EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Royalty For Life, Wheeling N Dealin and Corky have been made the favorites in the three Hambletonian eliminations at the Meadowlands Racetrack this weekend.
The wide-open field of 23 was divided into three heats as trotting's most prestigious race reverts to its more traditional form. The top three finishers in each heat, along with the highest money-earner among the fourth place finishers, return later that afternoon for the $1 million final for 3-year-olds, the richest race in harness racing.
Unlike other heat races, the winner does not have to win twice on the same day. The winner of the final is the Hambletonian champion.
This marks the first time since 1996 that Hambletonian heats and final will be raced on the same afternoon.
In recent years, Hambletonian eliminations were held one week before the final.
Royalty For Life is the 8-5 favorite from post 8, the outside slot, in the first heat. He won the Stanley Dancer at the Meadowlands earlier this month and has captured his last two races.
``There are a lot of good horses in the race,'' said trainer George Ducharme, who will have Brian Sears in the bike behind Royalty For Life. ``Just to be competing at this level, I'm pretty happy.''
Royalty For Life had problems breaking stride early this year, but he has improved with experience.
``He's starting to behave himself,'' Ducharme said. ``I really believe we're back on the right track. I think we're headed on the right path.''
Wheeling N Dealin, last season's champion 2-year-old trotter, is the 2-1 favorite from the rail in the second elimination with eight starters. Sylvain Filion will be in the sulky for trainer Dustin Jones.
Seven line up for the third heat where Corky, winner of the Beal Memorial at Pocono Downs, is the 2-1 favorite. The colt will start from post No. 5 with David Miller driving for trainer Jimmy Takter, who will be looking for his third Hambletonian win.
``Going into this race is always special. This is what we've been working for,'' said Takter, who also has High Bridge in the first heat and Dontyouforgetit in the second.
Here are the fields from inside to outside for the Hambletonian heats with horse and driver:
Heat 1: Punxsutawney-Tim Tetrick; Smilin Eli, Tim Tetrick also named to drive; Dewycolorintheline, Ray Schnittker; High Bridge, Yannick Gingras; Super Classic, Sears; Dreams Of Thunder, George Brennan; E L Rocket, Gingras also named and Royalty For Life, Sears.
Heat 2: Wheeling N Dealin, Filion; Aperfectyankee, Jim Oscarsson; Your So Vain, Andy Miller; Jacks To Open, Jim Morrill, Jr.; Celebrity Maserati, Tom Jackson; Caveat Emptor, Steve Smith; Dontyouforgetit-, Gingras and Creatine, Mike Lachance.
Heats 3: Possessed Fashion, John Campbell; Murmur Hanover, Randy Waples; Banco Solo, Ron Pierce; All Laid Out, Tetrick; Corky, David Miller; Spider Blue Chip, Pierce also named; Lauderdale, Corey Callahan.
The final is scheduled for 4:45 p.m on Saturday.