There were five race cards contested on closing week of the 2018 racing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Four $20,000 races highlighted the week’s action as the 78thracing season at the Spa reached its conclusion. There were two series finals that took place on closing week and both went the way of horses who completed sweeps of their respective series. The Royal Harry dominated the two legs of the Holiday Trot as the Andy Sardella trainee went coast-to-coast in 1:57.2 and 1:57.4 in his divisions but wound up as the public’s second choice in the betting in the $20,000 final contested on Wednesday’s matinee program. The course of action for The Royal Harry in the final was the same as it was in the legs as leading driver Billy Dobson moved the young trotter out to the early lead, a lead he would never relinquish. The Royal Harry prevailed in 1:56.3 to complete his series sweep. On Friday night, Brett Crawford’s Nitro Glistening was also looking for a series sweep after recording decisive wins in each of the first two legs of the Holiday Pace. Despite drawing the outside post in the $20,000 final, Crawford sent Nitro Glistening to the top on Friday night, though it took the favorite a while to get there. Once he hit the lead, there was no looking back for the young pacer who powered away from his rivals late before scoring in 1:56.1 to join The Royal Harry as series sweepers in the third annual Holiday Series’ contested at the Spa.
Though there was no Open Trot on the card on Sunday’s closing day for the meet, there was a pair of Opens on the weekend that each went for a purse of $20,000. Trainer-driver Larry Stalbaum has brought several members of his stable to town from time to time this season and raced quite a bit at Saratoga this fall. Stalbaum, a winner of close to 6,000 races in his driving career, certainly made a splash at the Spa recently. While Nitro Glistening prevailed in one of Friday’s $20,000r races, it was Stalbaum’s Culinary Delight N who scored in the regular Friday night feature, the Fillies and Mares Open. Culinary Delight N became just one of a handful of distaffers to win the Fillies and Mares Open at least three times this year when she scored her third victory in the regular Friday feature. Stalbaum also won the $14,000 Winners Over for pacing mares on Friday with his Gina Grace N.
On Saturday night, the final $20,000 Open Pace for the season was contested and it went the way that several Saturday Opens did this year. Veteran JK Panache has been a force in Opens for several years both at his “home track” of Vernon Downs and here at Saratoga. Central New York-based trainer Dave Dewhurst often brings his veteran campaigner to town and this year was no different for JK Panache who was a fixture in the local Open Pace in 2018. On Saturday, with driver Shawn Gray in the sulky and while dismissed at odds of 7-1, the classy nine year old shined bright as he overcame sizzling fractions in the early going to wire the field in the season’s final pacing feature. The win was the ninth of the year for JK Panache and the fifth in the Open for the classy vet who moved his seasonal earnings to just shy of the $110,000 mark and moved his lifetime bankroll to over $630,000. JK Panache is one of three nominees for Pacer of The Year at Saratoga this year and though he has had a tremendous campaign, his five Open wins trail fellow nominee Carolina Beach’s six and big favorite Artful Way’s ten for most among local pacers.
While the award winners for the season won’t be announced until January 12thwhen the annual awards banquet will take place, there are a few winners that we know. Driver of the Year is Billy Dobson who wrapped up his sixth local driving title this week. The 34 year old Dobson has been a force since coming east to Saratoga from his native Michigan around a decade ago and in 2010 won the first of what would become five consecutive driving championships. Dobson won his sixth title this year after going pretty much wire to wire in the race among local drivers. Jimmy Devaux, who had his best local finish this season when he ended up second in the standings, made it close and cut Dobson’s lead to as little as four wins at one point with just a couple of weeks remaining in ’18. Melissa Beckwith will take home Trainer of the Year honors after recording her fourth consecutive training title and seventh in the last eight seasons.
Another award where the winner will “run unopposed” is for the Johnny Page Award, an award that recognizes the track’s top breakthrough driver for the year. 2018’s Johnny Page winner will be Brett Crawford who after reserving his driving duties to basically his own horses over the years broke through as a catch driver in ’18, finishing the season in ninth place in the driver standings. There were a few trainers whose names will finish up in the top ten in the trainer standings for the first time at Saratoga this season as well. Don Billings had a monster campaign and ends up as the second-place finisher among trainers. Dolores Basilone, Andy Sardella and Jimmy Nickerson are also first timers to the local top ten list, though Nickerson has been at Saratoga for quite some time running his stable with wife Heidi Rohr. Nickerson has taken over full-time duties. While Artful Way is likely the favorite to be named Horse of the Year for the second consecutive season, Open trotter Ulster and filly and mare pacer Spreester are the major dangers to Artful Way who could well become just the second horse in track history to take home top honors in back-to-back seasons. All of the award winners will be announced at the January 12thbanquet and will be chronicled in my first racing column of next season. Live racing resumes on Sunday February 17that Saratoga Casino Hotel when we’ll do it all over again. Until then, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best and safest of holiday seasons and we’ll see YOU next February at the finish line!