Sardella’s Column

Spa Season Ends with First Time Open Winners

Posted: 11/29/20

Well, it is safe to say that no one will ever forget the 2020 racing season. One that required more flexibility than in any year in the past, the ’20 campaign came to an end on Tuesday at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Tuesday’s final Open field of the year was comprised of six pacing mares and was led by Racine Bell who came into the $10,000 feature as a winner of two straight in the local Fillies and Mares Open. The feature’s big favorite set sizzling fractions on the lead and after, on a windy day, the talented filly went 26.2 in quarter one, Racine Bell tired in the final strides and was tracked down by a mare making her local debut. Always Mindy was a $10,000 claim in September in Massachusetts for trainer Jaymes McAssey and after spending much of the fall racing at Plainridge, the six year old mare competed at the Spa for the first time on Tuesday. Always Mindy loved the early speed in the ladies Open and took advantage by charging hard in the stretch to record the victory in her local debut. Shawn Gray piloted the mare to the score which was the first ever in a local Open for young conditioner Jaymes McAssey who wrapped up a fantastic ’20 campaign with a double on Tuesday afternoon.

Monday’s matinee was highlighted by a pair of Opens. The $10,000 Open Trot saw Winning Legends go coast-to-coast in a fairly decisive score for trainer/driver Justin Huckabone to record his second victory in the local trotting feature in three tries. The Open Pace, though, was hotly contested from the start when a significant speed duel ensued right from the get go between a local superstar and a Spa invader. Crockets Cullen N was the winningest horse in the Open Pace at the Spa in both 2019 and 2020 but was a beaten favorite in two straight tries heading into Monday’s Open in which he would again be the public’s top choice in the wagering. Crockets Cullen N was put in gear after the start by his owner/trainer/driver Larry Stalbaum but was hounded every step up of the way by out-of-towner Talbotcreekwhiskey. Talbotcreekwhiskey took the ride on the outside and did so in first half fractions of 26.4 and 55.3. Not a recipe for success. At least, not usually. On this day, though, Talbotcreekwhiskey persevered and despite being parked the entire mile recorded a win in the Open in his Spa debut. Jimmy Devaux piloted the gutsy invader to victory for trainer Justin Sodano. The race was a classic with those two rivals going stride for stride for almost the entire mile and being joined in the stretch by Olde Broadside who came from off the pace to finish second in the season’s final Open Pace. All told, during closing week, Always Mindy and her trainer Jaymes McAssey as well as Talbotcreekwhiskey and his trainer Justin Sodano registered their first ever victories in a local Open.

With no awards being voted on due to the extenuating circumstances here in 2020, the only awards handed out this year were for Driver of the Year and Trainer of the Year and were given to the meet’s leader in both of those categories. Being leading driver at Saratoga has become old hat for Billy Dobson who on Tuesday was awarded a plaque in the winner’s circle in recognition of his eighth driving title at the Spa. Dobson dominated from start to finish this year and took home the driving championship for the eighth time since debuting locally in 2010. Gary Levine has been climbing the training ranks every year and finally finished on top of the mountain in 2020. Levine held a solid lead throughout the majority of the campaign and cemented his first title after having a strong final few weeks of the season. Levine’s stable was led for the second consecutive year by Bontz N. The top-flight pacing mare was just one vote shy of being named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year in 2019 and no doubt would have taken home those honors in ’20 had there been voting for awards. The winningest of all distaffers in the Fillies and Mares Open this season, Bontz N was the stable star for Levine who as always featured a well-balanced barn spanning the classes and one with some high turnover over the course of the year.

2020 was obviously a much different campaign than we’ve ever had before and hopefully will ever experience again. It did, though, feature some stars that emerged. Yes, the aforementioned Dobson and Levine pretty well dominated their categories this season but a few others shined to become ones to keep an eye on in future years. Mitch Cushing was racing quite a bit at Saratoga before the shutdown and drove about half of the time upon the post-quarantine return. The 22 year old reinsman would have been the big favorite to win the Johnny Page Award for top breakthrough driver but it was a previous winner of that award that stood out to me this season.

Alek Chartrand was named up-and-coming driver back in 2017 when he began to come onto the scene. This year though saw a different kind of rise for Chartrand. Alek went from a guy who could get the job done in the sulky, usually while driving members of his own stable, to a full-blown catch-driver. Chartrand got (by earning them) more opportunities this year and took full advantage. Training to an average of over .350 at the Spa this year, Chartrand drove the members of his own barn but also had over a hundred catch-drives. Getting more and more chances as the season progressed, Chartrand wound up getting Open drives as he became the regular reinsman for Olde Broadside. In fact, Chartrand recorded his first ever Open win when in October, he guided Olde Broadside to an upset score in the pacing feature. Initially more known for being a driver who was good with trotters and with young horses, Chartrand has progressively advanced as an all-around driver and horseman. His 2020 season was reminiscent of the one Brett Crawford had a couple years ago when he made the jump from capable, solid, young reinsman to one who fits right in among the top dogs as an every race type driver. Dobson, Levine and Chartrand were certainly near the top among the stars of a 2020 campaign that will be remembered as unique and unfortunate in so many ways but also one that brought out the best in a lot of people who collectively made it work. We look forward to returning in March of 2021 and hopefully with some fans back in the stands. We’ve missed you, we appreciate the support throughout this zany year and we look forward to the hope of some normalcy when we see you again in ’21. Until then, I’m Mike Sardella saying be safe, be well and we’ll see YOU at the finish line in 2021!

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