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By Ken Weingartner, USTA — American Fling has shown the ability to step around a half-mile track, so the defending New York Sire Stakes champion earned the chance to step out Friday in the $250,000 MGM Grand Messenger Stakes for 3-year-old pacers at MGM Yonkers Raceway.

Last year, American Fling competed four times on half-mile ovals in NYSS events and posted three wins and a third. His 1:55.1 victory at Buffalo established a track record, and he also had a 1:55 triumph at Yonkers and 1:53.2 score at Saratoga.

Heading into this year, American Fling was not eligible to the Messenger, but his owners paid February’s $6,000 supplemental nomination fee to get into the race. The Messenger is the first jewel in the Pacing Triple Crown.

“We wanted to give him a shot in a major on a half,” said trainer Randy Bendis, who owns the gelding with Reed Broadway and Pollack Racing. “This is his one step out of New York (sire stakes action). He loves the half, that’s really his calling card. We really believe it’s his strength.”

American Fling, a son of American Ideal-Feeling You, was purchased for $25,000 at the 2021 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale. His dam was a millionaire and Yonkers regular, winning 19 of 53 races there, including the 2013 Blue Chip Matchmaker Series championship.

For his career, American Fling has won six of 13 starts, hit the board four more times, and earned $266,280. This season, he has a win, second, and third in three races. He heads to Friday’s start off a second-place finish in a division of the NYSS at Vernon Downs, where he was beaten by a half-length by Messenger rival Thunder Hunter Joe.

“He raced well at Vernon; we were happy with him,” Bendis said. “We didn’t bring him back until a little later because everything in New York is more compact this year, starting in June and going pretty consistently into September. I think he’s come back super. He grew up a little bit, got a little thicker through the shoulder. He’s a strong, compact kind of colt.

“Maturity has probably been his biggest asset. From his first race as a 2-year-old, he’s been a very laidback horse. He doesn’t get himself in trouble. He’s very professional. He was like racing a 5-year-old as a 2-year-old. Going from track to track in New York can be daunting sometimes for young horses, but it didn’t bother him in the least.”

American Fling will start the Messenger from post four with Jason Bartlett listed to drive for trainer Ed Hart, who handles the horse’s conditioning for Bendis when American Fling is in New York. Hart won the 2011 Messenger with Roll With Joe.

“Ed has done a really good professional job for us, just like he always does,” Bendis said.

The Messenger attracted a field of 10 horses, with all advancing directly to the final, which will be raced at the added distance of 1-1/16 miles. Eight horses will be on the starting gate while two, Bamboozler and Joemikiyoursofine, will leave from the second tier.

“This is Jason’s racetrack, and he knows it well,” Bendis said about Bartlett, who has won 11 driving titles at Yonkers and tops the standings again this year. “We’ll just turn it over to him and let him do his thing.”

Annapolis Hanover, a winner on the Grand Circuit this year, is the richest horse in the field with $305,470 in purses. The group also features two horses undefeated in 2023: Thunder Hunter Joe (3-for-3) and Its A Me Mario (5-for-5). Both are coming off New York Sire Stakes victories.

Annapolis Hanover and Thunder Hunter Joe were supplemental nominees.

The Messenger is part of a four-stakes night for 3-year-olds at Yonkers on Friday. The track also hosts the $300,000 MGM Yonkers Trot, which is the first jewel in the Trotting Triple Crown, as well as the $115,000 Park MGM Filly Pace and $100,000 New York New York Mile for filly trotters.

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