Trainer Andy Gardner has made quite an impact since coming to Saratoga Casino Hotel a few years back. A native of Fort Covington in northern New York, Gardner comes from a harness racing family and has been part of the sport for most of his life. Coming to the Spa following several seasons of calling Vernon Downs home, the now 40 year old conditioner has established himself as one of the top trainers at the track.
After finishing second in the trainer standings in 2022, Gardner has had a bit of a down year, by his standards, but still sits seventh amongst local conditioners this season. Gardner, to his own admission, mentioned that he may have had too large of a stable to start the year and thus has downsized a bit recently.
Still operating a big barn that features twenty horses, Gardner has unveiled a handful of two year olds in recent weeks at the Spa. A trio of freshmen out of the Gardner barn has been featured in the newly formed Learn and Earn Series’ contested at Saratoga. These series are designed for two year old pacers and trotters and were instituted to give freshmen a chance to make some money while learning to become racehorses.
Oftentimes, if they are not stakes horses, two year olds wind up competing against three year olds to begin their careers, a tall order and sometimes one that can negatively impact their development. To counteract that, the track started the Learn and Earn Series’, one for pacers and one for trotters. These series’ go for $6,000 per division and consist of four legs in four consecutive weeks leading up to the Final.
The Learn And Earn Pacing Series got underway on August 4th with two divisions consisting of seven freshmen each. Leg two of the series was contested last Friday night (August 11) and again featured two divisions but this time, there were sixteen participants taking part. Although one of the leg one winners, Irish Exit Express, did not participate in leg two, an additional Gardner trainee joined stablemate Manhattan Project, who competed in the first leg, in participating in the series. The Andy Gardner stable sent out freshmen Kim’s Choice and Manhattan Project in the second leg and while both fillies squared off against the boys, they both enjoyed big time success.
Kim’s Choice was an inexpensive yearling when she was purchased by owners Cody and Bryan La Page. The latter broke the filly as a baby before sending her to Gardner to continue the process of bringing her along. “She became a really pleasant surprise,” Gardner told me. “We only paid $8,000 for her so she didn’t come in with the highest of hopes but she’s really come along. It’s been a slow process with her but she’s a smart filly that does everything right.” Kim’s Choice’s first ever start came in the Fair Circuit at Goshen where she went coast-to-coast on Fourth of the July weekend. At that point, the freshman filly’s connections took a shot with her in a New York Sire Stakes race contested at Saratoga.
A mile that went in 1:53 was significantly more than she was ready for (and just about any other two year old filly would be ready for!) and from there, it was back to the Fairs where Kim’s Choice recorded a second-place finish before winning at Malone Fair, near where Gardner is from. The filly debuted in the Learn and Earn Pacing Series on Friday night and drew post position two. Luke Hanners did the piloting for Gardner and moved Kim’s Choice out to the early lead. The filly took it from there and powered away from her competition late to prevail by nearly four lengths, stopping the timer in 1:59.1.
“She’s been great and getting better,” Gardner acknowledged. “I think she’s got a lot more in her. She probably could pace 1:56 now if she had to…I think! She definitely has a pretty big upside.” Kim’s Choice will certainly be one to watch as the series for the youngsters continues towards its third and fourth legs in the coming weeks.
Gardner looked to sweep the two divisions of the Learn and Earn on Friday when his Manhattan Project drew post two for her second try in the series. The freshman filly made a pair of starts in the Excelsior division of the NY Sire Stakes but managed just a fourth-place finish before finishing fifth in leg one of the Learn and Earn. On Friday night, Manhattan Project followed in stablemate Kim’s Choice’s hoofsteps in moving to the front-end at the start.
“We wanted to take a shot on the engine with her this week,” Gardner told me. “Turns out, she’s pretty good on the lead. She likes to fight off horses.” And fight Manhattan Project did on Friday as she went coast-to-coast to give Gardner and Luke Hanners a sweep of the two series’ divisions.
“She’s a good looking filly,” Gardner said of Manhattan Project. “But she was behind all winter long and we went really slow with her. She was pretty inexpensive and we didn’t have any big time expectations for her. I wasn’t really sure she’d make it to the races this year so this is all bonus. She was a bit of a slow learner but has been getting better every week. She wants to be a race horse.”
“The plan is for her to race through the series and call it a season and hopefully get her ready for a good three year old campaign.” Kim’s Choice and Manhattan Project, a pair of rookies who thrived in leg two of the series and are certainly learning and earning as they go.
Gardner debuted one of his trainees in the Learn and Earn for trotters on Sunday night. Charlie Parker drew the rail for his first try in the series which like the pace had divisions going for $6,000 each. Gardner has high hopes for his freshman trotter who he admits he didn’t think much of early on.
“When he was training down, I didn’t think he was much. Then suddenly, it all just clicked for him. Once he figured it out, it was game on,” Gardner mentioned excitedly. Charlie Parker came into Sunday’s try with three starts made in the Fair Circuit which resulted in a pair of wins and a second-place finish. “He might be a pretty nice trotter,” Andy said. “He was a slow learner but man, he’s fast. He’s not staked to anything but I’m expecting good things from him.”
When I asked Gardner his thoughts on the newly implemented Learn and Earns, his reaction was pretty predictable for a trainer enjoying success in series’. “I’m a big fan of the series’,” Gardner explained. “Four weeks of it is kind of a lot but it’s a great opportunity for these horses to learn while facing horses they can compete with. I thought it was a great idea when I heard about it. I’m very happy with these series.”
And why wouldn’t he be? Gardner has been on a role with his freshmen in the first couple legs of the Learn and Earns for both pacers and trotters as the top-flight trainer seems to be laser-focused on making a run in the final weeks of summer and into the fall season at the Spa.
Live racing takes place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the month of August with first post times set for 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!