By Ken Weingartner, USTA — Dire Straits has found himself in some difficult spots at times, but it has done nothing to diminish owner Richard Gutnick’s opinion of his homebred trotter. After all, Gutnick is well aware that in racing there is no such thing as money for nothing.
A multiple state-bred stakes-winner last year, Dire Straits is one of nine Hambletonian-eligible horses in Friday’s $240,000 New Jersey Sire Stakes championship for 3-year-old male trotters at The Meadowlands. The colt, with David Miller driving for trainer Mattias Melander, will start from post nine in the field of 10.
Post nine is the least favorable starting spot at The Big M this season, producing 27 winners in 391 races (6.9 percent). Last year, Dire Straits also reached the NJSS final, where he started from another unfavorable position — post 10.
“His bad luck with draws in big races continues,” said Gutnick, who also saw Dire Straits stuck with post 10 in the 2022 Breeders Crown final at Woodbine Mohawk Park. “Hopefully, the law of averages will work out and at some point he starts drawing well in finals.
“I loved him last year, if only he could have drawn some better posts. I think he’s got terrific potential. He’s my Hambo hopeful. I don’t mind if people don’t believe he’s as good as I do. I love his quickness and he’s got an attitude about him. I like horses with attitude.”
Despite his draws in last year’s NJSS and Breeders Crown finals, Dire Straits still earned paychecks in those races. In fact, the colt brought home money in nine of his 10 starts during the campaign, totaling $195,700. He posted victories in one preliminary division of the New Jersey Sire Stakes and two prelims of the Kentucky Championship Series.
This season, Dire Straits debuted with a third-place finish in the first round of the NJSS. He was fifth in the second leg, on May 20, over a sloppy surface.
“I think (his performance last time) was because it was an off track,” said Gutnick, who owns Dire Straits with Tom Pontone and Gary Cocco. “Mattias told me his feet were sticking a little bit. I’m hoping he’s much better this week.”
Melander, the younger brother of trainer Marcus Melander, was pleased with the way Dire Straits returned from his offseason respite.
“He’s really grown, filled out nicely during the winter,” the 26-year-old Melander said. “He just looks more like a horse now. That’s what I love about him, he looks tremendous. He’s always had speed, I’ve always known that, and he feels like a stronger horse this year. It feels like he’s stepped up a little bit.
“I’ve been happy with him so far. It’s a long season. We’re going to aim for the Hambo, of course, that’s the main goal. It’s going to be fun. Hopefully, he can continue to get better and better.”
Last year, Dire Straits led at the opening quarter in only two of his 10 starts. This season, he’s been in that position in both races.
“I think David wanted to try him out a little bit and take him forward,” Melander said. “He’s been stretching him. Now with post nine, we’ve got to do that. I think he’s going to be much better now after those first two starts, but we’ve got to hope for some racing luck.”
Dire Straits is a son of Muscle Hill out of Southwind Cocoa, who at age 2 in 2012 was a New Jersey Sire Stakes champion for Gutnick. A year later, she finished third from post nine at Pocono in the Breeders Crown final behind eventual Horse of the Year Bee A Magician and Frau Blucher.
“She was a good horse,” Gutnick said. “I loved her as a yearling and got her for $6,000 (under the name Southwind Mirror at the Lexington Selected Sale). She did very well for us.”
Gutnick, who in 2012 had Market Share win the Hambletonian and Chapter Seven receive Horse of the Year, said he hoped Dire Straits could be Melander’s “claim to fame as a trainer.” Melander briefly trained Gutnick’s trotter Hatikvah in 2021. Dire Straits is the only horse currently in Melander’s name as a conditioner.
“When I saw (Dire Straits) as a yearling, I watched him in the field for about half an hour, and I loved him,” Gutnick said. “I told (Melander) I wanted this horse to be in his name.”
Gutnick also noted he did not name Dire Straits after the band of the same name.
“Whenever I name a horse with a negative name, like Chapter Seven, bankruptcy, it seems like it does great,” Gutnick said with a laugh. “Even though this was not a Chapter Seven offspring, I’ve always liked the name Dire Straits. Everybody thinks it’s because of the band, but it wasn’t.”
Nonetheless, Gutnick will hope Dire Straits can rock and roll for his stable.
“It’s all about having fun,” he said.
Marcus Melander has three horses in the NJSS final for the boys, including defending champion Oh Well, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, and this season’s fastest 3-year-old trotter, Air Power, who is 3-1. Tony Alagna-trained Ari Ferrari J, the lone non-Hambletonian eligible in the race, is the 5-2 second choice.
In the $240,000 NJSS championship for sophomore female trotters, returning Dan Patch Award-winner Special Way is the 2-5 morning-line favorite. She is 2-for-2 this season for trainer Ake Svanstedt.