Every year, the list is chock full of qualified nominees and each year the voting seems to be tougher and tougher. While the Driver of the Year and Trainer of the Year Award at Saratoga Casino Hotel goes to the leading driver and trainer, respectively, each season, the Horseman and Horsewoman of the Year Award winners are more subjective. The panel of voters will cast their ballots this week for eleven different awards from the action that took place in the 2022 campaign at the Spa. While last week in this column we chronicled the resumes of so many of the worthy horse nominees for numerous awards, this week we will focus on the people side of things with Horseman, Horsewoman, Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath Awards all up for grabs.
Some years, when posed with assembling a list of nominees for the track’s top award for up-and-coming/breakthrough driver and trainer, it is difficult to identify viable candidates who have put together strong enough resumes to be considered for the honors. Other seasons, there are some “no brainer” choices to add their names to the lengthy list of winners of the Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath Awards. The Johnny Page recognizes the top either “rookie” or newbie driver at Saratoga or one that may have had success at another track but made a big impact locally for the first time. While oftentimes, it is a younger person who wins the award that is not always the case. This season there was a pair of very worthy candidates for the honor which has been won by so many drivers who wound up becoming all-time greats at the Spa. Both Luke Hanners and Leon Bailey were both new to Saratoga in the 2021 campaign but since they only proved somewhat impactful in the fall of last year, both have to be considered strong candidates for this year’s Johnny Page Award.
Hanners came to the Spa in ’21 after local trainer (and former McGrath Award winner) Jaymes McAssey went to Freehold Raceway to race some horses. It was there that he met Hanners and had the young reinsman pilot several of his horses. Jaymes suggested to Luke that he come to Saratoga a couple days a week to drive and that he would likely get some opportunities here. He did just that and wound up picking up more and more drives as the season moved closer to its conclusion in ’21. Although he drove at a few tracks throughout this year, Hanners has been a full-blown regular at the Spa this season. The 22 year old, who comes from a family of drivers, will end his ’22 campaign third among local reinsmen in what was the definition of a breakout year. Like Hanners, Leon Bailey, a multiple driving champion at Vernon Downs, drove some late last season at Saratoga but was a full-time local sulky star in ’22. Another from a harness racing family, Bailey will end up either seventh or eighth in his “rookie” Spa season despite having spent a large portion of the last few months driving at Vernon Downs. While in most seasons Bailey possesses a formidable resume for the award, Hanners would have to be considered the big favorite for this year’s Johnny Page Award as the third-place driver in the standings.
The Peerless McGrath Award also has some strong candidates this year but much like the Johnny Page, a clear favorite has emerged for the honor. Chris Dubois is a Spa rookie and the young conditioner has been among the top local trainers all year long. Dubois, who won’t turn 21 years of age until January, is a native of the State of Maine but set up shop at Saratoga to kick off his career. The move proved fruitful as Dubois will finish among the top eight trainers at the Spa this year and with a big last couple of weeks could end up as high as fifth. Erica Chartrand has run her stable with husband (and former Johnny Page Award winner) Alek for years but has taken over the duties on a full-time basis this year. Chartrand will finish her first full season as a trainer in the top fifteen in the standings. Jesse McAssey, brother of the aforementioned Jaymes, has also enjoyed a big year in his first as a full-time trainer. McAssey runs a smaller-sized but growing stable and has put together a strong freshman campaign. While Chartrand and McAssey are formidable options, Chris Dubois is the favorite to win the Peerless McGrath Award as the track’s top up-and-coming trainer.
The categories for Horseman of the Year and Horsewoman of the Year are always a bit wide open and the voting has shown just that in seasons past. In the last decade, there have been seven different winners for the prestigious Horseman of the Year Award. Last season’s winner Larry Stalbaum is again listed as a nominee and is joined by leading driver Jimmy Devaux as well as Andy Gardner, Shawn Gray and past winner John Stark Jr. in the formidable group. Voters are also able to write-in any other person they see fit for the award, a practice that is utilized annually by some voters. The Horsewoman of the Year list is full of strong options this year. Joining Trainer of the Year Melissa Beckwith is multiple training champ Jackie Greene in addition to Alicia Gray, Robyn Mangiardi and Lisa Zabielski. Interestingly, Zabielski is the only trainer to have a horse nominated for all three major categories in ’22. Her Optical Illusion N is up for Pacer of the Year honors joining stablemates Quadratic Bluechip and Racey Rach N, who are nominees for Trotter and Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year, respectively. Gray is having her best year as a trainer holding a training average that will either be the highest of any conditioner in ’22 or will come up second best to Beckwith. What a season it has been and more so than in any year in recent memory, there is no clear cut favorite for any of the track’s awards for horses in the top three categories. A lot of the “people” awards could potentially see a bit more of landslides in the race’s for top honors at Saratoga in what has been an incredible 2022 campaign that now enters its final week. Closing day is Sunday December 18th and in addition to the regular racing slate, the afternoon will feature the annual retirement ceremony for 14 year olds who will officially be retired. The 2023 racing season is scheduled to kick off in the first week of February. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!