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Trainer Jimmy Takter has owned the Hambletonian lately

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Hambletonian has become trainer Jimmy Takter’s personal playground lately.

The Swedish native has won trotting’s biggest race the past two years, and he has another chance on Saturday 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 win 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. The driver and trainer, yes. But the horse has no clue.”

Southwind Frank, who is trained by Ron Burke, has won 5 of 6 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. I’m looking to have him in play and I’m looking to have him aggressive.”

Gingras failed to win with the favorite in the last two Hambletonians. Breaking from the No. 10 post position, Father Patrick broke stride and never had a chance in 2014.

Gingras drove both Pinkman and Mission Brief in their respective Hambletonian heats. He chose to drive the filly Mission Brief in the final and finished second to Pinkman, who was driven by Brian Sears.

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.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.