There are some names that are simply synonymous with Saratoga harness racing for the last several decades. Frank Coppola Jr and Dan Cappello Jr are the track’s winningest drivers of all time. They have been competing at the Spa for more than three decades. Between them, they have won 19 local driving titles in the last thirty years. While Coppola and Cappello have made the most trips to the winner’s circle over the last 25 or so years, there is another longtime Spa veteran who may not have won any championships but has been a solid, consistent force in that same long-term period of time and ranks among the top drivers over that same three decade span.
Brian Cross is another name synonymous with Saratoga harness. Cross’ career started all the way back in the early 1980’s when he kicked off what has turned out to be a lengthy career in the sulky. With driving records dating back to 1983, Cross began training in the early 90’s. The Vermont native enjoyed success from the get-go. In his first few years as a driver, Brian drove at a percentage upwards of .300 and in ’92, in just his second official year of running his stable, Cross piled up the most wins he would accrue in any season as a trainer. The “prime” for Brian as a driver came from 2003-2006. In each of those seasons, Cross drove over 200 winners highlighted by a ’06 campaign in which he made 247 trips to the winner’s circle while also piloting 245 second-place finishers. Both numbers still stand as career-highs for the veteran reinsman. During that same span, Cross continued to run his successful stable, one that always won at a good clip resulting in a training average of about .330 from ’01 to ’07, during which time his average was over .300 every year while competing almost exclusively right here at Saratoga.
While the driving colony has become much deeper at the Spa over the course of the last decade, Cross has continued to be a factor in the sulky. Though he is not a top-three finisher like he had been on several (most) occasions after the turn of the century, Cross has maintained his career as a catch-driver while managing a medium-size stable. Brian enjoyed a rejuvenated campaign last year when he drove more times, accruing more wins, seconds and third-place finishes in any season since 2011 and ending up tenth in the driver standings. Though he headed into last week’s action just outside the top ten among local reinsmen this season, the 52 year old has been heating up of late. He got his week off to a strong start while driving the Cross family horse All That Dazzle in Wednesday afternoon’s first race. Trained by his brother John, who co-owns the trotter with their parents Roger and Gail, Brian was tasked with overcoming the outside post with the veteran trotter. A trainee of John Cross’ from the start of her career, All That Dazzle certainly isn’t the horse she once was but at the age of eleven still has some win in her. “She’s a gutsy old mare,” Brian told me. “She tries every step of the way.” No matter if he has close to 3,800 career driving victories, it still has to be a bit special driving a winner for your brother and your parents, a notion that Cross affirmed when I inquired.
With the win piloting All That Dazzle under his belt on Wednesday, Cross headed into Thursday’s matinee card with a trio of his trainees set to compete. Brian was aggressive while sitting behind Xenia Onatopp, whom he co-owns as well as trains. The young filly was coming off her maiden win and proved up to the task on Thursday as she went coast-to-coast in a career-best 1:57.2 to complete her back-to-back jacks. Later in the day, Brian drove his Schnickel Fritz who had been the runner-up in four consecutive starts and five of his last six heading into Thursday’s tilt. The trotter was a private purchase for Cross’ owners Pat Cannon, Michael Duffy and Frank Maffei, Jr who entrusted their new acquisition to the trainer with whom they have had horses for several years. Schnickel Fritz shook his “seconditis” on Thursday as he closed up the passing lane before surging past his rivals to secure his first local win since joining the Cross stable this spring.
On Saturday night, Headlights On drew the rail for a $9,100 pacing event and continued the strong week for the Cross barn with a second place finish. Earlier in the evening, Brian drove pacer Michaels Boy for fellow Saratoga veteran trainer Scott Mongeon. Michaels Boy, who Cross acknowledged may well be the top current horse that he regularly catch-drives, faced a tough test. He did draw the inside post position but was moving way up in class following two consecutive victories. Cross powered Michaels Boy out to the early lead, a lead he held throughout the mile until getting passed in the final strides to be the runner-up. Just two weeks removed from a lifetime best 1:52.2 score, Michaels Boy is in the midst of the strongest stretch of his career and is doing so with Cross sitting behind him in each of his starts.
In his more than three decade long career, Brian Cross has driven close to 27,000 times. He has piled up 3,750 winners and, indicative of his consistency and ability to not be an “all or nothing” driver, has finished second over 3,900 times and third more than 3,800 times. Which of those thousands of different horses that he drove has been the best one? Well, that elicited a pretty quick response from Brian seeing as the answer was a horse who was the National Horse of the Year in 2001. “Bunny Lake. She was awesome. I drove her a few times for John (trainer John Stark Jr.) and she was incredible.” Cross piloted the Saratoga Hall of Famer Bunny Lake five times in her career and was five-for-five with her including victories in races at Yonkers for purses of $57,112 and $78,000, and in the $120,264 Jim Lynch Memorial Pace at Pocono in Pennsylvania. As far as the hundreds of horses he has trained over the course of a career in which he has secured 815 wins in over 5,600 starts, Brian points to one that really stands out as a memorable favorite- Crownprince Volo. Cross owned a piece of the trotter that he trained and drove who was named Saratoga’s Two Year Old Trotter of the Year in 2007 after a freshman campaign in which he won four times in seven starts. It was as a three year old in ’08 though when the Cross trainee emerged as a real star. Crownprince Volo won multiple races in the New York Sire Stakes, a campaign that culminated with a third place finish in the $175,000 stakes final. He may not be finishing among the top five drivers these days at Saratoga but Brian Cross, a true Spa veteran, continues to enjoy success at the track that has been his home throughout what has been an illustrious career for the prototypical all-around horseman.
Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon starting at 12 Noon and on Saturday evening beginning at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!