MILTON, August 31, 2023 – Hall of Fame trainer Ron Burke holds a strong hand in the finals of the $615,000 Canadian Pacing Derby and $530,000 Maple Leaf Trot, Saturday night at Woodbine Mohawk Park.
Burke, one of the sport’s highest-profile and most successful conditioners, will have four chances – three in the Canadian Pacing Derby and one in the Maple Leaf Trot – to add more hardware to his ever-expanding trophy case.
Bythemissal, fresh off a jaw-dropping victory in his Pacing Derby elimination race on August 26, and Lous Pearlman, second to his stablemate in the elim, provide Burke with a formidable duo in this year’s edition of Canadian horse racing’s oldest stakes race.
A four-year-old son of Downbytheseaside-Dismissal, Bythemissal wowed the Mohawk crowd last Saturday under the lights in the ninth race when he recorded an eight-length score in 1:47.3, including a final quarter in :26.1.
Fans watching the tour de force from the rail weren’t the only ones taken aback by the dominant win.
“That’s as easy as I’ve ever went in [1:]47, I can promise you that,” Yannick Gingras said after the race. “I had a handful of pace finishing and that was very impressive. And he’s fresh too – he only has four, five, six starts and he’s ready to go now. I’m looking forward to next week, that’s for sure.”
As is Burke, who in May became the first standardbred trainer to reach the $300 million mark in purse earnings.
“I watched the race,” noted Burke. “He’s a very good horse. Yannick has done a really good job with him this year, not overexposing him. This past race, it set up where he could let him roll a bit. Now, you just have to hope for a good, clean trip in the final.”
Winner of the Little Brown Jug, Adios and Milstein at three, the bay gelding’s current campaign was disrupted when he fell ill after an elimination win in the Juravinski Memorial at Flamboro Downs in May.
“He was very sick after the race at Flamboro,” recalled Burke. “It was extremely serious. He almost died.”
Fifth in his return to racing, on July 15 in the William Haughton Memorial, Bythemissal went on to net a natural hat trick, including his Pacing Derby elim scorcher.
Burke likens the $135,000 purchase (Hip #794) at the 2020 Lexington Select Yearling Sale to one of hockey’s greatest all-time players, a superstar who dealt with several serious health issues over his hall of fame career, including a well-documented cancer battle during his playing days.
“Bythemissal reminds me of Mario Lemieux, basically coming back and being a top-notch athlete,” said Burke, who co-owns with Eric Good, Rich Lombardo Racing LLC and Weaver Bruscemi LLC. “That’s what I grew up with, watching Lemieux get very sick and then he comes back and scores on his first shift. This horse was very sick, and he fought hard to recover and get back to a top level. He’s a fighter.
“He is just a great horse,” he continued. “And these owners are perfect. No one said, ‘We’re missing the Graduate.’ All they cared about was the welfare of the horse and taking as much time as we needed to with him. That makes everything easier.”
Bred by Stephen Dey, Bythemissal is 20-2-1 from 24 starts, to go along with $1,402,209 in earnings.
Burke’s second hopeful comes in the form of Sweet Lou gelding Lous Perlman.
The winner of the 2021 Little Brown Jug has amassed $960,000 in earnings over his impressive career.
Owned by Burke Racing Stable LLC, Weaver Bruscemi LLC, Elizabeth Novak and Howard Taylor, the five-year-old bay, bred by Burke Racing Stable LLC, Weaver Bruscemi and Elizabeth Novak, has crafted a record of 20-8-6 from 65 starts, accompanied by $1,028,905 in earnings.
Lous Pearlman heads into the final sporting a 3-3-2 mark from 19 starts on the campaign. He rallied from well back, starting from post eight, to finish second to Bythemissal, pacing the final panel in :25.3.
“He’s a good horse,” said Burke. “I think there will be plenty of horses mixing it up in there, so maybe there’s a chance he can come with a nice push late.”
Burke’s third hopeful is Hellabalou.
A bay son of Sweet Lou, hard-knocking Hellabalou finished third behind Tattoo Artist and Linedrive Hanover in his Pacing Derby elimination last Saturday.
Bred by Andray Farm and Sergent Stables LLC, the five-year-old was a $42,000 purchase (Hip #232) at the 2019 Harrisburg Yearling Sale.
One of his most memorable victories came when he pulled off a 47-1 upset in the $511,000 MGM Borgata Pacing Series final this April, stopping the teletimer in 1:50.3.
Owned by Burke Racing Stable LLC, Eric Good, Weaver Bruscemi LLC, and Lawrence Karr, Hellabalou has constructed a 21-9-8 record from 67 starts, to go along with $947,744 in earnings.
Brian Sears will take over for Gingras in the final.
“The thing with him is that you have to decide what to do [in the final]. Do you become part of the craziness up front, or do you sit back off the speed and come home strong? I’m sure Brian will know what to do. He’s won more races than I have.”
Burke has three Canadian Derby Pacing wins: in 2010 with Won The West, in 2012 with Foiled Again, and in 2020 with Dorsoduro Hanover.
A victory in the prestigious Maple Leaf Trot would deliver Burke, who won the 2017 edition with Hannelore Hanover, and in 2020 with Atlanta, a coveted third crown.
Those hopes rest on the hooves of Its Academic, who will line up behind the gate in race eight on Saturday night.
The son of Uncle Peter-Annapolis is at the top of his game in 2023, a year that includes victories in the Cashman Memorial, Spirit of Massachusetts and Crawford Farms Trot as he rides a five-race winning streak into the Maple Leaf Trot and is 10-7-1-2 on the campaign.
Its Academic leads his division with $466,784 in earnings for Canadian owner Brad Grant of Milton, Ont.
A $50,000 purchase (Hip #192) at the 2018 Ohio Select Yearling Sale, the bay qualified in 1:51.2 at The Meadowlands on August 24 ahead of Saturday’s final.
“He’s been great,” praised Burke. “I mean, he’s been great every start. I asked David [driver, Miller] after the qualifier, ‘Did you have more left?’ and he told me could have gone way more. We talked about going :53, but they went :51, and he just sat in behind them and finished with him. This horse has done everything we’ve asked of him this year.
Its Academic résumé showcases a 29-16-13 record from 76 starts and $1,863,434 in career earnings.
For Burke, it’s a newfound attitude that first comes to mind when he speaks of his trotting titan.
“This year, it’s new, it’s his absolute will to win, to do whatever it takes, and he gets it done. He did not have that last year. He’s grown into that. He’s really matured into a warrior. That was maybe something I would have questioned about him, but now I don’t. He’s become relentless.”
First post is 7:10 p.m. for Saturday’s 12-race card.
Fans attending this Saturday's stakes card will want to arrive early. Woodbine will be giving away t-shirts to the first 500 fans, featuring last year's Canadian Pacing Derby winner Bulldog Hanover.
In addition, the Bulldog Brew lager will be available on Saturday. A dollar from each Bulldog Brew sold will go to the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society. For more details, click here.
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms