anniversary edition of the World Trotting Conference, to be hosted in Charlottetown -- are both held every two years and will coincide with the 250th Anniversary of horse racing in Canada, and Canada 150 celebrations. (Standardbred Canada)
WORLD DRIVING CHAMPIONSHIP LEG #1 LEADERBOARD
Rank - Driver (Country) - Points
1. Marcus Miller (United States) - 57
2. James MacDonald (Canada) - 50
3. Shane Graham (Australia) - 48
4. Bjorn Goop (Sweden) - 43
5. Gerhard Mayr (Austria) - 38
6. Mika Forss (Finland) - 34
7. Dexter Dunn (ITA/New Zealand) - 29
8. Rik Depuydt (Belgium) - 25
9. Noel Baldacchino (Malta) - 24
10. Mark Purdon (New Zealand) - 21
11. Eirik Hoitomt (Norway) - 16