Winning an Open is not easy to do. The horses competing in Opens are racing against top-flight rivals, the best the track has to offer. Whether it be the Open for pacing mares, the pace for the boys or the one for trotters, the competition is fierce so to beat such a strong group isn’t easy. Oftentimes, once a horse wins an Open, he or she is assigned an outside post or at least one that starts him in the middle of the pack. For these reasons, it is fairly uncommon for a horse to repeat in Open company let alone rattle off any kind of significant win streak. This is true at any track but especially here at Saratoga Casino Hotel factoring in how difficult it is to win from outside posts on a half mile track.
Taking all of that into consideration, I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that the feat that Crockets Cullen N achieved last season into the start of 2020 is as impressive of one that has occurred at Saratoga over the last few decades. Larry Stalbaum owns, trains and drives Crockets Cullen N who rattled off nine consecutive wins in the local Open to wrap up his ’19 campaign. Nine in a row!! Against the top-flight competition that Opens offer! Incredible…in fact, unheard of. Crockets Cullen N utilized his versatility to put that streak together using a blend of early speed and fantastic closing ability to assemble such an impressive stretch of dominance in the local Open Pace. Crockets Cullen N extended that streak to ten when he prevailed in the first Open Pace of ’20 contested at the Spa back in February before seeing his streak come to an end with a second-place finish from post eight in his following local start. After a rare for him four race losing streak, Crockets Cullen N parlayed a pocket trip to victory in 1:52.3 on June 28th leading up to last Sunday’s try in the $8,500 Open in which he went coast-to-coast to repeat in 1:53.1. The defending pacing champ is back!
Last season, there was no lady pacer who really stood out above the rest of the competition. Happy Heart took home the award for Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year at the Spa as she was the leading money earner in local starts among the nominees despite the fact that she won the ladies’ Open just three times. Bontz N was one of the nominees last season and had she come to town a little bit before she did, the New Zealand bred would have been a near cinch to take home top honors among filly and mare pacers.
Trainer Gary Levine purchased Bontz N late last summer before unveiling her at Saratoga in August. Levine saw that the mare was for sale online and with an eye on making her a competitive local Open horse he paid $34,000 for the then-eight year old distaffer. “Honestly, I didn’t hear a lot of good things about her as far as her soundness,” Levine told me. “From what I saw from her lines, she looked like she would fit here pretty well,” he continued. So Levine added the mare to his stable after being purchased by April Aldrich of Greenfield Center, NY. And what a decision that has turned out to be.
As a youngster in 2008, Levine won the Peerless McGrath Award as the track’s top up-and-coming trainer. Ever since, he has managed a large stable which consists of a lot of movement. Gary always sells and buys a lot of horses and the movement is pretty constant. Though he has had some top-flight horses over the years, Levine had never won an Open at Saratoga before acquiring Bontz N last summer. In her first local start, Bontz N secured a victory in the $12,500 Winners Over for fillies and mares before vaulting into the Open. Though she would race a few more times in Winners Over competition, once Bontz N debuted against the top mares at the Spa, she remained an Open mare for Levine.
Bontz N made her local debut in the Open on August 30th of last season and made an immediate impression finishing second. The New Zealand invader didn’t have to wait long for her first Open victory as she prevailed in just her second try against the track’s top distaffers. In doing so, she gave Levine his first ever Open win. The veteran conditioner wouldn’t have to wait long for his second Open score as his newly acquired mare went back-to-back in the ladies’ feature the following week and went on to prevail in three of her first four starts in the Open. While she didn’t secure another Open victory for the rest of the season, Bontz N wound up as one of the winningest mares at the Spa in 2019 as far as earnings. With over $60,000 in local earnings in just four months of racing, Bontz N was a nominee in ’19 for Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year.
When the 2020 campaign started back in February, Bontz N appeared determined to become the top distaffer at Saratoga and she certainly raced like she had that conviction. The veteran mare had a decent fourth in her seasonal debut at the beginning of March but since then, she hasn’t lost. Levine has used Shawn Gray as the regular driver for Bontz N this year and after Thursday afternoon’s victory, the Gray-Bontz N combo remained undefeated. Gray piloted Bontz N just once last season and drove her to a win. Here in ‘20, Gray has sat behind the Levine stable star four times and they have gone four-for-four in Filly and Mare Open competition.
Bontz N’s best attribute is her early speed and she usually utilizes it in her races. Coming into Thursday’s try in the $8,500 feature, Bontz N had gone wire-to-wire to secure her two previous scores but the standout mare was forced to change tactics this week and came from off the pace. The trip was good enough to yield another Open victory, which came in a seasonal best 1:54.1, for Bontz N who Levine lauded for her versatility. “She obviously likes the lead and to be up close but she can do anything. She’s definitely tough when she’s on the engine but she’s versatile. We saw that this week,” the meet’s current leading trainer told me. When I asked him about how he likes Gray driving her, Levine’s explanation certainly made sense. “He fits her great. They’re undefeated together for a reason. Shawn takes good care of her too. He manages to get the best out of her and still leaves something in the tank for next week and the next,” he explained. While a pair of Bontz N’s victories this year came while starting from post one, in her last pair of wins she had to overcome post seven in seven-horse fields. “That’s what’s tough about Opens. You love to win them obviously but then you wind up getting outside posts. She’s been good every race since we’ve had her though,” Levine continued. What summed up my conversation with Levine in regards to his top-level mare was his final statement. “She’s the best horse I’ve ever had. She’s not only talented but she’s super tough. Hoping to continue to have success this season and maybe we can get her the Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year Award, who knows?” That award could well be something in sight for the veteran Bontz N who has made quite the splash since coming to the Spa last season and has emerged as this year’s force among the track’s lady pacers.
There are three live racing cards scheduled for this week. There is racing set for Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon. New York Sire Stakes action will be featured on Wednesday as two year old trotting fillies invade the Spa. First post time each afternoon is 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!