By Ken Weingartner, USTA — Seven years ago, Chris Alford had the opportunity to participate in several races during Little Brown Jug Week at the Delaware County Fairgrounds while in the U.S. on holiday.
The renowned Australian driver’s return to the States this week is all business.
Alford, who is approaching 8,000 lifetime victories and is the winningest driver in Australian history, will get in the sulky behind Aussie-bred Aldebaran Zeus in Saturday’s $1 million MGM Yonkers International Trot at MGM Yonkers Raceway. Aldebaran Zeus drew post seven in the 10-horse field that will go the distance of 1-1/4 miles.
“It’s probably a little bit tricky,” Alford said about the 6-year-old stallion’s starting spot. “I’ll have to take a look at the form of all the other horses to know their gate speed and all that. Once I get into all that, I’ll know a bit more.
“But (Aldebaran Zeus) is pretty versatile and can get off the gate pretty well. He’s raced on a half-mile track back in Victoria. He’s handy. The track won’t be a problem, I don’t think.”
France’s Etonnant, who made a break in last year’s International Trot and finished eighth, drew post two for Saturday’s race and is the 3-1 morning-line favorite. Anthony Barrier with drive the 9-year-old stallion for trainer Richard Westerink.
It’s Academic, who with Venerate will represent the U.S., will start from post three with David Miller in the sulky for trainer Ron Burke. It’s Academic finished third from post eight in last year’s International Trot and is the 7-2 second choice on the morning line this year.
Italy’s Vivid Wise As, a 9-year-old stallion who has earned more than $3 million in U.S. dollars lifetime, will leave from post one and is 4-1 for driver Matthieu Abrivard and trainer Alessandro Gocciadoro.
Alford arrived in the U.S. earlier this week to prepare Aldebaran Zeus for the International Trot with trainer Brent Lilley. Aldebaran Zeus is a multiple Group 1 winner Down Under with 18 lifetime victories in 48 races. He has hit the board an additional 16 times and earned $298,503 in U.S. dollars.
“He’s got real good speed, which is the main thing, I think,” Alford said about the son of Muscle Hill-Zoia Boko. “He can sort of race anywhere, though he does seem to run his best races when he’s somewhere up near the lead.”
Earlier this year, Aldebaran Zeus defeated Just Believe, who was invited to represent Australia in this past May’s Elitloppet in Sweden, in the Group 1 Hammerhead Mile at Menangle. That victory gives Alford confidence Aldebaran Zeus can step up on the international stage as well.
“I’m pretty sure he’ll acquit himself well,” Alford said. “Whether he can win, we’ll need a lot of luck, but I’m sure he’s good enough to be very competitive.”
The 55-year-old Alford, who has captured the Australian Driving Premiership on 14 occasions, is looking forward to the opportunity as he prepares to drive in the U.S. for the second time. In 2016, he had a best finish of third among three drives at the Delaware County Fairgrounds. The drives were arranged through his friendships with drivers such as Yannick Gingras, Tim Tetrick, and Brett Miller.
“I was here for holiday when the Jug was on,” Alford said. “They said to bring my stuff and they would see if they could get me a couple of drives. It was super. The experience was great. It was a bit of fun there.”
As for the chance to participate in the International Trot, Alford said, “It probably won’t really sink in until we get to Saturday, but it’s exciting. When you get to see horses from all around the world, it makes it even better.”
The mysteries surrounding how the race might play out with 10 horses competing over the half-mile oval at Yonkers adds intrigue.
“That’s the thing,” Alford said. “You don’t really know the horses or the drivers and their styles and what they do. You wouldn’t expect it to be just a normal Yonkers race with drivers just in single file. I think they’ll be one out all the way and moves will be coming because it’s a mile and a quarter. I think it’ll be a last-man-standing thing.”
The MGM Yonkers International Trot will go as race seven on the 11-race program, which also includes the $250,000 Bob Miecuna Invitational Trot and $250,000 Aria Invitational Pace, as well as eight New York Sire Stakes championships.
Racing begins at 12:15 p.m. Saturday at Yonkers. For free Yonkers programs, visit the Standardbred Owners Association of New York website here.
Following is the International Trot field with morning-line odds, driver/trainer, and country:
1-Vivid Wise As IT (Matthieu Abrivard/Alessandro Gocciadoro), 4-1, Italy
2-Etonnant FR (Anthony Barrier/Richard Westerink), 3-1, France
3-It’s Academic (David Miller/Ron Burke), 7-2, United States
4-Fashion Frenzie (Louis-Philippe Roy/Nancy Takter), 20-1, Canada
5-Hierro Boko S (Hannu Korpi drives and trains), 8-1, Finland
6-Get A Wish DK (Bo Westergaard drives and trains), 15-1, Denmark
7-Aldebaran Zeus A (Chris Alford/Brent Lilley), 15-1, Australia
8-Bengurion Jet IT (Alessandro Gocciadoro drives and trains), 15-1, Italy
9-Jiggy Jog S (Dexter Dunn/Åke Svanstedt), 8-1, Sweden
10-Venerate (Brian Sears/Marcus Melander), 12-1, United States