Day At The Track

On Track Piraten to raid Yonkers again

05:16 AM 27 Sep 2017 NZDT
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On Track Piraten, Harness Racing
On Track Piraten’s 37 victories include two Group 2 Svenskt Mästerskap titles in 2013 and 2014, three Group 2 C.L. Müllers Memorial wins in 2013, 2014, and 2016, and the Group 3 Prix du Luxembourg in 2015.
Chris Brokate Photo

YONKERS, N.Y. - Harness racing owner John Backlund remembers watching His Majesty win the International Trot in 1995. He couldn’t have imagined then that he would start a horse as an owner in the $1 million race’s revival 20 years later, or that he would return with the same horse the next two years in a row. Backlund, however, will do just that when he travels to New York with Sweden’s On Track Piraten to compete in the Yonkers International Trot for the third straight year. The decision to return was as easy this time as it was the first.

“We’re lucky, we have been in a lot of big races, but the experience at Yonkers has been absolutely number one,” Backlund said. “Even though the horse hasn’t had any luck in the races, the experience from Yonkers has been absolutely number one for us. When we got invited, we didn’t hesitate for a second.

“It was a new experience for everyone and we didn’t hesitate the first year at all,” he continued. “Now we know what we’re going to and it’s been amazing every year. Hope the horse can get in good shape now. He’s getting older, so maybe we don’t have the same hope to win as the year before, but you never know.”

Although Backlund is facing the reality of On Track Piraten’s increasing age - he is 9 years old and will reach the mandatory retirement age in France next year and Sweden’s limit of 12 two years later - he is savoring the ride with his star trotter. On Track Piraten is a multiple grouped stakes winner in Europe and an earner of 14,888,710kr, or about $1.85 million. Backlund’s journey with the gelding began before he was even foaled.

Breeder Eva Eriksson told Backlund about a mare, Monrovia, she had in foal to Kool du Caux. The French Classic victor and four-time Group 1 winner stood in France, out of Backlund’s reach. Backlund seized the moment and bought the unborn horse on the spot.

“It was Kool du Caux. He was one of my absolute favorite horses and you couldn’t get him in Sweden, so you had to get the mare to France to use Kool du Caux,” he explained. “I knew it wasn’t possible for me to send one to France, so to get a chance to get a foal from Kool du Caux was the number one reason why I wanted him. When she said she had a mare with Kool du Caux, I didn’t think, I just said, ‘I want him.’ ”

When Monrovia foaled On Track Piraten in April 2008, Backlund was thrilled to see a big, dark horse. By the time he was a yearling, On Track Piraten already towered at 16 hands. Backlund sent On Track Piraten to Natalia Abdalla’s base in Estonia to be broken and On Track Piraten’s talent showed from the start.

“In centimeters, he was 163 as a 1-year-old, so he was already extremely big. He was not overbuilt, he just looked one year older, even as a yearling. She said when other ones wanted to run 1 kilometer, he runs 2. From the start, he was exceptional,” Backlund remembered.

Backlund’s journey with On Track Piraten hasn’t come alone. He sold shares of the horse to friends and family, many of whom had never owned a trotter before. All told, the ownership group Stall Mörkermasse has 10 members. Nearly all of them will be present at Yonkers for the International October 14.

“I think half of them had never been involved in a horse before. They’ve been extremely lucky,” Backlund said. “I asked some of my friends and they asked some of their other friends. It was pretty quick. Work colleagues, and my father in law is also one of the owners.”

Backlund doesn’t only share On Track Piraten with his co-owners, he also shares On Track Piraten with the horse’s many fans on social media. Backlund administrates a Facebook group dedicated to the horse on which he posts regular updates to the page’s more than 700 members. The love and encouragement the fans show for On Track Piraten is something Backlund still can’t fathom.

“He’s from a small track and a small trainer, so he’s like a horse for the people. He’s also not an expensive horse, so you get to show everyone that it’s possible to get a good horse, even if you’re not buying the most expensive,” he said. “It’s kind of unreal because to us. Maybe we can understand it after the career, but now it’s just like, it’s hard to understand how so many people are involved and like the horse so much.”

Paired with trainer Hans Strömberg, On Track Piraten’s 37 victories include two Group 2 Svenskt Mästerskap titles in 2013 and 2014, three Group 2 C.L. Müllers Memorial wins in 2013, 2014, and 2016, and the Group 3 Prix du Luxembourg in 2015. Although Strömberg’s outfit is small, his plentiful experience lent itself well to working with the precocious On Track Piraten.

“I always thought he was a good trainer and it would be interesting to send some horses to him. We had some horses sent to him a couple years before Piraten came,” Backlund said. “Natalia, she really liked the horse and she was a bit worried that we would send him to some younger trainer that would push him too hard. She was really happy with the experienced trainer also.”

This season, On Track Piraten is 6-for-17 with $172,862 earned. After last year’s International Trot, On Track Piraten returned to Sweden and posted nine straight wins, four of which came at the Group 2 level. On Track Piraten’s last victory came at his home track of Rättvik June 24 when he beat Nuncio in the Midsommarloppet. He’s lost seven straight leading up to the International Trot.

“The winter was amazing, but it’s not as hard competition in the winter,” Backlund said. “He’s as good now as he was during the winter, but the competition is harder. Every summer, we’ve been thinking he has some problems with (allergies) because he gets some respiratory problems during the summer every year. The autumn during the year has been his best. Hopefully he’ll be at his best in a couple of weeks.”

In his third International Trot appearance, On Track Piraten will have his third driver. Erik Adielsson drove in 2015 while Ӧrjan Khilström took the lines last year. This year, Johnny Takter, who was in the sulky for all of On Track Piraten’s 10 victories since last year’s International Trot, will drive.

Backlund hopes for better luck at the draw this time around. In 2015, On Track Piraten drew post seven and finished seventh. Last year, he started from post eight. Although On Track Piraten posted the race’s fastest final quarter of :27.3 and finished fourth beaten just 2 1/2 lengths after racing 12 3/4 lengths behind winner Resolve early, Backlund and the rest of the team had high hopes entering the race as On Track Piraten was in peak form.

“We all thought the best would be to not go from the start, but if we had to do it all over, of course, he should have gone from the start,” Backlund said. “He finished very fast and we thought early in the race, he couldn’t win with a trip like that. We had seven the first year and eight last year, so if we can get one or two, then maybe we can have a chance.”

More International Trot invitees will be featured as the race draws closer. The $1 million Yonkers International Trot will be raced Saturday, October 14 at Yonkers Raceway. For more information, click here.

by Brandon Valvo for the SOA of NY

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