By Ken Weingartner, USTA — Bella Bellini, who in 2022 became only the second 4-year-old mare in history to be voted Trotter of the Year, will kick off her 5-year-old season Saturday (May 6) at The Meadowlands in the first round of the Miss Versatility Series.
Last year, the Nifty Norman-trained Bella Bellini won nine of 19 starts, hit the board nine more times, and earned $936,702. Her money total was the fifth highest in history for a trotting mare based solely on purses earned in North America.
She is one of six mares overall to be voted Trotter of the Year, which was first awarded in 1970, joining Fresh Yankee (1970), Delmonica Hanover (1974), Classical Way (1980), Moni Maker (1998-2000), and Hannelore Hanover (2017). Classical Way is the other mare to receive the honor at age 4.
Over the past two years, Bella Bellini has hit the board in 36 of 38 races, winning 20, and earned $2.04 million.
“We’ll hope she is as good this year as she’s been the past couple years,” said David McDuffee, who bred and owns the daughter of Bar Hopping-Bella Dolce. “We’re looking forward to it. She trained well all winter. She looks like a million dollars. She’s grown, gotten bigger and stronger looking. We’ll hope that makes her a bigger and stronger racehorse.”
Bella Bellini heads to Saturday’s $40,000 Miss Versatility leg off a 1:56.2 win in a qualifier on April 29 at The Meadowlands. She trotted her last quarter-mile in :26.1 with regular driver Dexter Dunn in the sulky and is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in the Miss Versatility’s field of five. Fashion Schooner, the 2022 Hambletonian Oaks winner, is the 2-1 second choice.
“She qualified pretty well the other day,” McDuffee said about Bella Bellini. “She did a good job, came home good and strong. It was a good first step.”
If all goes well, Bella Bellini’s second start will be May 20 at The Meadowlands when she takes on the boys in the Arthur J. Cutler Memorial.
“It’s difficult because there aren’t many major races for the mares,” McDuffee said. “You’re pretty much resigned to picking a few spots to race against the colts. It’s OK, she’s proven she can handle them pretty good, but I don’t think you want a steady diet of that. It isn’t a perfect situation.”
This year, there are eight Grand Circuit events solely for trotting mares, including the Miss Versatility Series, which features six preliminary rounds and a final.
“It makes it difficult,” McDuffee said. “You know she could be a good producer (as a broodmare). That’s always important to keep the line moving. We’re going to let her try (racing) one more year and see where that takes us.”
McDuffee has an idea where he would like to see it take them.
“I’ve kind of got my eye on the Prix d’Amerique if everything goes right,” McDuffee said, referring to the classic race in Paris. “I would love to go there with her next January. That would wrap up her racing career, probably, but it is something that I think would be unbelievably exciting.”
In addition to the Miss Versatility, Saturday’s card at The Meadowlands features the first round of the New Jersey Sire Stakes for 3-year-old pacers.
Racing at The Meadowlands begins at 6:20 p.m. (EDT). Free TrackMaster programs for the Big M can be found here