GLOUCESTER, ON — When the two-year-old pacing colts arrive at Rideau Carleton Raceway on Thursday evening almost three weeks will have passed since Gary Hodgson won his first Grassroots trophy, but the horseman is still savouring the moment.

“I’ve been plugging away with the horses for about 12 years and this is the first one that actually won me one. It was unbelievable,” says Hodgson, who bred, owns and trains freshman pacing gelding Spanker. “I’ve got the trophy in the living room window and the blanket hanging over the door.”

Spanker’s half-siblings had come close to capturing Ontario Sires Stakes hardware in their careers — Sparkling Angel posted one second and one third in the 2005 Grassroots campaign and Motivator rang up a third-place finish in 2007 — but none of them had been able to deliver the thrill that the London resident experienced when Spanker rallied in the stretch to capture his Grassroots debut at Georgian Downs on July 19.

The son of Mantacular and Armbro Revitalize led through the :59.2 half, but allowed another colt to take control heading for the 1:27.3 three-quarters and seemed to fade out of the picture around the last turn. However, when driver Scott Coulter asked for another gear in the stretch, Spanker out-gunned the pacesetter to the wire to capture a quarter length victory in 1:56.3.

“That colt went by him with authority, but Spanker just came back on,” recalls Hodgson. “I was on the phone with my wife, giving her a play-by-play, and at the three-quarters I said, �Damn, baby, it looks like we’re going to be second again.’ When he started to come on, I almost started screaming.

“Can you tell I’m proud of him, or what?” asks the breeder, with a wry chuckle. “My whole family has seen the tape about 50 times.”

Spanker will make his bid for a second Grassroots victory from Post 3 in the first of four $20,000 Grassroots divisions at Rideau Carleton on Thursday, with Russell resident John MacDonald picking up the catch drive. The pair face a field of six that includes two veterans of the Grassroots season opener, one colt that started his career in the Gold Series, and three newcomers to the provincial circuit.

Hodgson is looking forward to the trip to Ottawa, and does not expect Spanker to have any trouble with the long journey from his London base.

“He relaxes when we get him some place new. I’d like to stay up in Ottawa for a couple days if I can get a stall, and I know he’s going to rest well, and he’s going to eat good,” says the horseman. “I’ve never had a horse lay down so much. He’s resting all the time.”

Hodgson credits veteran trainers Tom Artandi and Jerry Silverman for helping him with Spanker last winter at the South Florida Trotting Center, and Carl Jamieson for all the assistance he has offered in the months since Hodgson’s return to Ontario.

“I can’t believe in this business how everyone wants to help you,” he reflects. “They are awesome guys. I’ve only got one horse, so for them to let me train with them is pretty amazing.”

All three trainers were of the opinion that Hodgson had a nice young pacer on his hands, so Spanker’s early season success has been gratifying on a number of levels, but no matter what the gelding does in the next five Grassroots events, Spanker will always be the horse who handed Hodgson his first Grassroots win.

“I’m looking forward to this one on Thursday night. I’m going to have fun either way, but it’ll be a lot more fun if I win,” quips the horseman.

Post time at Rideau Carleton Raceway on Thursday is 6:30 pm, with the Ottawa oval showcasing the two-year-old pacing colts in Races 2, 4, 6 and 9.

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