It is often said that the hardest thing to do in sports is to repeat. The rare teams that do so usually tend to elicit the term dynasty. While Artful Way is the closest thing to a harness racing dynasty that we have seen at Saratoga Casino Hotel in the last few decades, there are some other champs hoping to follow-up their career year with another standout campaign. Artful Way, whose accolades have been much chronicled in this column over the last few years, has taken home the trophy for Pacer of the Year in three consecutive seasons and for Horse of the Year in back-to-back campaigns. In 2018, the Jackie Greene trainee shared top honors with pacing mare Spreester for Horse of the Year, each tallying the same number of votes for the track’s top award. Artful Way’s feat of being named Pacer of the Year in three straight seasons is one never previously achieved in track history. Here in 2019, he again is one of the Spa’s top competitors and despite only having raced locally six times has recorded three Open victories.
While Artful Way is only horse to threepeat among the track’s top pacers, there is a handful that has won the award in back-to-back seasons. Before Artful Way’s three straight award-winning campaigns, it was Panocchio who was named Pacer of the Year at Saratoga the previous two seasons. Trainer Jimmy Mattison was inducted into the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame in 2017 in some regards in part due to the success of Panocchio. The Spa’s Horse of the Year in ’14, Panocchio has been a picture of consistency throughout his career. Splitting his seasons between Saratoga and Pompano in Florida, the now nine year old has earnings of just shy of $600,000 in his career and has won 66 times in 183 lifetime starts. Panocchio won double digit races for four straight years before having what was for him a down year in ’18. Even in that “sub-par” campaign, Panocchio secured five wins and twelve second-place finishes. In that season, though Panocchio won just one race locally, he continued to thrive in the Open at Pompano throughout the autumn and winter months.
Upon his return to town this spring, Panocchio drew the rail in the $12,500 Winners Over for pacers and looked quite a bit like his old self. Gutsy and game, Panocchio went coast-to-coast in 1:53.1 with Gerry Mattison, Jimmy’s brother, in the sulky. On Saturday night, it was back to the Open for a horse who has spent the majority of his career against top-flight competition at his two “home” tracks. Panocchio got the pocket trip behind the race’s winner Hudson Phil but tired in the final quarter before finishing fifth in the six-horse feature. Though not the top caliber pacer he once was, Panocchio is still a formidable threat when he steps out onto the track as he continues his pursuit of the $600,000 mark in career earnings.
Though Panocchio is not one of the ’18 award winners defending their title this season, Spreester is. The Paul Zabielski-trained mare was the Two Year Old Pacer of the Year and Three Year Old Pacer of the Year at the Spa in successive seasons to begin her career in 2013-2014. After a connection change, Spreester left town for a couple of seasons before returning to Zabielski’s stable last year. And oh what a year it was for classy distaffer. After recording eight wins and hitting the board in 26 of 35 starts in ‘18, Spreester was not only named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year but earned a share of Horse of the Year, tying with Artful Way in votes for the honor. Though it was a $112,892 campaign for the veteran mare, Spreester did not have a strong final couple months of her season. Unfortunately, the eight year old picked up where she left off last season when her ’19 campaign kicked off in February. The classy mare had no pop in the first month of the year and subsequently took almost the next two months off. Making her return in the bottom level condition in May, Spreester moved first over and overpowered her rivals en route to her first win since early August of last year. The victory seemed to awaken the class for the longtime Spa veteran who repeated the following week, again scoring despite getting a first-over journey. What followed was a try on the front end in Winners Over competition and Spreester was almost up to the task once again. Beaten by a neck by a former Open winner was no shameful defeat and served as a launching pad back into last week’s Open for fillies and mares. Jimmy Devaux piloted Spreester who got the pocket ride in the $15,000 Thursday feature after leaving in a sizzling first quarter of 26.4 and yielding to the race’s favorite and eventual winner. Spreester finished third in her return to the Open but was defeated by only a head for the win. She may not be a candidate to repeat for Horse of the Year but Spreester certainly has appeared rejuvenated of late and poised to have another strong season in what has been a career in which she has won over 28% of her lifetime races and hit the board in an incredible 70%+ of her starts. Spreester might just be back.
The track’s defending Trotter of the Year got off to a late start to his campaign but looks like the same horse that won eight Opens last season. Ulster didn’t make his ’19 debut until participating in two May qualifiers. After winning both qualifiers, Ulster made his debut in the $15,000 Open Trot on May 19th. Starting from post six in the seven-horse feature, Ulster displayed his early speed and led every step of the way before being confronted in the stretch by the favorite and the early season’s dominant Open force Bobs Hope. Though Bobs Hope cruised by in the lane to secure his fifth victory of the year in the local Open Trot in just seven starts, Ulster finished a strong second in his return. Last weekend, with no Open on the card, Ulster competed in the $12,500 Winners Over for trotters but had the daunting task of starting from post eight. Jay Randall, who piloted Ulster to all eight of his Open wins in’ 18, did his best to get Ulster involved but the trip took its toll on the track’s defending top trotter who wound up fading late in the mile. While it is unlikely that they will take home another award this year, former champs Panocchio, Spreester and Ulster are still competing at a high level at Saratoga, all returning to Open company in the past couple of weeks.
Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon starting at 12:00 Noon with Saturday racing beginning at 6:45pm each week. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!