The award winners from the 2023 campaign at Saratoga Casino Hotel were announced at a late January banquet that took place at the Saratoga Springs Holiday Inn. At that ceremony, Always Watching became the third consecutive mare to be named Horse of the Year at the Spa. Jordan Derue owns, trains and drives Always Watching who was nearly a unanimous winner of the Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year Award and was a resounding victor in the race for Horse of the Year. Always Watching scored nine Open wins in ’23 and accrued almost the entirety of her $117,141 in starts contested at Saratoga.
In a ten-win campaign, the Derue trainee was the dominant force among all Open horses at the track and subsequently was a runaway winner of the Horse of the Year Award. Always Watching will return to the track on Tuesday afternoon wearing the crown as the top horse at the Spa and looking to defend her title when she starts from post six in a six-horse Open for Fillies and Mares.
Doug Maura enjoyed a career year in 2023 with his Pay Me To Knight. His homebred trotter broke out in ’23 in a big way realizing the potential that the owner/trainer/driver Maura saw in him for years. At the age of five, Pay Me To Knight elevated himself into the Open and became not only a formidable Open horse but an award-winning one. Pay Me To Knight was named Trotter of the Year following an eleven-win campaign in which he earned more than $85,000. Big Box Hanover, a nominee for Trotter of the Year in back-to-back seasons, finished second in the voting following another year in which he earned six figures.
The race for Pacer of the Year was a very close one as there was no dominant horse in those ranks. Uncle Jord A bested Century Endeavor in the battle for Pacer of the Year by the slimmest of margins. Alicia Gray trains the veteran Aussie-bred pacer who, with four, won more installments of the Open Pace than any other contender.
Jimmy Devaux was named Driver of the Year after winning his third consecutive driving title at the Spa and for the second straight season, he won an award for Horseman of the Year as well. “An” award versus “the” award is because Devaux tied in the voting and subsequently split the honors with Brett Beckwith. Beckwith, the former Johnny Page Award winner for top up-and-coming driver, finished second to Devaux in the driver standings and earned a share of the 2023 Horseman of the Year Award.
Brett Derue won his first training title in ’23 and the leading conditioner saw two of his trainees earn Claimer of the Year Awards. American Tour N enjoyed a six-figure year while spending most of the season in the claiming ranks and thus was named Filly and Mare Claiming Pacer of the Year. Derue’s Mr Cool Seaeyre N won the Claiming Trotter of the Year Award following a nine-win campaign that saw him earn close to $90,000.
Both American Tour N and Mr Cool Seaeyre N won their respective divisions of the Step Up To The Plate Claiming Series that took place in the springtime. The winner for Claiming Pacer of the Year went to Bungalow Bill N who competed out of several different barns over the course of 2023.
Robyn Mangiardi was named Horsewoman of the Year in 2023 for the second time in her career some twenty years after achieving the honor for the first time. Mangiardi has been a picture of consistency at the Spa for close to three decades and continues to finish among the top fifteen local trainers year in and year out. The Johnny Page Award went to Matt Athearn who was recognized as the track’s top up-and-coming driver in ’23 following a “rookie” year in which he finished eighth among local reinsmen. Jesse McAssey won the Peerless McGrath Award, an honor bestowed to the top up-and-coming trainer.
Veteran conditioner Dave Dewhurst has been the leading trainer at Vernon Downs, his home track for decades. Over the course of the last several years, members of the Dewhurst stable have been competing with more frequency at Saratoga. Wrapping up his ’23 campaign tenth among local trainers, Dewhurst featured a pair of award-winning sophomores as his Primo Uomo and City Of Hope took home the awards for Three Year Old Pacer and Trotter, respectively.
The 2024 racing season kicked off on Saturday night with a ten-race program. When the 83rd year of harness racing at Saratoga got underway, it did so with a dominant night for the Spa’s eight-time driving champion Billy Dobson. The 39 year old reinsman swept the early daily double on Saturday, with both victories coming for trainer Jaymes McAssey, en route to a four-win evening for sulky star.
The first Open contested in ’24 went the way of Rocknroll Runa A. The Aussie-born standout won the final two Opens for pacers at the end of the ’23 campaign and picked up right where he left off with a gutsy score in the season’s first $15,000 feature.
Live racing is now back in full swing with a racing schedule that will consist of Saturday evening racing starting at 5pm in addition to matinees every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday beginning at noon. The calendar will contain that schedule throughout February and March. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!