In every season since 2009, we have had a female trainer finish up the year on top of the trainer standings at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Melissa Beckwith’s stable has emerged victorious in four straight years and seven of the last eight. Jackie Greene and Heidi Rohr combined for two training titles since Colin Johnson was the leading trainer at the Spa in ‘09. Though Jimmy Nickerson (who took over full time as the trainer of the barn previously under the guidance of Rohr) and Gary Levine each loom as formidable threats among local trainers, there is a different name that could well see her name drift to the top of the standings in 2020.
Last year, Tracy Tarantino debuted at the Spa and like many of the aforementioned successful women trainers, she runs the barn alongside someone with a very familiar name in harness racing circles. Michigan native Larry Stalbaum began his career in the mid 1980’s and has enjoyed massive success. Leaving Michigan over a decade ago, Stalbaum has traveled a significant amount racing at numerous tracks throughout the northeast. An occasional participant at Saratoga in years past, Stalbaum competed more regularly at the Spa in 2019 and finished the season just one win outside of the top ten among local drivers. All the while, Stalbaum and Tarantino’s stable was thriving and much like Larry in the driver standings, Tarantino finished just one win away from ending up in the top ten in trainers in ’19 despite having significantly lesser starts than most of her competitors. Her .415 training average was second among Spa conditioners. While they still raced at numerous tracks, Tarantino and Stalbaum proved to be a dynamic duo when focusing more of their attention on Saratoga late in the 2019 campaign. Their season was highlighted by an unprecedented streak in the local Open Pace from their superstar pacer Crockets Cullen N.
Crockets Cullen N set his lifetime mark at Saratoga in 2018 when at the age of seven he scored in 1:51.4 to win what would be the first of two Open Pace victories at the Spa for him that season. The super-talented New Zealand bred became a full-fledged superstar last year when he won fifteen times. The versatile standout went three months without suffering a defeat in the local Open last fall piling up nine consecutive wins from the final day in August to closing weekend of the meet in mid-December. That unheard of streak against top-flight competition led Crockets Cullen N to earn the Pacer of the Year Award at Saratoga for Tarantino and Stalbaum.
Trying to follow up an award-winning campaign isn’t easy but during opening week, Crockets Cullen N picked up right where he left off in ’19 at the Spa. In a five-horse Open Pace, Crockets Cullen N was assigned the outside post. After getting away last in the compact field of five, the nine year old rushed up first over on the leader past the half and was fortunate to be able to drop into the pocket for a bit before taking over the lead around the final turn. The win streak moved to ten in local pacing features for Crockets Cullen N who scored in the season’s first Open Pace. The victory served as the first of back-to-back Open wins last week for Stalbaum and Tarantino who scored in a more unlikely fashion on Thursday afternoon.
Miss Irish Rose A, who was winless in ten tries against the track’s top lady pacers in 2019, was one of five distaffers who competed in the season’s first installment of the Fillies and Mares Open on Thursday. Dismissed at odds of 16-1, Miss Irish Rose A was situated into the pocket by Stalbaum as they yielded in the early going to Yonkers invader Sandy’s Beach. With their race’s favorite making an unsuccessful bid while looking to go first to last, Sandy’s Beach and Miss Irish Rose A drew away from the rest of their rivals before the Tarantino trainee surged past to stop the timer in 1:54.2 while recording the win in the season’s first ladies feature of 2020. The victory in the Open was one of two on the day for Stalbaum and Tarantino whose Gina Grace N made good on a 1-5 promise to drop and pop on Thursday.
With opening week serving as a continuation of what was a sensational fall for Stalbaum and Tarantino, that combo is sending out a warning to the competition that they will be a force to be reckoned with in 2020. Making their presence even more imposing for their fellow horsemen and women is that Tarantino is now stabled at Saratoga. Undoubtedly, the trainees from her barn will have their efforts focused primarily on the Spa this year. While there is no way you could assume that to extrapolate the numbers from their couple month local stint in ’19 is realistic, if the stats that Tarantino and Stalbaum piled up late last season translate to the ’20 campaign what they could achieve this year could be staggering. In fact, it is every bit of a logical thought to assume that Tarantino could threaten for a training title at Saratoga. And if opening week serves as any indication of what is to come, Tarantino and Stalbaum could be making an awful lot of trips to the winner’s circle now that they are calling Saratoga home. Though success for Tarantino is pretty new (last year was her first full season as a trainer), Stalbaum is no stranger to winning and winning often. The 56 year old reinsman is just 25 driving victories away from the 6,000 career win mark, a milestone he is likely to hit in the next several weeks. As for Tarantino, though projecting a repeat of her .415 training average of 2019 at the Spa to this season doesn’t seem very realistic what does seem feasible is that with continued success she could well end up near or at the top of the trainer standings with a full season of local action in front of her. It will be interesting to see if we could end up with our fourth different female conditioner atop the trainer’s mountain in the last decade at Saratoga as Tracy Tarantino tosses her name into a crowded group near the top of the local training colony.
Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon starting at noon and on Saturday evenings with first post time set for 5:00pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!