For veteran driver Jimmy Devaux, what has been happening for the last couple of months at Saratoga Casino Hotel is nothing new. The 51 year old reinsman continues to do double duty, driving in the majority of the race cards at Monticello Raceway while maintaining his status as one of the top catch-drivers at Saratoga. A multiple-time driving champ at Monty, Devaux became a Spa regular about a decade ago and has consistently finished in the top five in the local driver standings. 2017 was a career year for the lifelong horseman as he finished sixth in North America in wins by a driver after piloting over 2,700 times in ’17 with all but a handful of those starts coming either at Monticello or here at Saratoga. His 544 trips to the winner’s circle last year were by far the most in his almost thirty years as a driver in a season that saw him reach the 5,000 win plateau for his career. In that historic campaign, Devaux earned his first New York Sire Stakes championship as he piloted then two year old pacer Jersey Jim to victory on the Night of Champions for local trainer Perry Simser.
Trying to follow up a career-best year wasn’t going to be easy for Jimmy Devaux after a season in which he had his best ever finish in the local driver standings, one that resulted in him ending up third behind Frank Coppola Jr and Billy Dobson. After all, the 2017 campaign saw career-best tallies in wins and purses earned (over $3 million) for Devaux who also posted the best driving average he’s had in the last twenty years. One thing Devaux didn’t have in his massive season at the Spa is one particular trainer that he drove consistently for. Most of the time, a driver who finishes in the top few in the standings has one of the track’s top trainers that he drives for on a night-in and night-out basis. For example, last year’s (and 2016’s) leading driver Frank Coppola Jr. has regularly teamed up with conditioner Jackie Greene for the last several years and the two-time Spa training champ has finished in the top three among trainers almost every year. In 2015, it was Bruce Aldrich Jr. who was Saratoga’s leading driver and he was, and is, the regular reinsman for the stable of top-flight trainer Jose Godinez. Godinez has consistently finished among the top local conditioners and currently sits in third in the trainer standings. Though he of course drives for terrific trainers, Devaux did not have that “partnership” with any one particular conditioner. That is, until this year.
Trainer Don Billings’ name first popped up at Saratoga late last season. In just 85 starts in ’17, Billings trainees recorded 22 wins to go along with 18 seconds and 10 third place finishes en route to a training average of .416. While that number certainly isn’t sustainable over the course of an entire racing season, the .416 wasn’t a real stretch for Billings who came into last week’s action with a sparkling .357 average in 2018. Billings currently sits second in the trainer standings, a few wins ahead of Godinez though both are way behind Melissa Beckwith who will once again run away with the title.
Though Billings has really broken out this season to climb all the way near the top of the standings, 2018 has been anything but a joyous year for him. In fact, you could say that there is no bigger adversity for a stable to endure than what Billings had to contend with late in the spring. Billings is stabled out of a training center near Middletown, NY, a roughly two-hour drive from Saratoga. That’s where the unthinkable happened during the first weekend of June as a major fire engulfed the entire Billings barn. At that point, the stable featured 28 race horses and tragically, all 28 perished in the catastrophic blaze. Any trainer’s nightmare- everything was a total loss. All of the horses, all of the equipment simply gone.
Having to start from scratch, the Billings barn began to come together once again, rebuilding as owners brought horses to him and several more were acquired via purchase and claims. Though there really have been no one or two particular standouts from the Billings stable this year, either before or after the tragedy, the wins have just kept piling up. Before the fire, Billings seemed to feature a blend of lower level horses, mid-level claimers and a few Open participants. Billings had one Open win in 2018 with classy pacer Beat The Drum before the blaze but since the barn rebuilt, the stable has recorded a win in all three Opens.
During the first week of our summer schedule, Billings rattled off victories on consecutive nights in local Opens. He won his second Open Pace of the season when Denslow Hanover, a horse that he claimed in June for $15,000, prevailed on a warm July evening. The following night, Billings again saw one of his trainees record an Open victory except this time it was in the Fillies and Mares Open with distaffer Bye Bye Michelle. The stable completed its “Open hat trick” when Mandeville took advantage of his inside post to record the win in September 30’ths $18,000 installment of the Open Trot. Last weekend, though Billings didn’t add another Open win to his tally, his OK Jewel did finish second on Friday night in her first ever start in the Fillies and Mares Open. Mandeville, who may well be the closest thing Billings has to being considered a stable star, raced in Sunday afternoon’s feature. That talented high-stepper owns six wins in his fifteen local starts with the September Open score joined by three victories in the Winners Over for trotters. For all of his success in what has been a breakout year at the Spa for Don Billings, Jimmy Devaux has been right there alongside of him. Devaux pilots all of Billings’ trainees in every one of their starts, no questions asked. Devaux came into last week’s action having won five races on the previous Sunday program and followed that monster day up with another strong week. Devaux drove three winners on Thursday afternoon before piloting a Billings trainee to victory on both Friday and Saturday’s cards. Jimmy Devaux, who has thrived as one of New York’s, and really the country’s, top catch-drivers in the last decade, is poised to have his best finish yet at Saratoga as he sits second in the local driver standings this year. And he has finally formed a dynamic duo with a local trainer as he and Don Billings have become quite a formidable pairing this season at the Spa.
Live racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon at Saratoga with 12:15pm first posts and on Friday and Saturday evenings with racing starting 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!