Florida Crew Returns to the Spa in Style

Every year, right around Memorial Day, the contingent of horsemen that races half the year at Pompano Park in Florida makes its return to the Spa. Trainers Dan Hennessey and Jimmy Mattison are longtime participants at Saratoga Casino Hotel and both trainers (as well as a few others) head south usually in October every year for the Pompano meet only to return in the springtime. Hennessey and Mattison each bring with them a strong stable every year and the stars of those stables have made their returns in style.

Godiva Seelster made her presence felt on Friday nights last year at Saratoga as the talented distaffer thrived against the track’s top pacing marers in 2015. The Dan Hennessey-trained mare was purchased privately by owners Paul and Patti O’neil of Saratoga Springs in the fall of ’13 after searching a solid pacing mare to add to their stable. The O’neils got even more than they could have hoped for. Godiva Seelster had a strong 2014 season in which she earned just over $65,000. Last year, though, was the breakout campaign for Godiva Seelster who as a five year old accrued more than $110,000 and displayed dominance throughout the summer at the Spa. The talented pacing mare had a sensational spring season at Pompano with Hall of Fame driver Wally Hennessey in the sulky before heading to the Spa to continue what would be her career year. In just ten starts at Saratoga in ’15, Godiva Seelster recorded three wins, four seconds and one third and added more than $45,000 to her career bankroll. After traveling back south in September, Godiva Seelster wrapped up her sensational campaign with four victories and two second place finishes in her final six starts at Pompano. While she competed just ten times at the Spa last year, the Dan Hennessey trainee was one of the nominees for the track’s Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year.

Perhaps even more impressive than the fact that she won 14 races in the ’15 season is that despite battling the top lady pacers at Pompano, Saratoga and in one start at Vernon Downs, Godiva Seelster hit the board in 24 of her 26 seasonal tries (and only once finished third.) A nearly unheard of stat line from last year shows 26 starts with 14 wins and 9 seconds for the top flight distaffer. 2016 has brought much of the same for Godiva Seelster who made her return to the Spa on Friday night after enjoying a spring season in which she continued to display the consistency that has yielded the results she has had in her career thus far. The now six year old mare had two wins, five seconds and a third in Open company at Pompano this winter and spring before making her seasonal debut in the $15,000 Fillies and Mares Open at the Spa on Friday. Wally Hennessey blasted the versatile mare off the gate in the early going in the 1 1/16 mile feature and wound up yielding to the race’s favorite to get a pocket trip. Hennessey slid Godiva out around the final turn and though 50-1 longshot My Spring Fling had the jump her, the Florida returnee cruised by in the stretch to record the victory. Godiva Seelster, who has already earned more than $40,000 in her first ten seasonal starts, announced her presence with authority on Friday night and appears poised for another big summer at the Spa for the O’neils and team Hennessey.

Panocchio became the first horse at Saratoga to be named Pacer of the Year in back-to-back years since 2010-2011 when he achieved the feat last season. Just like Godiva Seelster, the Jimmy Mattison-trained Panocchio has done double duty as a stalwart in the Opens at both Pompano and Saratoga in recent years. Also like fellow Florida part-timer Godiva Seelster, Panocchio has utilized versatility and consistency to be the Opens’ dominant force in the past few summers. Panocchio stamped himself as the top pacer at both Pompano and Saratoga in 2014 when he piled up more than $125,000 by way of an incredible sixteen victories. Panocchio’s ’15 campaign was very similar to his ’14 one as he earned over $116,000 by winning twelve times and finishing second in another six starts.

Before heading north earlier this month, Panocchio had raced ten times in the Open at Pompano. In those starts, the six year old pacer tallied four wins and five seconds. While Wally Hennessey was his regular driver in his Florida races, Gerry Mattison was back in the bike behind Panocchio when he made his return to the Spa on May 14th. Panocchio showed glimpses of what he can do in his first start back in the 1 1/16 mile Open Pace. The Spa’s back-to-back pacing champ left quickly at the start and despite getting parked in a first quarter paced in 26.4 found a landing spot and had plenty of late pace to come on for third in his return to town. Last Saturday, Panocchio got away last in a 1 1/16 mile Open that was paced in 1:58.2 (after the mile went in 1:51.2) and passed a few rivals late to finish fourth. While he haven’t seen Panocchio at his best yet in his two starts, the local pacing star is once again on his way to another big year. The Dan Hennessey and Jimmy Mattison stables always thrive when they return to Saratoga and there is no indication that it will be any different this year as the veteran conditioners have made the trek north and are poised for another big summer at the Spa.

Live racing takes place every Thursday starting at 4pm and continues each Friday and Saturday beginning at 6:45pm. This week, in addition to the regularly scheduled Sunday matinee, there will be a Monday Memorial Day card on May 30th. Both matinees will 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!

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