When Starlingmoon crossed the finish line first on a comfortable February afternoon, the 78thracing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel was officially underway on Sunday. The fact that the race card was contested as a matinee is something fans have been becoming more and more accustomed to in recent years and is a trend that will be furthered this season. Saratoga’s regular four-day per week racing schedule is consisting now of more afternoon cards. Beginning this year, Saturdays will be the only evening race nights as they will be joined by matinees every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday in the regular schedule. On opening week, a matinee program will also be contested Monday on President’s Day. Daytime racing will also start at a slightly adjusted first post time from previous years as afternoon action will begin each day at 12:00pm.
The kickoff of the 2019 season took place on Sunday and continues Monday will several contests, giveaways and specials to welcome fans back to the track. Guests in attendance on opening day received a free long sleeve t-shirt with the purchase of a live race program. Those guests that redeemed the coupons were entered into a drawing for $50 betting vouchers which were given away after every race beginning with the afternoon’s fourth. $1 deals are offered throughout opening weekend with dollar hot dogs, jumbo pretzels, draft beers and pizza slices. Monday’s matinee features the Trifecta Bonanza promotion wherein customers can win up to $100 if the numbers on their trifecta ticket they received on Sunday match the order of finish in a race. Also, in a promotion that is not restricted to just opening week, every Wednesday and Thursday matinee card throughout February and March will feature a guaranteed trifecta pool of $25,000 in race 5 and a guaranteed Pick Five pool of $5,000. Several $1 food and beverage specials will also continue throughout March.
While the new season of racing got started on Sunday, the 2018 came to its official end with January’s annual awards banquet. At it, history was made. Artful Way became the first horse in track history to be named Pacer of the Year in three consecutive years and was one of the co-winners of Horse of the Year. He earned a share of Horse of the Year honors tying pacing mare Spreester for the track’s top award. Artful Way became just the second horse in Saratoga history to take home a trophy for Horse of the Year in back-to-back years follow a balloting that resulted in a tie for top honors for just the third time since the awards began being given out in 1953. Artful Way enjoyed another sensational season in ’18, one in which he won more Opens than any other local horse for the third consecutive year. The Jackie Greene trainee shared Horse of the Year honors with Spreester. Both of the top award winners were driven in their local starts by Frank Coppola Jr. Spreester, who is trained by Paul Zabielski, was named both Two Year Old Pacer of the Year and Three Year Old Pacer of the Year in successive years in 2013-2014. She made her return to town early in ’18 and emerged as the track’s top distaffer. Though the second half of her campaign wasn’t nearly as strong as her first, Spreester did enough to not only take home top honors among fillies and mares but to earn a share of Horse of the Year.
Open victories leading to end of season awards are nothing new to Artful Way or Spreester but to 2018’s Trotter of the Year, these were uncharted waters. The Amanda Facin-trained trotter enjoyed a breakout season and wound up as a landslide winner of Trotter of the Year. Driver Jay Randall piloted Ulster to each of his eight Open wins in a season that saw the trotter enjoy his first career six-figure campaign. Propelled by Ulster’s monster season, Facin was a nominee for the Peerless McGrath Award, an award that recognizes the track’s top breakthrough trainer that year. Eve Bergeron took home the McGrath Award. Brett Crawford earned the Johnny Page Award for top breakthrough driver.
Billy Dobson won his sixth career local driving title and was subsequently named Driver of the Year as well as taking home the award for Horseman of the Year. Melissa Beckwith went wire-to-wire in the trainer standings and was the track’s leading trainer for the fourth consecutive year and for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. She also took home the trophy for Horsewoman of the Year.
The Two Year Old Pacer and Trotter of the Year were Doodad Hanover and Lifetime Credit while Three Year Old awards for pacers and trotters went to Century Endeavor and Jeter’s Way, respectively. Claiming Pacers of the Year were Dinner Guest and Black Is Back as well as Post Time Terror who won in the group for fillies and mares. Claiming Trotter of the Year award winners were Blitz Victory and Swancredit. The first chapter of the 2019 racing season at Saratoga has been cracked into with opening day now behind us. The first week of racing will be action-packed with a total of four matinees followed by another week consisting of three matinee cards next week before the racing calendar moves to the “regular” schedule that it will consist of until the summer months when the Saratoga Race Course opens up. There will be Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday matinees in conjunction with Saturday night racing. Each matinee will begin at 12:00pm while the night card will begin at 6:45pm every Saturday. The beginning of a new racing season always brings with it a strong level of excitement and also some questions. What horses and horsepersons may debut at the Spa and what previous participants could propel themselves from strong or even ordinary into superstars. With all kinds of new promotions and wagering specials, the 2019 season, the 78thin Saratoga harness racing history, is now underway with the long and exciting nearly ten-month road ahead of us.
Come out to the track and be a part of our matinee programs that will take place this February as we continue to transition into more and more daytime racing while still keeping the Saturday night harness racing tradition intact. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday matinees will be contested this “vacation” 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!