The 81st season of racing at Saratoga Casino Hotel kicked off on February 5th. With a big crowd on hand seemingly thrilled for the return of Saturday evening racing at the Spa, the excitement was palpable at the track. An eleven race card got the season underway and a familiar sulky star shined. It’s hard to call the 2021 season a disappointing one for Billy Dobson. After all, the 37 year old reinsman finished second among local drivers last year. But for Dobson, the second-place finish matched his “worst” finish in the driver standings at the Spa in several seasons. An eight-time driving champion since coming to town to compete full time in 2010, Dobson finished as the runner-up in ’21 to Jimmy Devaux who took home his first local driving title. On opening night though, it was the eight-time champ who was the star of the show.
Dobson immediately took the lead in the driver standings when he won the premier race of the ’22 campaign. Piloting for trainer Kerin Warner, Dobson piloted conditional pacer Ocean Blue to a hard-fought victory to spring the upset at odds of 12-1. Dobson’s evening, and his weekend, was just getting started. In the season’s first feature, Dobson sat behind the Jackie Greene-trained Hudson Phil in the $15,000 Open Pace. The veteran pacer is no stranger to the Open and no stranger to Dobson either as that pairing has been a very successful one over the course of the last few years. Owned by the Kellogg Racing Stables of Queensbury, Hudson Phil was the richest pacer at Saratoga in 2019 when he finished as the runner-up for the Pacer of the Year Award. In ‘21, Hudson Phil spent a large part of his season racing out of town but did record his lone local Open Pace victory late in the year. The successes of the December score spilled over to ’22 and on opening weekend, Hudson Phil sprung an upset of his own in the season’s first feature. Dobson sat patiently with the Greene trainee before springing him late and lighting up the board with a $23.00 win price. Dobson went on to complete a hat trick on opening night when he guided young pacer Oregon Trail to a front-running score.
After Dobson didn’t waste any time putting one in the win column by winning the first race of the season at the Spa, he continued to come out of the gates strong the next day. The now veteran reinsman piloted the winner of the opener on Sunday’s matinee as well. Southwind Cruze gave Dobson one of his two driving victories when he brushed to the lead approaching the half mile pole and never looked back. Hot Wheelz made good as a big favorite on Sunday to complete the double on trotting day for Dobson. Monday’s matinee must have seemed like déjà vu for Billy who for the third consecutive day wasted little time visiting the winner’s circle guiding pacing mare Eden Paige N to a wire-to-wire score in the afternoon’s first race. And the day just got better from there for Dobson who added another Open win to his tally when he sat behind All Speed Rising as she went coast-to-coast in the first feature of the year for the ladies. Trained by Andy Gardner, All Speed Rising was dismissed at odds of 8-1 in the $15,000 Fillies and Mares Open. Dobson powered the speedy mare out to the front end and she took it from there. After getting a first half in just 59 seconds, All Speed Rising had enough left in the tank to hold off a challenge from the race’s pocket-sitter before stopping the timer in 1:57.
On Saturday night, Dobson continued his trend of winning the opening race on the card when he guided young pacer Jack Rock to a decisive coast-to-coast score. In four race cards, Billy has kicked off his day in style making a trip to the winner’s circle in race one each time. He once again piloted Oregon Trail later in the evening and guided him to victory for owner-trainer Bob Leslie. Oregon Trail became the first two-time winner on the very young campaign. Dobson’s Saturday hat trick was completed by a future Hall of Famer who has done as much winning as any horse at the Spa over the course of the last five years. Classmaster Artful Way made winning look easy on Saturday when he cruised to a decisive victory in the $13,000 Winners Over for pacers. The winningest Open Pacer of the last decade recorded win number 67 in his illustrious career when he registered an open-length score in the undercard to the evening’s feature. The victory completed a hat trick for Dobson who, in moving his win total to ten, holds a (far too early to really acknowledge) lead in the driver standings while getting his ’22 campaign off to a great start as he looks to recapture his crown as top driver at Saratoga.
The 81st racing season has 150 live race cards on its calendar and will consist of more than $15 million in purses being given out. That’s an average of $100,000 per program. The track’s signature race, the Joe Gerrity Jr Memorial Pace, will move back to its $250,000 pre-covid purse and is sure to attract a field of top-flight pacers from throughout the Northeast. The winter/spring schedule marks the return of evening racing with action taking place every Saturday beginning at 5pm. Sunday and Monday matinees are carded (almost) every week and kickoff at Noon. In the two weeks when Sunday racing won’t take place, due to the Super Bowl and Easter, there will be a Tuesday matinee to take its place as it does this week. We’re back! Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!