Another fantastic season of harness racing action came to its conclusion on Sunday afternoon at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Before the final race card was contested, Jimmy Devaux and Brett Derue were recognized in the winner’s circle as the Driver of the Year and Trainer of the Year, respectively. For Devaux, it was the third consecutive season in which the veteran reinsman finished atop the driver standings at the Spa. The 56 year old Devaux continues to do double duty as one of the top catch-drivers at Monticello, where he owns multiple driving titles, and here at Saratoga where he has now won three straight.
Devaux dominated the action in the bike at the Spa this season going wire-to-wire atop the driver standings. Although the sulky star thrived in the previous two years tallying 257 winners in ’21 and 272 in ’22, Devaux blew those numbers out of the water in his sensational 2023 campaign. Heading into the final weekend of action, Jimmy had 315 victories in his Saratoga drives this year. Piloting multiple winners seemingly daily throughout the season, Devaux was the regular driver for the Lisa Zabielski stable, a conditioner who finished fourth in the trainer standings this year, while also doing a lot of driving for trainer Brett Derue who enjoyed just a monster 2023.
Derue finished seventh among local conditioners in 2022 in what was his best season as a trainer. The ’23 campaign though was much different and much improved in the results department as the 38 year old Derue started out his year strong and just kept winning. After a sizzling summer, the Brett Derue stable cemented its spot atop the trainer standings securing a lead it would not relinquish. Derue co-owns the majority (almost all) of the horses from his stable, most commonly with Steve Picarazzi of Saratoga Springs and Donny Bullard of Ballston Spa. Derue’s barn didn’t feature one or two particular stars throughout the year and as is often the case with a leading trainer managed a well-balanced stable consisting of a mixed bag of pacers and trotters that span the classes. Derue did win four Opens this year as his Soul Assassin won a pair in addition to Addison Hanover’s one victory in the Open Pace and American Tour N’s score in the Fillies and Mares Open.
While Brett Derue’s stable didn’t have one standout, it did have some top-flight horses who enjoyed big years and will be nominees for postseason awards. The aforementioned American Tour N was one of the top mares at the track throughout the year, winning the Step Up To The Plate Claiming Series that took place this spring to addition to her victory in the Fillies and Mares Open en route to a twelve win season. Derue’s Mr Cool Seaeyre N won the trotting version of the Step Up To The Plate Series and enjoyed a nine-win campaign of his own. Congratulations to Devaux and Derue on their titles which were recognized in the winner’s circle with a trophy presentation before the Sunday card got underway.
Brett wasn’t the only Derue to enjoy a big year at the Spa and isn’t likely to be the only Derue to take home some trophies at the end of the year banquet. Jordan Derue, the past winner of both the Johnny Page Award and Horseman of the Year Award at Saratoga, has the clear favorite for Horse of the Year. Always Watching is a lock for Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year after a ten-win campaign which featured nine Open victories. In her second consecutive season in which she’s won ten races and piled up more than $100,000 in earnings, Always Watching is the winningest horse in the Opens contested at the Spa this season and in a year in which there wasn’t really a standout in the Open Pace or Open Trot, Always Watching seems to be close to a shoo-in to take home Horse of the Year honors when the awards are voted on in the coming weeks.
While the race for the Peerless McGrath Award for the track’s top up-and-coming/breakthrough trainer of the season appears to be wide open, the Johnny Page Award for top breakthrough driver will likely go the way of Matt Athearn. Athearn, a New England native, announced his presence with authority in 2023 as the 25 year old reinsman, who has made an impression in the State of Maine and at Plainridge Park (among other tracks), finished eighth in the Saratoga standings this year despite the fact that he missed a lot of the local race cards to drive at Plainridge.
Although they may not win a specific award this year, some noteworthy finishes this season came from Brett Beckwith and Gary Levine. Beckwith, the 20 year old who burst onto the scene among local drivers two years ago en route to the Johnny Page Award, finished a clear second in the driver standings in what was a monster season for the young reinsman who has future leading driver written all over him.
Gary Levine won the training title in 2020 and enjoyed a huge final two months of this season to wind up second in the standings trailing only Derue who ran away with the title in the final few weeks. 2023 was another year of great racing at Saratoga and the award winners will be named in late January at the annual awards/holiday banquet just a week before the kickoff of the 2024 racing season at the Spa. February 3rd will be opening day for the ’24 campaign with live racing resuming with a 5pm first post time. When the season gets underway, the racing calendar will consist of Saturday evening racing beginning at 5pm in addition to afternoon racing on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays with each matinee beginning at noon.
Until next year, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you a happy, healthy holiday season and we’ll see YOU in 2024 at the finish line!