For Bill O'Donnell, competing in tonight's $100,000 Miller Memorial Pace at Rosecroft Raceway will be a return to the harness track at which he won his first race in 1972. Since then, he has become one of North America's best drivers, winning a record $4 million dollars in purses last year.
He will be driving one of harness racing's top 3-year-olds, Temujin, for the first time. Temujin, who was syndicated for $6.5 million last year, is the first foal of the champion pacing mare Silk Stockings and is out of the last crop sired by Race Time, one of harness racing's best stallions who died prematurely of kidney failure at the age of 18.
As a 2-year-old, Temujin paced to a world-record 1:56 1/5 mile on Louisville Downs' half-mile track, which has the same circumference as Rosecroft's. Having finished 13th at 2-to-5 odds in a $160,000 race at the Meadowlands and having broken stride at Vernon Downs in his last two starts, Temujin will be watched closely not only by the Rosecroft crowd, but by the harness world in general.
This will be Temujin's fourth start of the season and first on a half-mile track, the distance at which harness racing's Triple Crown series (Little Brown Jug, Messenger and Cane stakes) is decided. He probably will not be the favorite tonight, that role going to the Shelly Goudreau-trained entry of Apollo's Way and Solid Fuel.
When Temujin set his world record in the Kentucky Pacing Derby last September, Apollo's Way finished third. When Temujin was 2 to 5 at the Meadowlands two weeks ago, Apollo's Way, 11-to-2, raced wide the entire mile and lost by a neck to No Nukes in 1:55 2/5.
Apollo's Way came back to win a conditioned race in 1:56 last week at the Meadowlands. It was his eighth start of the year.
Neither Temujin nor Apollo's Way got a break in the draw for post positions in tonight's 12-horse field, meaning racing luck will have much to do with determining the winner of Maryland's first $100,000 harness race.
Apollo's Way, who won more than $350,000 last year with Goudreau driving, drew the No. 8 post position, outside in the first tier, with a short distance to the first turn. Temujin drew post position 11, third from the rail in the second tier.
"You have a 10-horse road block per se . . . ," O'Donnell said of the No. 11 position. "You pay to get into a stakes. Your (horse's) nose should be on the gate."
The key horse in the race may prove to be Keystone Famous, which has the No. 3 post position, ahead of Temujin. Roger Hammer, a former Rosecroft regular, is scheduled to drive Keystone Famous. He is not known to lag behind the pace.
Said O'Donnell: "I'd like to follow Roger anytime when he gets his (horse's) nose on the gate."
O'Donnell was the 24-year-old second trainer to Jim Doherty when he won his first harness race, a $3,000 conditioned event, with a horse named Travelin Boy. The horse was aptly named for O'Donnell, a Nova Scotia native who, along with a group of other New England drivers, used to race at Rosecroft in May and June before returning to New England for the season there.
When Clarence Martin Sr., the trainer-driver of Temujin, became ill last week at Vernon Downs and was advised by his doctors not to drive, O'Donnell was an obvious choice to replace him. Early this week, Alan Leavitt, who runs the Lana Lobell breeding operation, asked O'Donnell if he was available.
So, O'Donnell tonight will get behind Temujin for the first time in a warmup mile. He has never seen the horse race on a half-mile track. "You just try to cross over and get clear from the half-mile on," O'Donnell said. "The horse does all the work. You have to give him the chance."