By Ken Weingartner, USTA–
Some of harness racing’s top 3-year-olds of last season — Treacherous Dragon, Niki Hill, Bythemissal, Fashion Schooner, and Pretender — will begin their 4-year-old campaigns Saturday (April 22) in the first of two weekends of New Jersey Breeders Maturity races for pacers and trotters at The Meadowlands.
Treacherous Dragon, who received the Dan Patch Award for best sophomore female pacer in 2022, and Niki Hill, who brought home the trophy at age 2 in 2021, headline the night’s action in the $15,000 preliminary leg of the Maturity for 4-year-old pacing mares (the final is April 29). Niki Hill is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in the six-horse field, with Treacherous Dragon the even-money second choice.
Niki Hill, trained by Chris Ryder and driven by Dexter Dunn, qualified twice in preparation for her start Saturday. She finished second by a nose to Treacherous Dragon on April 7 and won last week by 2-1/2 lengths over Boudoir Hanover in 1:52 with a :25.3 last quarter-mile.
“She’s her usual self — very good,” Ryder said. “The driver is happy, the trainer is happy, the groom is happy. She’s a little bigger (than last year). She’s always had size, but she’s looking like a 4-year-old. She’s right on 17 hands, so that’s a bit of size for a Standardbred. She’s doing real well.”
Niki Hill was limited to seven races last year after cutting an ankle in her first start of the season. She returned to action in mid-September and finished no worse than second in her remaining six starts, winning three. She won the Bluegrass, Glen Garnsey, and Matron stakes, and was runner-up in the Breeders Crown and TVG Series championship, where she faced older foes to close out the campaign.
In the TVG, Niki Hill started from post eight at The Meadowlands and finished second between winner Grace Hill, who the previous month captured the Breeders Crown Mare Pace, and Test Of Faith, who was the 2021 U.S. Horse of the Year.
“I know (Niki Hill) didn’t win, but I thought she was terrific,” Ryder said about the Tom Hill-owned daughter of Always B Miki-Road Bet, who has won 12 of 17 career starts and earned $1.31 million. “How does a 3-year-old win that race from post eight? The draw was against us. But I was thrilled with her. I thought it was a terrific race with three terrific horses, top of the line.”
Treacherous Dragon, trained by Nancy Takter and driven by Scott Zeron, enters Saturday’s start with one qualifier, her victory over Niki Hill on April 7 in 1:53.1 with a :26.2 final quarter.
Last year, Treacherous Dragon led all 3-year-old female pacers in purses with $717,835. She won nine of 15 starts, including the Fan Hanover Stakes, Breeders Crown, and Jugette.
“She had a long season last year, so I didn’t really want to rush her back,” Takter said. “This is a really good steppingstone for the races ahead. She qualified super, so I’m very happy with how she’s coming into it. She might need this race on Saturday. I didn’t want to qualify her two weeks in a row and then race her two weeks in a row. I try to avoid going four weeks in a row with my horses at all costs because it is a long season.”
As for any changes in Treacherous Dragon, a daughter of Captaintreacherous-My Little Dragon owned by Hot Lead Farm, Takter said, “She filled out a little bit and grew up a little bit. But she’s a very classy mare and she didn’t need to change much.”
For her career, Treacherous Dragon has won 13 of 25 races and earned $1.01 million.
Takter also will send out Sweet Treasure in the Maturity for female pacers. Also owned by Hot Lead, the daughter of Sweet Lou-Shes Some Treasure, will have Josert Fonseca in the sulky as she makes her fourth start of the season. She heads into Saturday off a 1:50.4 win in a conditioned race April 8 at The Meadowlands.
Unraced at age 2, Sweet Treasure won three of 13 starts last year and earned $184,834. She finished second in the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes championship and Shady Daisy, and was third in the Jugette.
“She’s super-fast, she’s just a little special at times,” Takter said. “She’s got all the ability in the world if we can keep her under control. I have to give everybody on my team a lot of credit. They’ve done a really good job with her, and she’s settled down into a nice horse. If she can stay that way, she could potentially have a big year ahead of her.
“She has good speed, a good set of lungs, and is good gaited. It’s just that she’s her own worst enemy at times.”
The remaining three Maturity events will be conducted as non-betting races prior to Saturday’s regular 6:20 p.m. (EDT) card. Those races will begin at 5 p.m.
Bythemissal, who hit the board in all 16 of his starts last year, winning 13, is one of two horses in the $12,500 Maturity for 4-year-old male pacers. Yannick Gingras will drive the son of Downbytheseaside-Dismissal for trainer Ron Burke. The gelding’s wins last season included the Little Brown Jug and Adios as he banked $1.16 million.
Fashion Schooner, the 2022 Hambletonian Oaks winner, returns in the three-horse $12,500 Maturity for 4-year-old female trotters. Tim Tetrick will drive the daughter of Walner-Broadway Schooner for trainer Jim Campbell. She won eight of 13 races last season and banked $684,937.
Pretender, another horse from the Takter Stable, is in the $12,500 Maturity for 4-year-old male trotters with driver Andy McCarthy. The son of Muscle Hill-Maven won four of 15 races last season, including the New Jersey Sire Stakes championship and New Jersey Classic, and earned $573,525. He was second in the Canadian Trotting Classic and Earl Beal Jr. Memorial.