By Ken Weingartner — Mike Wilder has driven in more than 55,000 races in his 30-year career, but never in the final of a Meadowlands Pace. That, however, will change this weekend. Wilder makes his first trip to The Meadowlands Racetrack for its signature event Saturday, when he will sit behind Catch The Fire in the $631,650 race for 3-year-old male pacers.
“It’s nice to be a part of that,” said Wilder, who has won 8,276 races while competing mostly in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “It’s not like every year you know you’re going to be in a certain race. Obviously, I’ve been driving 30 years and it’s my first time, so it takes a good horse. It takes a good horse and being at the right place at the right time.
“Catch The Fire has been a really good horse. He’s pretty special.”
Of the Meadowlands Pace final’s 10 drivers, Wilder is the only one making his first appearance. The last driver to win the Pace in his first try was Tim Tetrick with Southwind Lynx in 2007.
Catch The Fire heads to the Meadowlands Pace final off a seventh-place finish in last week’s single elimination. The colt started from post eight, was last in the 10-horse field at the half, and rallied with a :25.4 last quarter-mile to grab a spot in the final.
He starts Saturday from post two and is 10-1 on the morning line. Elimination winner Tall Dark Stranger is the 7-5 favorite.
“The (elimination) was kind of tough the way the race shook out,” Wilder said. “That being said, he raced terrific. That horse, he just shows up. Even the other night, he was seventh, but he showed up. He had to pace :25.4 to get the job done and he did it.
“I was very happy to see where he drew in the final, it gives him a chance to be part of the fight. Hopefully things shake out good and we get the right trip and get some money. It would be nice to win the race, everybody wants to win, but I don’t think there is any question he could be able to grab some of the prize money.”
Catch The Fire was purchased for $15,000 at the 2018 Lexington Selected Sale. He is owned by Charles Taylor’s CT Stables and trained by John Ackley. The horse’s sire, Captaintreacherous, won the 2013 Meadowlands Pace. His dam, Dream Outloud, is a half-sister to Life’sliltreasure, who produced 2016 Meadowlands Pace winner Control The Moment.
Wilder has driven Catch The Fire in all but one of the colt’s 14 career starts. Last year, Catch The Fire won the Kentucky Sire Stakes championship and was third in the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes final. He has won four of 14 races lifetime, hit the board a total of 10 times, and earned $260,047.
“He was pretty special last year,” Wilder said. “The first time I raced him, he’s not a real big horse at all but John told me not to worry about the size of the horse, he’s a very nice colt. That particular day, he was second in the (Pennsylvania) sire stakes at The Meadows. He paced home in :26.3 and you don’t get many horses that can do that, especially a 2-year-old. I knew then that I had my hands on something pretty nice.”
Wilder is an Ohio native and won 13 driving titles at Lebanon and two at Scioto Downs before moving to The Meadows in western Pennsylvania in 2001. Over the past 10 years, he has annually ranked among the top-five drivers at The Meadows in wins and purses. Five times in the past six years he has finished second to perennial Meadows driving champ Dave Palone in wins.
This season, Wilder leads drivers at The Meadows in purses with $1.1 million and is second to Palone in wins with 126. Overall, Wilder has won 142 races this year, ninth best in North America.
Catch The Fire could keep Wilder on the road for a number of Grand Circuit races. The colt is staked to the North America Cup, Breeders Crown, Little Brown Jug, Cane Pace, Messenger Pace, Tattersalls Pace, and Matron Stakes, not to mention the Delvin Miller Adios at Wilder’s home track.
“You hope the horse stays healthy and sound and wherever they choose to race him I’m sure he is going to fight,” Wilder said. “With the right trip, he’s always going to kick home for you, he’s always digging. That’s how you get paid. This horse can get to the (first) quarter in :26 and then he comes home in :26. I think that’s what it takes to be a horse at that level and I think he’s proven himself to be that kind of horse.
“I’m really looking forward to the season with him and I’m really looking forward to Saturday night being in the Meadowlands Pace.”
The Meadowlands Pace is part of a jam-packed stakes slate Saturday at the Big M. The card also includes the Hambletonian Maturity for 4-year-old trotters, William R. Haughton Memorial for older male pacers, Dorothy Haughton Memorial for older female pacers, Stanley Dancer Memorial for 3-year-old male trotters, Del Miller Memorial for 3-year-old female trotters, Mistletoe Shalee for 3-year-old female pacers, and the third leg of the Miss Versatility Series for older female trotters.
Following is the field for the $631,650 Meadowlands Pace.
1-Roll With JR-Corey Callahan-Jeff Cullipher-20/1
2-Catch The Fire-Mike Wilder-John Ackley-10/1
3-Captain Barbossa-Brian Sears-Tony Alagna-10/1
4-Allywag Hanover-Tim Tetrick-Brett Pelling-5/1
5-Tall Dark Stranger-Yannick Gingras-Nancy Takter-7/5
6-Manticore-Jordan Stratton-Bruce Saunders-15/1
7-Chief Mate-Andy McCarthy-Tony Alagna-20/1
8-Major Betts-Dexter Dunn-Mark Harder-10/1
9-Papi Rob Hanover-David Miller-Brett Pelling-4/1
10-Captain Kirk-Joe Bongiorno-Tony Alagna-15/1
Ken Weingartner, for U. S. Trotting Association, is an HRI Harness contributor