At the end of every year, voters cast their ballots for over a dozen awards at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Among the annual honors is the Johnny Page Award, which was designed to recognize the track’s top up-and-coming driver. The Peerless McGrath Award does the same for the best up-and-coming trainer of the year. Several years back, the guidelines for voters changed a little bit when it came to the Page and McGrath Awards as the qualifications added the term “breakthrough” to the simple “up-and-coming” distinction. Though the awards were originally intended to just recognize a “kid” or harness racing “newbie” who has shown promise in the early stages of his or her career, the breakthrough distinction was added, if for no other reason, for years in which we didn’t really feature a “rookie” driver or trainer at Saratoga.
The Johnny Page Award dates all the way back to 1969 when Harry Goodsell won the award while the first Peerless McGrath was given for the first time in 1979 to Paul Onyon. Since those years, there have been several drivers who were named “rookie of the year” that went on to win driver titles at the Spa. Kim Crawford, Frank Coppola Jr, Dan Cappello Jr and Billy Dobson are probably the most notable of the winners of the Johnny Page Award, each of whom has gone on to win multiple driving titles at the Spa. Several past Peerless McGrath winners have gone on to win the local trainers title as well. Most notably, Dave Spagnola, who is the winningest trainer in the last twenty years at Saratoga, was honored with the McGrath Award when his career started in the late 1980’s. More recently, Heidi Rohr was recognized with the honor as her breakthrough local campaign of 2009 resulted in the McGrath trophy.
Alek Chartrand’s career in harness racing started earlier in this decade and the Canadian native got off to a bit of a slow start. Chartrand started training a bit at Saratoga in 2013 but it wasn’t until the ’14 campaign in which he would pilot his first pari-mutuel race. In May of ’14, Chartrand’s Repeated In Red parlayed a pocket ride to victory giving Alek his first driving victory. He also trained (and trains) the trotting mare who gave him his first career score. He went on to pilot eleven winners in 125 drives that year, not a bad percentage for a young reinsman. In that season, he trained eight winners which would serve as his career best until here in 2017.
Chartrand will by far eclipse his previous career marks for wins in ‘17 as both a trainer and a driver. On Saturday night, Chartrand’s One Tough Nut drew the rail as he took part in the first leg of the Gary Kamal Memorial Pacing Series. One Tough Nut is a recent addition to the Chartrand stable as he made his debut out of his new barn the previous week. In the midst of a decent sophomore season, One Tough Nut drew the rail for his try in the $10,000 per division leg one of the series. Chartrand piloted the three year old aggressively, taking advantage of the inside post position to move out to the early lead on Saturday night. One Tough Nut proved to be just that as he blew away his rivals to win by five lengths. Behind matching halves of 56.3, One Tough Nut scored in 1:53.1 to become the fastest winner of the first leg of the Kamal Memorial Series. The victory also matched the career high for wins in a season as a driver for the 33 year old Chartrand who has now trained fifteen winners this year, almost double the most he’s had in any previous year. While he has been nominated for the award in the past, Alek Chartrand is almost sure to take home the Johnny Page Award for up-and-coming drivers as he has enjoyed by far the best season of his young racing career. And the year isn’t over yet! Though Chartrand’s ’17 campaign has been by far his best as a trainer, there are several formidable candidates for the Peerless McGrath Award this year, thus making it unlikely he will be a legitimate candidate to win both awards at season’s end in what has been a breakout year for the young driver/trainer.
One Tough Nut may have been the fastest of the three leg one winners of the Kamal Memorial on Saturday night but there were a few other young pacers who had strong showings in the first installment of the fourth annual Kamal Memorial. Invader Zac And Forth made his local debut on Saturday night and red-hot reinsman Jimmy Devaux put the John Podres trainee on the engine and never looked back. Zac And Forth paced to victory in 1:53.2, just a fraction off of the win time of One Tough Nut as the fastest among leg one pacers. The runner up to Zac and Forth was New Zealand invader Best Shot N who after winning his first three starts at the Spa, has now finished second in back-to-back weeks. He was a fast runner-up on Saturday and serves as a formidable foe moving forward in the Kamal series. The other leg one winner, though not nearly as fast as his counterparts from the other divisions, was Carolina Beach. Making just his third start of the year, Carolina Beach scored a wire-to-wire win in 1:55 on Saturday night. A recent addition to the stable of leading trainer Melissa Beckwith, three year old pacer Carolina Beach most likely punched his ticket to the final of the Kamal Memorial which will be contested in two weeks following next weekend’s second leg.
Live racing takes place on Thursday and Sunday afternoons with matinees beginning at 12:15pm. Friday and Saturday racing starts at 6:45pm each weekend. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!