Familiar Faces Come Out of the Gates Strong at the Spa

Nothing that Billy Dobson accomplishes out on the race track can really surprise any fans of Saratoga Casino Hotel at this point. In 2018, Dobson won his sixth local driving title, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that he’s only been competing at Saratoga for about a decade. His journey has been well chronicled in my column over the years but it bears repeating that when Dobson came east from Michigan in 2008, he was only 24 years old. After debuting at Saratoga in ’09, Dobson set up shop here the following year. Despite winning at a good clip in Michigan, Dobson’s relocation couldn’t have gone much better as he not only made an impact upon coming to Saratoga, he pretty much dominated.

Dobson won his first ever driving title in 2010 in his first full year competing at the Spa and just kept pouring it on after that. The young reinsman rattled off five consecutive titles before his streak ended in 2015 when Bruce Aldrich Jr. dethroned him. Saratoga’s all-time winningest driver Frank Coppola Jr. won the next two driving titles before Dobson made it back to the top in ’18. After spending his winter driving primarily at the Meadowlands as well as a bit at Yonkers and enjoying a fair amount of success, Billy was ready for the 2019 meet at Saratoga to kickoff. The now veteran sulky star came out of the gate strong and wasted very little time piling up the victories as he scored a hat trick on the second day of the meet, piloting three winners on that matinee card. It wouldn’t be the only hat trick that week for Dobson who has gone on to win multiple races on every card after opening day.

Being just two weeks into the ’19 campaign at the Spa, it would be foolish to discuss driver standings with any kind of seriousness. That being said, if the first couple weeks of action are any indication of what the season will look like for the track’s drivers, Billy Dobson is certainly on a familiar path to success. Last week, Thursday’s matinee card was highlighted by the defending leading driver rattling off wins in his first three drives on the card. Dobson piloted four winners in total on Thursday, three of which came for trainer Jimmy Nickerson. In Saturday night’s $12,000 Winners Over, Dobson and Nickerson teamed up for yet another winner as classy pacer Starznheaven came from last before recording his first victory of the season. A 15-time winner in 2018, Starznheaven competes mostly out of town but when he races at the Spa, the seven year old usually is a strong closer which he was once again on Saturday. The win gave Dobson back-to-back jacks on the Saturday card to lengthen his multi-win streak. With the season just in its infancy, it certainly appears that Billy Dobson is motivated and equipped to come out and make another run at a driver’s championship as the now-34 year old seeks his seventh title in the last ten seasons at the Spa.

While Dobson began his season in pursuit of a seventh local driving title, superstar pacer Artful Way kicked off his campaign seeking a fourth straight Pacer of the Year award and third consecutive Horse of the Year honor. The Jackie Greene-trained future Hall of Famer is doing things that very few horses have ever done in track history as far as number of Opens won and dominance over such a long period of time. Artful Way enjoyed a much needed two month vacation following the conclusion of the ’18 season, a layoff that officially came to an end on Saturday night. Following a winning qualifier as prep, Artful Way made his 2019 debut in the $15,000 Open Pace with regular reinsman Frank Coppola Jr. in the sulky. Even with a scratch reducing the number of participants in the feature to six, Artful Way was relatively dismissed by the betting public, going off at odds of 9-2. By his standards, 9-2 qualifies as longshot status for the regular Open winner. Would Coppola give Artful Way an easy trip in his return or would the track’s two-time defending champ be ready to roll in his ’19 debut?

Coppola asked Artful Way to flash some of his characteristic early speed right off the gate in the feature but after a host of leavers mixed it up, the veteran driver took Artful Way back and settled him into the fourth spot in the early going. The breather didn’t last long as the now seven year old was out and rolling approaching the half mile pole. Normally, a second-over journey would be a desired one but in this case the cover was very dull for Artful Way who was forced to make a three-wide move sooner than he would have hoped. With the favorite on the front-end and seemingly pacing away a bit from his rivals, Artful Way found that Artful Way surge that we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the last few award-winning years. What resulted were an eye-popping 27.4 final quarter and a victory in 1:53.2, the fastest time of the young season for any horse at the Spa. A win payoff of $11.60 is pretty rare for Artful Way who scored seventeen wins in 2018, ten of which came in the local Open. He comes into the season as the winningest horse in the Open Pace for three consecutive years. Just like Dobson, Artful Way is a star performing like a star in the early stages of the ’19 campaign at Saratoga. Both Dobson, who won the Driver of the Year and Horseman of the Year awards last year, and Artful Way, who is looking to become the first ever horse in track history to be named Horse of the Year three straight seasons have kicked off their meets in style as the 2019 racing season is now in full swing at the Spa.

Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon beginning at 12:00pm and on Saturday evenings with a 6:45pm start. On the Wednesday and Thursday cards, the program features a $5,000 guarantee in the Pick Five pool. The Pick Five begins in race one each day. Also on those matinees, race five offers a $25,000 guaranteed triple pool which has resulted in some terrific payoffs thus far. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!

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