EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — As the Rev. Patrick McDonnell seeks to guide his congregation at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Hightstown, N.J., during challenging times, he might point to his four-legged namesake as a model.
Neither man nor beast typically approaches the excellence of Father Patrick, the 3-year-old trotting star who will carry a 15-race winning streak into the $1 million Hambletonian on Saturday at the Meadowlands Racetrack. A bay colt who has lost once in 17 career races, Father Patrick is heavily favored at 4-5 and is the most talented of the three starters for Jimmy Takter, who can become the second trainer to produce a one-two-three finish in harness racing's most prestigious race.
Father Patrick, owned by the Father Patrick Stable of New Jersey, was bred and raised by Brittany Farms on Pisgah Pike outside Versailles. He was sold as a yearling from the Brittany consignment at the 2012 Lexington Selected Sale for $105,000.
Takter, who attends St. Anthony's and named Father Patrick as a tribute to McDonnell, probably has the strongest contingent in the Hambletonian since Walter Cox sent out the top four finishers in 1929. Takter's Father Patrick, Trixton and Nuncio dominated in that order in the Stanley Dancer Memorial on July 12 at the Meadowlands.
The group was so superior that some horses' connections opted not to even test them again, making the elimination races traditionally used to determine the starters for the Hambletonian final unnecessary.
"They're all different," Takter said, "but they have the one thing great horses have: They love to win."
McDonnell was not sure how to react when Takter said he wanted to name a horse after him.
"Most people have a baby named after them," he said. "What do you do when you have a 1,200-pound horse named after you when it comes to birthdays and things like that?"
Yet McDonnell said he welcomed the honor, and Father Patrick has been winning fans and praise.
"He is perfect; I think that is the perfect word for him," said his driver, Yannick Gingras, 34. "He can do whatever you want with him in any situation. I've driven many great horses before, but they all had quirks. They had to be up close or be back. They all had a little something about them that kept them from being perfect."
After drawing the 10th post among 11 entrants, Father Patrick will need to rely on his versatility in the 89th edition of the Hambletonian. Trixton drew Post 7 and is the second betting choice at 7-2; Nuncio drew Post 5 and is the third choice at 9-2.
Nuncio is the only horse to defeat Father Patrick, edging him by a head. Takter dismisses the misstep, however, noting that the race, which was the second start of Father Patrick's career, was used as a teaching tool. He wanted to make the horse comfortable while he trotted behind his competitors until he was given his cue to unleash what has been an unbeatable kick since then.
Takter, 53, has trained two Hambletonian champions, Malabar Man (1997) and Muscle Massive (2010), and has compiled more than 1,400 victories. His stable has earned more than $80 million in purses, leading to his induction into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
But, to him, Father Patrick is one of a kind.
"I had a lot of great horses," Takter said. "I've been looking for that horse I consider quite outstanding. I think this horse is. He's so flexible, great gait and a very sound horse. He's extremely easy to work with. He never gives you a bad day."
Father Patrick, who has earned $1,254,988, swept his six starts this year and set a world record for 3-year-old colts on a five-eighths-mile track of 1 minute 50.2 seconds for a mile in June when he took the $500,000 Earl Beal Jr. Memorial at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He was a unanimous choice for the Dan Patch Award last year as the top 2-year-old male trotter after a stellar campaign that culminated in a victory in the Breeders Crown, a win saluted by McDonnell from St. Anthony's pulpit.
McDonnell, 70, has come to know the Takter family well, and he visits Father Patrick whenever he can.
"He's a beautiful horse," McDonnell said. "He's magnificent to behold. He comes right up to you and allows you to stroke him. He has a good temperament."
Father Patrick is a full brother to Pastor Stephen, the 2010 Dan Patch winner who was also trained by Takter. Pastor Stephen, named after the Rev. Stephen Heinzel-Nelson, the pastor at Allentown Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, ran a disappointing fifth in the Hambletonian in 2011. Takter said McDonnell has been known to make a modest wager on his namesake (McDonnell emphasized that he wagers personal funds and never money donated to the church).
McDonnell was in the winner's circle after the colt romped by 10 lengths in the Peter Haughton Memorial last August at the Meadowlands, and he is expected to attend the Hambletonian.
"He's a very humble man," Takter said of McDonnell. "He's got much more important things to take care of, but he's very curious about harness racing. I don't think he really had a clue what harness racing was up to this horse."
Many believe that Father Patrick will not need any divine intervention to capture harness racing's signature race.
"I think we will win, but I don't take anything for granted," Gingras said. "I've beaten many favorites, and I've had many favorites that were beaten in my life."
If Father Patrick should falter, Takter has high hopes for his powerfully named 2-year-old sibling: Whom Shall I Fear.