EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Yannick Gingras did almost everything right in the Hambletonian, except pick the right horse to drive in trotting's biggest event.
Gingras chose to drive filly champion Mission Brief in the $1 million final, and they came up just short against 2-year-old colt and gelding champion Pinkman in what turned out to be a fourth Hambletonian training win Jimmy Takter and an unexpected gift for driver Brian Sears.
Pinkman held off Mission Brief down the stretch and posted a three-quarters of a length victory in the biggest event in harness racing, preventing her from becoming the first filly to win the race since 1996.
The winning time of 1:51 was the third fastest in a Hambletonian final.
"I tried to tell him you're making a great mistake and I was right," Takter said about his message to Gingras. "Pinkman is just such a fighter. He is not impressive but he gets it done every time."
Takter drove and trained last year's Hambletonian winner Trixton
Gingras had driven Pinkman and Mission Brief to wins in the eliminations earlier on the card, and he opted to drive the Ron Burke-trained filly after she seemed to have an easy trip in winning by almost five lengths.
Sears got the drive and made the most of it in winning his third Hambletonian.
"I'm not disappointed in her effort at all," said Gingras, who won five races on the card, including the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks with Wild Honey, also trained by Takter. "She wasn't quite as strong as the first heat."
Sears, who picked up the drive a little more than an hour before the final, put the 3-year-old son of Explosive Matter on the lead on the backstretch with Takter stablemates The Bank and Uncle Lasse in second and third. Mission Brief was a couple of lengths back in fourth.
Gingras got Mission Brief in gear halfway down the backstretch and she was within a length of Pinkman on the far turn.
It was a two-horse race entering the stretch, but Pinkman never seemed threatened in the race to the finish line, even though the filly closed a little ground.
"She raced really good," Burke said. "If things shook out a little differently, the result might have been different. She was the only one still going forward at the wire. She really gave it her all."
The win was the eighth in nine starts for Pinkman.
"Opportunity knocked it was great they gave me the call," said Sears, who last won the Hambletonian in 2013 with Royalty For Life. "What a pleasure the horse was to drive. You're always a little nervous the first time you drive a horse in a race like that, but he was pretty much push-button."
Pinkman paid $5.60, $2.60 and $2.60. Mission Brief returned $2.40 and $2.40. Uncle Lasse finished third and paid 6.40 to show.
The Bank finished fourth and was followed by Jacksons Minions, Aldebaran Eagle, Habitat, French Laundry, Donatomite and Wings of Royalty.
Takter's horses earned $700,000 of the $1 million purse in the final for finishing first, third and fourth.
Pinkman ($5.60) overcame the outside No. 10 post position to win the first elimination in 1:51 3-5, matching the world record for 3-year-old geldings on a mile track. He bettered that time in the final.
Gingras and Takter combined to win the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks for the second straight year with Wild Honey ($4.60) in 1:52 2-5. They won with Lifetime Pursuit last year.
Dealt A Winner ($55.60) was a stunning winner of the $319,400 Cane Pace, which saw healily favored Wiggle It Jiggleit finish fourth. The David Miller-driven gelding finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Artspeak. The time of 1:47 3-5 was a world record for a harness Triple Crown race.
This marked the first time the Cane Pace, the opening leg of the pacing Triple Crown, was run at the Meadowlands.
The 16-race card had a number of other majors stakes:
Undefeated Broadway Donna ($2.20) won the $389,450 Jim Doherty Memorial for 2-year-old filly trotters; Southwind Frank ($3.20) captured the $349,850 Peter Haughton Memorial for 2-year-old trotting colts and geldings; Anndrovette ($7) captured the $251,250 Lady Liberty for pacing mares; State Treasurer ($6.60) won the $215,400 U.S. Pacing Championship; Flanagan Memory ($21) won the $301.500 John Cashman Jr. Memorial for open trotters.