Muscle Hill remains the overwhelming favourite heading into the Hambletonian, but there is another colt that is gaining momentum as a top contender for the $1.5 million prize.
Like Muscle Hill, Federal Flex enters Saturday's Hambletonian eliminations with an undefeated record this season. Though most of his accomplishments have come north of the border, Federal Flex made a strong statement when he romped to a 1:53.3 victory in his $185,250 Stanley Dancer Memorial division on July 17 at the Meadowlands. He bids for his fourth straight win in the second of the evening's three $70,000 Hambletonian eliminations for driver Jody Jamieson and trainer Jeff Gillis.
The top three finishers in each elimination, plus the fourth-place finisher with the highest career earnings, will advance to the $1.5 million Hambletonian Final on Saturday, August 8. Post time for the card, which also features four elimination dashes for the Hambletonian Oaks for fillies, is 7 p.m.
"This is a high quality individual who has all the attributes in a future stud horse," Gillis said. "He's got great conformation, a real free-flowing and easy gait, and incredible manners. He doesn't need ear plugs, and he's never been hot and silly. He has a lot going for him. Right from day one, we've thought the only horse we obviously have any concern about is Muscle Hill. We always felt Federal Flex was an upper echelon colt.
"Federal Flex went down the road in the Dancer and made quite a statement," he continued. "Our horse certainly won't beat himself, but I really don't know whether we're good enough to beat Muscle Hill. I expect he'll be challenged. Nobody has ever been able to really look him in the eye, and at least we'll be able to find out from there. I'm a little bit nervous, but excited. I just want the horse to be healthy and at his best on the big day, and we'll take what cards we're dealt with from there.
Federal Flex, who has won eight of 12 career tries, began his three-year-old campaign with a two-length victory in an elimination for the Goodtimes on June 20 at Mohawk. Although the colt captured the final in a then-career best 1:54.2, Gillis felt something was amiss with Federal Flex's less than dominant performance.
"We scoped him after one of his qualifiers this year, and he was quite clear and clean, with no issues," Gillis explained. "So, we felt he was pretty healthy coming back and going into the Goodtimes. In his elimination, he raced great, but in the final he just wasn't himself. At Mohawk, he would normally have three lengths on them coming out of the final turn and just coast home. He just doesn't struggle to the wire like that.
"When we scoped him again he had a small ulcer on his palate, some airway swelling, some pimples and even a trace of blood," he continued. "It was a real mess. We were quite nervous, but the timing was good because we had three weeks before the Stanley Dancer. We were concerned about how much of that we could get cleared up. He got a round of antibiotics and some different throat sprays. He responded very well."
Gillis took some criticism from the media and fans after expressing his disappointment in Federal Flex's effort in the Goodtimes.
"The Goodtimes Final was exactly how a top horse finds a way to win despite not being 100 per cent," he said. "We took a lot of negative feedback for our post race interviews because we were disappointed with his effort and of course concerned. Hey, we were honest and we just felt he was a much better horse than that."
Federal Flex was a $100,000 yearling purchase by Federal Flex Stable [Jody Jamieson], Ken Henwood, Al Libfeld and Marvin Katz, all of Ontario. The son of Muscles Yankee met with immediate success on the racetrack as he won his first four career starts, which included the Bridger, Champlain Stakes and a William Wellwood elimination. However, in the $514,100 Wellwood Final, Federal Flex broke stride and finished ninth.
"Last year, he was the heavy favourite and got sick for the William Wellwood Final," Gillis noted. "That really set him back and we almost shut him down for the year because of that race."
Federal Flex was sidelined for six weeks before his next start in the Valley Victory eliminations. He rebounded to finish second by a neck in the elimination and went on to capture the $718,000 final on October 25, 2008.
"In the Valley Victory, he was just borderline fit, and again he overcame that and won," Gillis said.
The Breeders Crown eliminations at the Meadowlands last November marked Federal Flex's first start outside Canada. He finished second to Explosive Matter in his elimination and third in the $700,000 final won by Muscle Hill.
"In the Breeders Crown elimination, it was a very windy night, we ended up first over with Explosive Matter right on our back," Gillis recalled. "He got the better of us in the sprint down the lane. If the trips are reversed, and we drew inside instead of post 10, maybe we would have been second in the final instead of third."
Gillis, who is based at Ideal Training Center near Mohawk Racetrack in Ontario, is stabling Federal Flex at Mark Ford's training center in Middletown, New York, while racing at the Meadowlands.
"To me, it's more of a shoeing adjustment going from the Meadowlands to Mohawk or Woodbine," he said. "I think that any horse that gets over Mohawk or Woodbine doesn't have much trouble in New Jersey. It might be an issue with a trotter with a less than pure gait. Federal Flex has worn the same shoes he's had all along. In the few starts he's been at the Meadowlands he's done well. We didn't need to make any adjustments. He wears four swedges with no borium, and he handles any track just fine."