By Ken Weingartner — Under most circumstances, trainer Nancy Takter would have watched the stretch drive of this past Saturday’s Meadowlands Pace and been overcome with a sinking feeling. In those instances, though, she would not have been watching Tall Dark Stranger.
Tall Dark Stranger and driver Yannick Gingras captured Saturday’s $636,650 Meadowlands Pace in dramatic fashion, giving up the lead to rival Papi Rob Hanover in the stretch before fighting back to win by a neck in 1:47.2. Few people — including Gingras, co-owner Buck Chaffee, and Takter’s father Jimmy — thought Tall Dark Stranger would be the winner as the horses began their battle on the final turn.
Takter, however, was undaunted as the scene unfolded.
“Usually when a horse kind of halfway clears, your heart sinks,” Takter said. “I never got that feeling. I never had the feel that I was the loser. It was the weirdest thing ever. I watched the stretch and I had so much confidence in Tall Dark Stranger and knew he would come back.
“What a champion he is. He just doesn’t want to lose. He’s just a great horse.”
Takter won her first Meadowlands Pace in her second try. In 2019, she finished fourth with favorite Captain Crunch. She also gave the Takter family its first Pace trophy; Jimmy sent out 10 horses in the event for 3-year-old pacers with a best finish of second with Vintage Master in 2009.
As is a Takter tradition, the winner’s blanket was placed on a bronze horse statue near the entrance of the family’s central New Jersey farm.
“There have been a lot of great blankets out there, so it was about time that one got on,” the 39-year-old Takter said. “When I was growing up, a little kid, Meadowlands Pace night was always a big event.
“My dad didn’t have a lot of pacers at that time, but I remember all these great horses and we would talk about them. I knew it was special to win the Meadowlands Pace.”
Tall Dark Stranger was the 2019 Dan Patch Award winner for best 2-year-old male pacer. For his career, he has won 11 of 12 races and earned $1.05 million for owners Crawford Farms Racing, Marvin Katz, Caviart Farms, and Howard Taylor.
The colt, a son of Bettor’s Delight out of Precocious Beauty, is Gingras’ second Meadowlands Pace winner. Gingras got his first Pace victory with A Rocknroll Dance in 2012.
“I have a connection with Tall Dark Stranger that makes it a little different than with A Rocknroll Dance,” said Gingras, who has driven Tall Dark Stranger in all his qualifiers and races as well as spent time with the horse at Takter’s stable.
“Then, you have the expectations. A Rocknroll Dance was 9-2 and things worked out on that day, but you don’t have the pressure.
“Tall Dark Stranger, he’s the champ, he’s the one that has to be dethroned. He was 1-2 (odds), it was a lot of pressure. And I know Papi Rob Hanover is a great horse.
“I knew he would show up. Everyone saw Allywag Hanover, he’s super fast too. You put all that together, to be able to get the job done, in that fashion too, is a great, great feeling.”
Papi Rob Hanover and Allywag Hanover both looked poised to defeat Tall Dark Stranger after the latter went for the lead in a :25.4 opening quarter-mile, then reached the half in :53.2 and three-quarters in 1:20.4.
Around the last turn, Papi Rob Hanover pulled even with Tall Dark Stranger, with Allywag Hanover following Papi Rob Hanover’s cover.
“When Papi Rob came, I really didn’t feel like I was a winner there,” Gingras said. “I thought I was beat. I knew (Allywag Hanover) was in a perfect spot; I thought I was in trouble with both of them. I thought I would be second or third at that point. I just kept trying to keep my horse alive and he just fought.
“Halfway down the stretch, I thought I had a chance. Maybe like a hundred feet before the wire, I knew I had (Papi Rob Hanover) even though I wasn’t back in front of him yet. I knew I was getting to him and I had time to get him too. It felt pretty good then.
“Tall Dark Stranger is a winner and he knows what he has to do to get the job done. He has the desire to dig down deep and give you that little more that’s needed.”
After winning eight of nine races last season, Tall Dark Stranger is 3-for-3 in 2020 and has two sub-1:48 miles already this year. His 1:47.2 clocking in the Meadowlands Pace ranks tied for eighth best by a 3-year-old pacer in history.
Gingras believes the horse’s strong start this year is in part due to the way he finished last season. Tall Dark Stranger’s connections decided to quit with the colt following his win in the Breeders Crown rather than pursue nearly $600,000 in purses in the Matron Stakes and Governor’s Cup.
“They could have kept on going last year, but they quit with him after having a great year with him,” Gingras said. “They decided they were going to focus on trying to put all the chances on our side for his 3-year-old season, and it paid off.
“They got rewarded for their patience. I think the credit goes to them and Nancy for doing a good job bringing him back.”
Tall Dark Stranger’s next start is expected to be in the Tompkins-Geers Stakes on Aug. 1 at The Meadowlands. Then comes the Cane Pace the following Saturday at The Big M.
In the meantime, Takter will savor the Pace triumph.
“I was a little disappointed about last year, so it was nice to come back and get it done this year,” she said. “It’s a very special accomplishment.”
Ken Weingartner, for U.S. Trotting Association, is an HRI Harness contributor