Every year, the Johnny Page Award is given out to the top up-and-coming driver at Saratoga Casino Hotel. The award dates back to the 1960’s and like any “Rookie of the Year” type honors, many of the winners don’t wind up panning out long-term while others have gone on to have fantastic careers in the sulky. This year, Brett Beckwith seems to be a shoe-in to take home the award as the 18 year old son of Mark and Melissa Beckwith has enjoyed a fantastic breakout campaign at the Spa (as well as at several other tracks where he has competed.) Like many newbies, Brett started out a bit slowly but has gotten better and better over the course of this season and now sits just outside the top ten among local reinsmen. It is easy to see the experience and confidence building in the young driver as his rookie season enters its stretch run.
Brett’s father Mark has won more than 5,800 races as a driver in his career and while Brett Beckwith is a near lock for the Johnny Page Award, there is another young driver who is beginning to make an impact recently at the Spa with big time family ties to harness racing. Luke Hanners grew up in the stables. There are pictures of him, even as a baby, in the barn as his dad trained horses. His father Brad spent his life in the sport and was a prolific driver piloting almost 5,000 winners before his untimely passing in 2015. With roots in Ohio, Brad Hanners moved to the Delaware-Maryland circuit and enjoyed massive success in his career. Two of his sons, Austin and Luke, both knew at young ages that they wanted to have careers in harness racing and fast forward to 2021 and they both are doing just that.
Luke’s first career wins in the bike came a few years back in Ohio where his brother currently drives. Luke managed a stable there before moving east to Delaware this summer. Finding opportunities at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey, Luke began to focus much more on catch-driving. While he still has a horse or two that he trains, driving has been the focus of the newly turned 21 year old. Saratoga trainer Jaymes McAssey was racing a horse at Freehold this summer and was introduced to Hanners through a mutual friend in the business. After Luke drove for McAssey at Freehold, Jaymes liked what he saw and needing a driver for five horses that he had in one day here at the Spa, he asked Hanners if he would come up and drive for him on the Sunday matinee card last month. “I figured, why not?” Hanners told me. “The money is good here and it seemed like it would be a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I thought it might be fun.” It had to be fun when Luke, driving in his just his second ever Saratoga start, guided the McAssey-trained Rockin The Arena to an upset victory at odds of 36-1.
Hanners has come to town to drive every Sunday since. The primary reinsman for the McAssey stable on those days, Luke has begun to pick up some more drives over the course of the last few weeks and after the day he had on Sunday, October 17th, he’s likely to continue seeing an increase in work in the coming months. Hanners had nine drives that day including six for McAssey. In two of those starts, Luke sat behind young pacers competing in the second leg of the Gary Kamal Memorial Pacing Series. Dunkin Beach and Rockin The Arena each wound up punching their ticket to the $33,800 Series Final when they finished second in their respective divisions of the second leg. Luke piled up three seconds and three thirds that afternoon but those weren’t the most noteworthy of his finishes on the matinee program. Hanners secured his first local driving double when he guided the McAssey-trained Delightful Joe to victory in a $10,000 race for conditional pacers before scoring in the nightcap with Glenn Raia trainee Shrimp And Grits. Eight out of nine starts in the money, a pair of victories and a couple of well-timed second place finishes in the series. A big afternoon for Hanners who has been a Sunday breakout star at the Spa in the month of October.
When I talked to Luke about the prospects of potentially driving here more often, his answer was pretty cut and dry. “I’d love to. If I can get the work, I’d love to come here more than just once a week. If it works out, I could go between Freehold, Yonkers and Saratoga. That would be great,” Hanners told me. “I like racing here a lot. It’s a good driving colony to work with. Plus, I love a half-mile track. I think it suits my skill set. There’s a lot of action here, aggressive driving. I’ve really enjoyed being here so far.” Being that he is still relatively new to driving, I asked Luke about what he is working on to become a better driver moving forward. His response was quick. “Patience! I’m not a real patient person and I think it worked against me early on. I’m definitely improving though. I had zero patience when I started- none. But it’s coming. You learn that you have to be patient in this game and while every race is super important, there will be another one both for you and for the horse you’re driving. I’m getting there,” he chuckled. As far as his future plans, as mentioned, Luke would definitely be interested in becoming more of a regular here at Saratoga either later in this season or into next year. But he is really just doing what he needs to do to get experience and have some success and let the chips fall as they may. And while he still trains a couple of horses, Luke, who is focused on his catch-driving these days, had drives at four different tracks in just the last week. He’s been busy and if he keeps translating the successes he’s enjoyed here at Saratoga in the last month to the other places he’s working, Luke Hanners will be a name to watch among young reinsmen in the years to come. And maybe, just maybe, if things play out the right way, next year at this time we could be mentioning his name as the one to watch for the Johnny Page Award at Saratoga.
Live racing takes place every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday this fall with first post times set for Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!