EAST RUTHERFORD - The Hambletonian has become trainer Jimmy Takter's personal playground.
The Swedish native has won trotting's biggest race the past two years, and he has another chance today when he sends out five 3-year-olds at the Meadowlands, including the highly regarded Bar Hopping.
No trainer has ever won three straight Hambletonians. One more win would also give the 55-year-old Hall of Famer a record-tying fifth triumph. Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton and Ben White also won five.
Bar Hopping is the favorite in the nine-horse first elimination. Southwind Frank is the favorite in the nine-horse second elimination, and the overall favorite to win the final.
The top five finishers in each elimination advance to the final to determine the Hambletonian winner.
Southwind Frank has won 16 of 18 career starts. His only two losses have been to Bar Hopping.
"At least we know he's challenged (Southwind) Frank," Takter said. "He beat him fair and square earlier this year."
Tim Tetrick, who will be looking for his first Hambletonian win, will drive Bar Hopping, starting from the No. 1 post position. The colt was impressive in capturing the $300,000 Zweig Memorial at Vernon Downs on July 24 in his final prep.
Takter will also send out Lagerfeld, Love Matters, Jimmy William and Reigning Moni in the eliminations.
Takter said the most important thing in training is not to change for a big race.
"People start over-doing things, train the horses maybe a little harder, or whatever," he said. "I don't think that's smart. I think that's where experience comes in. The horse has no clue it's the Hambletonian."
Southwind Frank, who is trained by Ron Burke, has won five of six starts this year. He won the Reynolds Memorial Stakes in the slop here last weekend.
Driver Yannick Gingras said Southwind Frank had plenty left in his tank at the end of the race.
"These are going to be his races to lose," Gingras said. "I'm not going to be looking to come third over or something like that."
Here are the fields for the eliminations in post position order with horse, driver and odds:
Elimination 1: Bar Hopping, Tetrick, 9-5; Lagerfeld, Gingras, 12-1; Make Or Miss, Joe Bongiorno, 20-1; Milligan's School, Andy Miller, 10-1; Brooklyn Hill, David Miller, 3-1; Mavens Way, John Campbell, 6-1; Tight Lines, Jeff Gregory, 25-1; Iron Mine Bucky, George Dennis, 15-1; Reigning Moni, Mark MacDonald, 4-1.
Elimination 2: Jimmy William, Tetrick, 20-1; The Royal Harry, Ake Svanstedt, 20-1; Sutton, Andy Miller, 6-1; Marion Marauder, Scott Zeron 3-1; Southwind Frank, Gingras, 4-5, Hollywood Highway, Campbell, 30-1; Dominion Beach, Bjorn Goop, 30-1; Love Matters, Brett Miller, 12-1; Waitlifter, David Miller, 10-1.