Some things looked totally different and others appeared to be business as usual when the 2021 racing season kicked off last week at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Obviously, things don’t have the same feel at the track without fans in the stands. Hopefully, regulations will change sooner rather than later and we can welcome you back to the grandstand. We eagerly await that time! With nothing but matinees on the schedule currently, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday cards kick off at 12 Noon each afternoon. Two new wagers were unveiled last week featuring a couple of jackpots that are beginning to build. The track now offers Jackpot Pick 6 and Jackpot Super High 5 wagers, both of which are brand new to us this season.
The Jackpot Pick 6 is a wager that has been offered at other tracks before and has now come to Saratoga. Simply put, it is a pick six bet comprised of the final six races of the day. The caveat on this wager is there is a jackpot that builds each day until there is only a sole winner. When there is only one winning ticket on the day’s pick six, that ticket’s owner will take down the entire “progressive” jackpot. That doesn’t mean, though, that if you hit the pick six but are one of several that have a winning ticket that day that you won’t get paid. You will. 60% of the net money bet will be divided up to all of the people who hit the pick six that day. If no one hits the bet, it will pay out on a 5 of 6 and the pool will be distributed that way. In either case, the other 40% of the pool will go towards the jackpot which will continue to build until there is just one individual winning ticket. With three race days having gone by with no individual pick six winner, the jackpot currently stands at $1,407. This is likely to build more and more each race day though you never know, maybe someone is on the verge of taking down the whole jackpot!
The other new wager on the docket is the Jackpot Super High 5. Horse bettors certainly know how a superfecta works. This bet just takes it one step further. You must correctly figure who will be the top five finishers in order in the particular race where the wager is offered. For us, it is the final race on the card each afternoon. The rules as far as payouts and who takes down the entire jackpot are pretty much the same as those of the pick six with one major difference. Unlie with the pick six, there is no “consolation” payout if nobody has the top five finishers in order. In a superfecta, if there is no ticket of the top four finishers, whoever has the top three finishers will divide up the pool, paid out as “all” for fourth. You would see, for example, a 1-2-3-all listed as the payout so if you had 1-2-3 as the top three finishers, you would collect on the ticket regardless of whom you had fourth. In the Jackpot Super High 5, that isn’t the case. On Wednesday, no one had the top five so the entire pool carried over into the jackpot, instead of just 40%, leaving it at $1,874 heading into Monday’s matinee.
While the lack of fans in the stands certainly creates a different feel at the track (hopefully temporarily!) and a few new wagers are being offered, there were several things that made the 80th racing season in the history of Saratoga Harness provide a similar feel to that of recent seasons past. It didn’t take long for the track’s dominant driver of the last decade to make his presence felt. Billy Dobson won his eighth driving title last year and the talented 36 year old reinsman picked up right where he left off when on opening week, he was the sulky star. On Monday, Dobson bookended the card with victories, scoring wins in the first race and the last race of the day. Billy upped his game even more on Tuesday when he not only won the first and last race again but he swept both the early and the late daily double en route to a driving grand slam. Oh, and then on Wednesday, he piloted the winner of the matinee’s first race again doing so while driving for conditioner Gary Levine. Levine, who won his first training title in 2020 at Saratoga, got off to a hot start during opening week as his trainees accounted for three of the seven driving wins for Dobson to kick off the ’21 campaign. Yes, it would be a little ridiculous to focus much on who is the leading driver and trainer after one week of what will be a long season at the Spa but we can certainly acknowledge that the connections who starred in their respective departments last year, Billy Dobson and Gary Levine, have come out red hot early on this season.
There was only one Open contested during opening week and that was for the ladies. The Fillies and Mares Open went the way of a mare who competes primarily out of town but when she has come to the Spa wins at an incredible percentage. Robyn Camden, who is trained by Rob Harmon, has now raced three times in the local Open over the course of the last few years and her record currently stands at three-for-three in those Opens at the Spa following a last-to-first victory in Wednesday’s $11,000 feature. Jay Randall piloted the six year old mare to the feature win despite getting away last in the five-horse field. For Robyn Camden, she has now recorded victories in five of her six local starts lifetime after prevailing for the first time at the Spa since scoring in an Open almost exactly a year ago to the day from her Wednesday victory. Though there was no Open for trotters contested last week, we did see yet another familiar face in the winner’s circle when Monday’s trotting feature veteran campaigner Cash Me Out went wire-to-wire to add to his more than $1.2 million in career earnings. Phil Fluet drove the ten year old trotter to victory for owner Mike Traylor of Ballston Spa and trainer Kyle Spagnola, who had two wins on the Monday card. So all in all, while things certainly were different during opening week with the lack of fans and some new wagers being offered, fans of the Spa saw much of the same as Billy Dobson and Gary Levine dominated action while the defending Horse of the Year (the 2019 winner since there were no awards given last year) Cash Me Out scored yet another win at the track that he’s called home from the start of what has been an historic, sensational career.
Live racing takes place every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during the month of March with first post time set for 12 Noon each day. Betting pools were great this week with a lot of off-track interest in racing during opening week. Hopefully that will remain the case moving forward as we eagerly await and hope for the return of fans at the track. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!