When NBC cameras focus on the action at The Meadowlands track in East Rutherford, N.J., today for the 83rd running of the Hambletonian trotting harness race, fans at Maine tracks and sports pubs will be watching the TV screens with more interest than usual.
That’ s because the 10-horse field for today’ s prestigious race with a $1.5 million purse includes a Maine-owned horse.
Velocity Hall is a 20-to-1 long shot in the race, the second leg of harness racing’ s triple crown for trotters, but owners Tom Dillon of Anson (75 percent ownership) and Walter Hight of Skowhegan (25 percent) are already sporting Cheshire cat grins over their literal dark horse.
“Did you see the Meadowlands pace?,” said Hight, referring to July’ s race in which 12-to-1 long shot Art Official beat prohibitive, 1-to-9 favorite Somebeachs. “That’ s why they make them race.
“It would take a near-miracle, but it’ s quite an honor to be in it. And if you don’ t have a partner, you’ re not in the dance.”
NBC’ s live race coverage starts at 2 p.m. with the race expected to go off at 2:43 p.m.
Velocity Hall is a 3-year-old colt Dillon purchased as a weanling three years ago for $35,000 at the standardbred horse sale in Harrisburg, Pa.
“I just liked his overall appearance. He looked the part, which never really guarantees anything,” Dillon said with a laugh. “Buying horses is a lot like the lottery. You just hope to hit on one of them every now and then.”
Dillon figured he might just have a hit early on after he got back home from the horse sale.
“The underbidder left a message on my answering machine that if I didn’ t want the horse, they still wanted to buy him from me,” he recalled. “But that’ s not the first time that’ s happened, and I kind of wished I’ d taken them up on their offers the other times.”
Fortunately, Dillon didn’ t take this particular underbidder up on his offer and stuck with Velocity Hall.
The task of training Velocity Hall went to Maine Sports Hall of Fame trainer and driver Donald Richards of Cumberland and Scott Athearn of Bridgton. Richards gave them their first hint that they had something special.
“He said, ‘ Boys we have a special one here.’ Usually he says ‘ Find ‘ em a new home,’ ” Hight recalled with a chuckle.
Richards said he only worked with the horse a couple times. Athearn said Velocity Hall was an unusually quick study.
“Oh yeah, there are easy and hard ones. He was very easy,” Athearn said. “He was born to race and trot and it’ s hard to find one who’ s both. He was actually good right from day one.
“He’ s so big, but got around the turns quickly,” added Athearn, who started training the horse in October of 2006. “And it just seemed like he knew how to race early on. Most of them don’ t have manners like he does. A lot of them just try to take off and go as fast as he can, but he was deliberate.”
The horse, which has a lifetime record of two wins, seven places and two shows in 19 starts, is the lowest earner among the 10 entries at $28,569 in earnings this season, but was third in a blanket finish in the Hambletonian elimination qualifier and has had some bad luck this season.
“Well, bad luck and bad [starting] positions,” Hight said. “He was in the top two heading into the last turn at the [$605,000] Yonkers Trot before he made a bad step and broke stride.”
“You learn to have a lot of humility and not get too puffed up with yourself early on in this business because things have a way of going from good to bad quickly,” Dillon said.
If Velocity Hall is to score what would be a huge upset, he’ ll need some help.
“What you’ ve got to have is a big speed duel up on the front end,” said Hight, a third generation owner who has owned horses for the last 30 of his 56 years. “That’ ll be great for the back of the pack and should open things up.”
Even if things don’ t open up, Dillon and Hight couldn’ t be happier just to be there.
“It’ s a 10-horse field, which essentially means we have one of the top 10 3-year-old trotters in the country,” Dillon said. “Being in the top three would certainly be a great thing.”