The Peerless McGrath Award has been given out at Saratoga Raceway for decades. Dating all the way back to the 1970’s, the Peerless McGrath Award recognizes the track’s top up-and-coming trainer in a given year. The credentials for the award changed a bit several years back to include not only “rookies” but also breakthrough trainers. A trainer who may have had plenty of success out of town but has made a big impact at Saratoga for the first time is now considered among the nominees for the award which now has been given out almost forty times. Just like most awards in sports, sometimes the winner simply has a strong early showing and sort of fizzles out but other times, the winners go on to be among the elite. In baseball, for every Bryce Harper and Mike Trout that won the Rookie of the Year award (both later went on to be MVPs), there is a Neftali Feliz and a Geovany Soto who faded into mediocrity not long after earning the honors. There is a similar hit-or-miss ratio when looking at the Peerless McGrath winners of the past decade but three of the “hits” are trainers who are among the top few in the standings in the early stages of the 2017 racing season.
When Heidi Rohr won the Peerless McGrath Award in 2009, she had already been established as a top flight trainer in the business. A native of the State of Maine, Rohr was a top conditioner before moving to New York to train on a full-time basis. After winning the “rookie of the year” award in ’09, Rohr went on to become an “MVP”. Rohr won her first local training title in 2014, a year that saw her take home awards for Horsewoman and Trainer of the Year for the second consecutive season. A staple in the top five in the trainer standings since coming to town last decade, Rohr is once again off to a big start in ’17. Her stable has recorded wins in the Open Pace with Bettor Rock On N and in the Fillies and Mares Open with Milky Way Rae in the first month of the campaign. On Saturday night, Rohr’s That’s Some Plan became one of only a couple horses to already register three wins at the Spa this year as the claiming pacer was one of three winners on the night for Rohr. Givenupdreaming, a nominee for Pacer of the Year in his first season competing at the Spa in ’16, scored on Saturday and wrapped up a Rohr hat trick. While she uses several of the top drivers at the track, Rohr has teamed up with Billy Dobson with a lot of success in the opening month of the meet. With a training average well above .400 already, Rohr currently sits second in the trainer standings once again this year as the former McGrath Award winner has displayed consistency and longevity.
The year before Rohr won the up-and-coming/breakthrough award, it was Gary Levine that achieved the honor. While Levine hasn’t finished among the top few in the trainer standings in any of the last several seasons, he has certainly been a successful former McGrath winner. Nearly a decade after winning the award, Levine is off to a strong start to his ’17 campaign. The 34 year old Levine’s stable was led by a claimer named Pacific Northwest in ‘08. A $6,000 claim for Levine, Pacific Northwest went on to earn Claimer of the Year at the Spa and really helped put Levine on the map in his award-winning 2008. Ever since, the local conditioner has been a solid force albeit with a much smaller size stable than that of Rohr or the top few trainers in the standings every year. 2017 started out in style for Levine who wasted little time seeing his trainees make trips to the winner’s circle. On opening day, Levine had a training double winning two of the season’s first three races. Both Shelikescandy and Show Me Up raced throughout the winter and scored in their return to the Spa that afternoon. Young trotter Shez All Muscles prevailed on Friday night and became the first two-time winner on the campaign for Levine who is off to a big start to his ’17 season.
Kyle Spagnola has spent his entire life around stables. The son of multiple training champion Dave Spagnola, Kyle began a barn of his own a few years back and excelled right away. In 2013, the younger Spagnola took home the Peerless McGrath Award as he had a breakout year in his first full season as a trainer. Spagnola won several Opens in ’14 and his Road Bet was named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year for her efforts. Each year, Kyle has finished with a well above average training percentage despite the fact that his stable size has continuously increased, thus making finishing with a high percentage that much tougher. He had several claimers be nominees for different awards in ’16 in what was his best year to date, a year that saw him finish third in the trainer standings. His Need Help Here took home the honors for claiming trotters while Cash Me Out was a contender for Trotter of the Year after a monster campaign of his own. On Sunday, we were scheduled to see a Spagnola trainee compete in an Open for the first time this season as Cash Me Out was set to make his return to the $12,000 Open Trot. The veteran trotter will have to wait to make his ’17 debut as he was scratched out of Sunday’s race due to sickness. Kyle is again off to a solid start, with a mixture of pacers and trotters, mostly competing in the mid-level conditional ranks and in claimers. Fittingly, Sunday’s early daily double was comprised of a Spagnola-trained winner and one from Levine after a Saturday night dominated by Rohr. While some of the former Peerless McGrath Award winners of the last decade are not enjoying a ton of success and others may not even be training anymore, the Rohr-Levine-Spagnola trio is thriving at Saratoga proving that their “breakthrough” awards were no fluke.
Live racing takes place on Thursdays and Sundays with matinees beginning at 12:15pm while racing is under the lights on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!