In the last several years, we have seen a big time changing of the guard within the driving colony at Saratoga Casino Hotel. While the top pairing of eight-time leading driver Billy Dobson and now-longtime local reinsman Jimmy Devaux still sit atop the local standings, the drivers immediately underneath them have changed quite a bit in the last couple of years. At the end of the 2019 season, we saw the retirement of the track’s all-time leading driver as Frank Coppola Jr. hung up his colors after recording just shy of 6,000 career victories in the sulky almost all of which coming while piloting at Saratoga. At around that same time, Bruce Aldrich Jr., who won the driving title at Saratoga in ’15, decided to end his time as a full-time Spa driver after nearly a decade worth of big-time success in the sulky. Longtime Spa staple Stephane Bouchard, and his more than 8,500 lifetime wins, was forced to call it a career after suffering an on-track accident in 2017. Those losses to the driver colony were huge and frankly tough to overcome.
The group of local drivers took another hit a few weeks ago when Spa veteran Jay Randall was significantly injured in an accident that saw him hospitalized with multiple serious injuries. One would imagine that we will not see the longtime regular return to the bike for quite some time. With all of the aforementioned departures come opportunities and there are a few locals who are taking full advantage of their newfound and/or increasing chances. Shawn Gray currently trails only Dobson and Devaux among local reinsmen this season. The Maine native, who has been splitting his time between Saratoga and Plainridge Park in Massachusetts, continues to shine when he is in town and is driving to a higher average than he’s had throughout his local driving career.
The Johnny Page Award is given out to the track’s top up-and-coming or breakthrough driver each year and the winners of that award from 2017 and 2018 have really emerged in the last couple of years as formidable catch-drivers. Alek Chartrand and Brett Crawford both were serviceable and more than capable in their early years in the sulky. In the last two seasons, though, with the combination of opportunity, experience and growing skill sets, the two have propelled themselves up into the top five in the driver standings in ’21. Crawford entered last week fourth in wins among local reinsmen this season while Chartrand, who really came into his own as a catch-driver last year, now sits in fifth. Crawford and Chartrand will keep getting more and more work over the course of the summer and if the first few months of the season serve as any indication, those two thirty-somethings will continue to thrive with their greater opportunities.
With several local regulars stepping up in the absence of some of the track’s past sulky stars, there is a familiar face that returned to Saratoga a couple weeks ago and it is one of a legend. Wally Hennessey is a Hall of Famer and even at the age of 64 is seemingly still driving as well as he ever has throughout his illustrious career. Wally was a summer regular at the Spa for a long, long time and whenever bettors saw his name in their program, they knew that he was going to thrive. Splitting his year between Pompano Park in Florida and Saratoga, Hennessey enjoys massive success wherever he has been to the tune of almost 11,000 career wins as a driver. Wally’s time travelling throughout the state, which earned him the nickname of King of the NY Sire Stakes, came to an end a couple decades ago but his time at Saratoga continued. Spending his summers (and a bit more) at the Spa, Wally has always been dominant in his time locally. His routine changed in recent years and last summer, we barely saw Hennessey here at all. Instead, he spent his summer at Tioga Downs where he, of course, enjoyed big-time success.
When Hennessey made his annual trek up from Florida this spring, he did so with the intent on spending another summer at Tioga. And while he has been his usual top-flight force while driving in the Southern Tier, Wally has been a regular at the Spa in the past few weeks as well. Spending every Monday and Tuesday here for about the past month, the sulky star is once again thriving. Wally pulled off a clean sweep of the recently completed J.P. Morel Pacing Series as he guided pacer Unique Beach to three consecutive romps for trainer Melissa Beckwith including a decisive score in the $32,200 Final.
Last week, Wally ran the full slate at the Spa, piloting on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time since he came north being that the New York Sire Stakes races were carded for the first time of the season on Wednesday’s matinee. It had the feel of the “old days” as Saratoga was Wally World, particularly on Wednesday afternoon. Hennessey made four trips to the winner’s circle on the matinee card on a day that saw him pilot young pacing filly Purameri to an upset win in her $50,400 division of the Sire Stakes. Driving for trainer Jessica Okusko, Wally put 13-1 longhot Purameri in play early and wound up sitting the pocket with the sophomore filly who came on in the stretch to complete the upset and give Wally one of his four winners on the card. It felt like the 90’s- watching Wally make trip after trip to the winner’s circle, display his versatility as a reinsman and scoring a Sire Stakes victory. Upon completion of his big afternoon, the native of Prince Edward Island, Canada now sits with a driving average just shy of the .400 mark. And while he was in the Sire Stakes flow, Wally went to Vernon Downs on Friday evening and piloted another stakes winner guiding Moni For Lindy to a major upset while dismissed at odds of 21-1 in a $57,000 stakes event. For how long Hennessey will continue coming to Saratoga to drive remains to be seen but at least for the short term, Wally’s return to town has helped strengthen the local driving colony which despite losing several of its top members in the past few seasons still remains very strong.
Fans are in the stands and it has been great having you back! Live racing takes place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday every week throughout the month of June with first post time for each matinee set for 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!