The 75th racing season will reach its conclusion this week at Saratoga Casino Hotel. While normally in this week’s column I would reveal and list the nominees for the 2016 awards, the awards/holiday banquet this year will not take place until mid-January. Usually the lists of award nominees are assembled in mid-November but with the banquet being later than normal, almost the entire year’s worth of stats will be included on the ballots when they are sent out next week. With just four race cards remaining in the ’16 season, we are left to reflect on the historic year that was at the raceway.
The highlight of the season no doubt was the appearance made by the defending National Horse of the Year. The stars came out for the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial Pace in July and no star shone brighter than Wiggle It Jiggleit. The racing superstar had a 2015 season in which he earned close to $2.2 million by winning 22 out of his 26 races. In the midst of another terrific year, Wiggle It Jiggleit became the first Horse of the Year to race at Saratoga since 2001 winner Bunny Lake made her final local start in ’04. Fans came out in full force on the beautiful summer night in anticipation of seeing the star pacer and perhaps to witness a track record. While the 1:48.4 of Dancin Yankee, set in the Gerrity in 2014, did not fall, the fans certainly got all they could have hoped for watching Wiggle It Jiggleit race. Despite the fact that the four year old had been taking on North America’s top pacers every week without a break for the previous six weeks, Wiggle It Jiggleit was every bit up to the task in his Spa debut as he overcame a nightmarish trip in the first half of the race to prevail in the Gerrity. Parked out every step of a first half paced in 54.4, Wiggle It Jiggleit stole a bit of a third quarter breather before pacing away from his rivals to win in 1:51. When he returned to the winner’s circle, he did so to a roaring ovation by the packed house. The fact that the record wasn’t approached did nothing to put a damper on what was an incredible performance by an incredible horse. Driver Montrell Teague waved to the fans and pumped his fist as the uproarious crowd cheered Wiggle It Jiggleit in appreciation of his effort during the race and perhaps simply for the fact that a horse of his caliber came to the Spa. What a night it was on July 23rd as the 8th annual Joe Gerrity Jr Pace saw a star of the biggest kind come to town and deliver.
Frank Coppola Jr. will make some history of his own when the meet concludes next week. The veteran reinsman will win his record-setting eleventh driving title at Saratoga. At age 58, Coppola will become one of the oldest drivers in track history to finish the year atop the standings and he will do so by a comfortable margin. Coppola spent much of the summer going back and forth between second and third in the driver standings behind Stephane Bouchard but in the final months, Coppola looked him in the eye and went right on by. During his historic campaign, Coppola became the winningest driver in Saratoga Harness history passing Dan Cappello Jr. Coppola has now has won well over 5,000 races just at the Spa in his illustrious career and he continues to thrive in the sulky. Coppola becomes the third different driver to win the title in the last three years as he takes the crown from Bruce Aldrich Jr. after Billy Dobson won the previous five driving championships at the Spa. Dobson will be the runner-up to Coppola after finishing second to Aldrich in ’15.
The training title will return to the Beckwith barn this year as Melissa Beckwith will end up winning the trainer’s championship by an overwhelming margin. Beckwith won her first training title at Saratoga in 2011 in what was certainly a sign of what was to come. Beckwith finished atop the trainer standings in ’11, ’12 and ’13 before giving way to Heidi Rohr who captured her first local title in 2014. Beckwith won her fourth local training championship in 2015 and will record her fifth going away in ’16.
Some of the track’s top horses at the Open level are finishing their seasons strong. So Nice is the leading contender for Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year at the Spa and the Amber Buter-trained mare put forth another display of just why she may be the track’s top distaffer on Friday night. The 2-5 betting favorite in the $16,000 feature for the ladies, So Nice cruised out to the early lead and opened up daylight late in the mile before scoring by open lengths in 1:52.1 for her sixth Open win of the season. The winningest horse in the Open Pace this year was at it again on Saturday night. Artful Way secured his eighth victory in the regular Saturday feature as Frank Coppola Jr. piloted him out to the early lead, a lead he would not relinquish. After stopping the timer in 1:52, Artful Way had his tenth win of the year and eighth in Open company, far more than his next closest competitor as he all but locked up Pacer of the Year honors at the Spa. The front-runner for Horse of the Year and Trotter of the Year is no doubt Stirling Cadet. Trained by Jackie Rousse, Stirling Cadet dominated the Open Trot with nine wins in the Sunday feature despite the fact his season ended in November. What an historic year it has been in the 75th racing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel, a year that concludes after this week’s action with closing day on Sunday afternoon.
Live racing takes place this week on Thursday at 4pm and on Friday and Saturday beginning at 6:45pm. Closing day is Sunday with the matinee set to kick off at 12:15pm. Next week will be my final column for the year and will recap the nominees for the 2016 awards which will be voted on in the coming weeks. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!