EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It’s difficult for trainer George Ducharme to balance his excitement about the celebrated race his horse is about to run Saturday with the expectations he has for success.
Ducharme, 52, will be a world away from the tracks of Massachusetts — not known for churning out champion trotters — when Royalty For Life lines up for the first of three eliminations at the 88th Hambletonian at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
“It’s the biggest thing I could ever imagine — (from) racing in the little Mass sire stakes, one-, two-horse fields, to playing at this level,” said Ducharme, who lives in Norfolk, Mass.
Royalty For Life, a 3-year-old bay colt driven by Brian Sears and the 8-5 morning-line favorite in his elimination race, is a once in a lifetime horse for Ducharme at his once in a lifetime event. The Hambletonian is harness racing’s biggest event of the year.
“I’ve never had a horse like this, so it’s pretty cool,” said Ducharme. “I’ve done this my entire life, and I’ve never done this kind of circuit, so it’s an experience for me, as well.”
Royalty For Life, who was born and bred at Chip Campbell’s Courtlin Farm in Belchertown, Mass., and is owned by Campbell, Alfred Ross and Paul Fontaine, is favored because he is competing in a format that plays to his strengths. The Hambletonian is renewing a same-day elimination and finals format for the first time since 1996, and Ducharme’s horse has stamina.
“He’s a big, stout horse, and I think the heats will help him, if anything,” he said. “Hopefully, we get through the first one and we’ll be there for the second.”
A top-three finish will put Royalty For Life in the finals. The top three horses from the two other elims and the highest lifetime earner of the three fourth-place finishers qualify for the $1 million final at 4:41 p.m., televised on CBS.
Ducharme’s prized horse is poised for a final matchup with Wheeling N Dealin, the 2-1 morning-line favorite in the second elimination. Corky is favored in the third elim at 2-1.
Wheeling N Dealin edged Royalty For Life for first in a race at the 2012 Breeders Crown.
Royalty For Life made breaks – when a horse stops trotting and must fall back until he can regain his gait — early in his first three starts of the season, but Ducharme says those issues have been resolved.
“I think now that he’s had a few more starts and that he’s behaved himself the last three or four starts, I really believe we’re back on the right track,” said Ducharme, who is making his first appearance at harness racing’s premier event.
Ducharme isn’t the only trainer who believes his horse has the chance to have a good showing on Saturday.
“I think George Ducharme’s horse, he’s probably the one to beat,” said trainer Ray Schnittker, whose horse Dewycolorintheline will race against Royalty For Life in the first elim. “I’m very good friends with George, and if I can’t win, I really hope he does – very nice man.”
Ducharme is approaching the pinnacle of his 35-year career as the Meadowlands Racetrack undergoes a transition, bidding farewell later this year to the grandstand that was built in 1976. The Big M’s new building, which is directly across from the existing one, will open on Nov. 23.
He hopes to help close the final chapter of the grandstand’s history by making Saturday’s race memorable.
“It’s my first Hambo — nervous, anxious but really excited about being able to play at the top level of our sport,” Ducharme said.
Mitchell Petit-Frere is a senior at St. John’s University studying English and journalism. He is covering the Hambletonian as part of the Clyde Hirt Journalism Workshop.