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Harness racing royalty gathers at Western Fair Friday
May 18, 2009
By Sandra Snyder

LONDON, ON — Western Fair Raceway rolls out the red carpet for the grand dames of the Ontario Sires Stakes program on Friday, May 22, hosting a pair of $40,000 Gold Eliminations for the talented three-year-old pacing fillies.

Making her entrance onto the sophomore stage in the second elimination is local filly Northern Duchess, who heads into the race off an impressive 1:54.1 qualifier that came as a surprise to trainer John Pentland.

“She threw in a really good qualifier, I didn’t expect 1:54.1,” says the Dorchester resident. “We had been swimming her a lot, so it was hard for me to really judge what kind of shape she was in.”

Following a successful freshman season that saw her post a record of two wins, seven seconds, one third and earnings of $221,051 in 12 starts from early July to late November, Northern Duchess spent the winter relaxing at the Shedden area farm of owner Karen Carroll. She returned to Pentland’s barn in early February to begin preparations for her sophomore campaign and the horseman says things seemed to come together easily for the grey daughter of Western Terror and Lady Mist.

“She came back well. She was half ready about a month ago, but I didn’t want to race her, so we kept her back,” notes the trainer. “We were swimming and jogging her, sometimes even jogging and swimming on the same day — we’d jog three or four laps and then swim.”

The varied routine seemed to suit Northern Duchess. On April 27 the filly delivered a 1:57.2 mile in a fourth-place qualifying effort at Mohawk Racetrack and Pentland says he did not do anything different heading into the May 15 qualifier where she rolled around the Campbellville oval almost three seconds faster.

“I don’t think training is beneficial for her,” muses the conditioner. “I think if I could race her every week or 10 days I shouldn’t have to train her.”

Pentland will put his theory to the test on Friday, when regular reinsman Mike Saftic and Northern Duchess line up at Post 2 in the second Gold Elimination. The duo picked up the runner-up cheque in four eliminations last year, and Pentland and Carroll would love to see their protege match or better that result in the sophomore season opener.

“I think she was the second best filly in the Sires Stakes last year,” opines Pentland. “And as far as three-year-olds, we’ve got a few Grassroots players, but she’s our only real shot at a Gold horse. She’s carrying the flag.”

Saftic and Northern Duchess will square off against four veterans of the Gold Series and three fillies new to the upper echelons of the Ontario Sires Stakes program. The top four finishers from each elimination will make a return trip to Western Fair Raceway on Friday, May 29 for the first $130,000 Gold Final on their sophomore tour.

Leading the cast of fillies hoping to earn a return invite from the first elimination is last season’s Canadian and OSS champion St Lads Popcorn, who makes her sophomore debut from Post 1.

Like Northern Duchess, St Lads Popcorn heads into Friday’s test off a pair of qualifying efforts at Mohawk Racetrack, and like Northern Duchess she hit the wire the first time in 1:57.2 and the second in 1:54.1. Cambridge resident Jack Darling owns and trains St Lads Popcorn, who captured 12 of 15 races as a two-year-old, banking just over $600,000.

St Lads Popcorn and her peers will battle in Race 3 on Western Fair’s Friday evening program, while Northern Duchess and her rivals square off in Race 5. London harness racing fans will also be treated to a pair of eliminations for the Molson Pace, featuring last year’s Little Brown Jug victor Shadow Play. The Molson Pace eliminations are slated as Races 8 and 10 on the program, which gets under way at 7:05 pm.

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