A few months ago it didn’t seem possible. The lead in the driver standings was so big for Stephane Bouchard, it seemed like there was basically nothing, barring something unforeseen such as an injury, that would stop the veteran sulky star from winning his first Saratoga driving title. Bouchard has finished as high as second in the local driver standings, a feat he accomplished in 2013, as he looks to add Saratoga to his list of tracks where he has been the leading driver. The 49 year old reinsman came to Saratoga full time in 2011 and he has certainly done his share of winning. Bouchard, who was one of only 25 drivers in harness racing history to win as many as 8,000 races when he reached the milestone at the Spa in 2014, won five consecutive driving championships at Yonkers Raceway last decade. While he was doing that, Stephane was also the top driver at Monticello Raceway becoming a rare pilot to win titles at two different tracks in the same year.
In the final week of the first month of the ’16 racing season, Bouchard surged to the top of the driver standings at the Spa. Being the leading driver after the first month of the year is seemingly pretty irrelevant but in this case, it was a sign of things to come. The native of Montreal saw his lead grow every month throughout the spring and into the summer and it appeared to be a one man race to be Saratoga’s top driver in 2016. Looking to become the third different driver to win the title in the last three years, Bouchard had a strong summer but in the last few weeks, it was a different sulky veteran that thrived. After sitting in third place for much of the season, Frank Coppola Jr made his move and the second winningest driver in the history of Saratoga Harness drew ever closer to Bouchard.
Frank Coppola Jr is a name very familiar to fans of Saratoga Harness racing as his career dates back to the 80’s. Coppola enjoyed immediate success when he started driving and won his first title at the Spa in 1987. From there, Coppola became a winning machine utilizing a perfect blend of patience and aggression on the track and year in and year out was one of the track’s top reinsmen. After taking a break from driving in 2005, Coppola returned in ’08 and it didn’t take long for the Spa superstar to regain his top form. Coppola won the drivers title in both 2008 and 2009 to move his incredible career total to ten. One of only two drivers to pilot 5,000 lifetime winners at the Spa (along with Dan Cappello Jr), Coppola passed the baton to Billy Dobson in 2010 when the veteran reinsman finished second to the rising star who was a new face that year. Dobson went on to rattle off an incredible five consecutive driving titles of his own before giving way to Bruce Aldrich Jr who won his first Saratoga championship last year.
With such a strong driving colony currently competing at Saratoga, there is no individual who will likely put up a 300 win season. In fact, 250 doesn’t seem very likely for any of the local reinsmen. That does nothing to lessen the campaigns currently being enjoyed by the top few drivers at the Spa. After building what seemed like an insurmountable lead, Bouchard saw that margin in the standings shrink and on the final night of the summer season before racing took a brief hiatus before the start of the fall meet, Bouchard got caught by Coppola. Both drivers went into the break with a win total of 149. This weekend, Coppola continued his recent tear and surged into the lead. After taking a one win edge over Bouchard on Thursday, Coppola scored a grand slam on Friday night to give himself a five win margin. With their closest competitor Bruce Aldrich well better than twenty wins behind them, it appears that Coppola and Bouchard will comprise the race for the leading driver in the ’16 campaign.
The recent dominance for Coppola can partially be attributed to the rise up the trainer standings for conditioner Jackie Rousse. A two-time training champ at the Spa, Rousse is once again having a big year in 2016 and currently sits comfortably in second, though well behind the leader Melissa Beckwith, on this season’s training chart. Coppola has been the regular reinsman for the Rousse barn for the last several years and together they have climbed their respective ladders once again. Aided by a big summer by Horse of the Year favorite Stirling Cadet, Rousse and Coppola have been on a tear of late. With still almost three months remaining in the racing season, certainly a lot can happen but if the recent trend continues, Coppola could well wind up with his eleventh driving championship and first since ‘09. If he were to end up atop the standings, Coppola would achieve an extremely rare feat as a driver who would span thirty years from his first driving title to his most recent. And while Aldrich, Mark Beckwith and Billy Dobson sit well behind the new leader, don’t count Bouchard out as he looks to add another track to his list of places where he has been the top driver as he looks for his first championship since coming to the Spa. It should be an interesting race within the races during the final three months of the season at the Spa as the incredible Coppola continues to stand the test of time and looks to become one of the most senior (we won’t say oldest!) winners of a driving title in track history.
Live racing takes place every Thursday beginning at 4pm and continues on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 6:45pm. Sunday matinees have resumed and kick off at 12:15pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!