The 2021 racing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel is in deep stretch and with only a couple of days left, the track’s breakout training star is finishing on a tear. Andy Gardner took home the Peerless McGrath Award for top breakthrough trainer when awards were given out last week. The 38 year old’s career year has been chronicled here in parts throughout the last several months but the final surge in the stretch that he had was powerful. Gardner is now likely to finish second in the trainer standings after a monster last couple of weeks which has seen the veteran conditioner bypass eight-time leading conditioner Melissa Beckwith and start to enter the neighborhood of Larry Stalbaum who has been atop the list for the last few months. Barring something unforeseen in the last two race cards, Gardner will end up second to Stalbaum although he could potentially fall back to third should the Beckwith stable rattle off several winners in the final week of the campaign.
Last week, Gardner achieved something he had never done before. Led by his stable star Squee Hanover, the Peerless McGrath winner scored victories in Opens on back-to-back race cards. Squee Hanover wound up finishing second in the voting for Trotter of the Year after having a sensational season at the Spa. The five year old trotter was a breakout star among high-steppers and recorded his impressive thirteenth victory last Monday when competing in the $15,000 Open. Squee Hanover has been a picture of consistency over the course of the last several months and continued his dazzling season on Monday despite starting from his assigned outside post position. Reinsman Billy Dobson took Squee Hanover back in the early going in a Monday feature that saw the favored Big Box Hanover fly through a first quarter of 27.1. Squee Hanover revved up the engine approaching the half mile pole and continued to progress on the outside until he approached the leader. The razor sharp Gardner trainee wrestled control away from the race’s favorite before prevailing in 1:55.3. The win was one of seven in the Open Trot and one of thirteen on the season with all of his feature scores coming since late September. While Cash Me Out, who has now prevailed in the voting for Trotter of the Year on consecutive occasions, was the winningest horse in the Open Trot this year, there is no question that Squee Hanover is the season’s biggest breakout star among trotters recording all of his 34 starts in ’21 right here at Saratoga and earning over six figures in the process to be the richest horse of the season at the Spa.
While Squee Hanover has been no stranger to victories in the Open, another Gardner made her Open debut trip to the winner’s circle last week. All Speed Rising was claimed by Gardner in July for owners George Tackley and Wendy Storrier. Although it was in the bottom level condition, All Speed Rising scored in her debut for Gardner and climbed the ladder from there. After winning in an $11,000 race in September, the speedy mare moved up into the Open. She had competed against the top mares at the track for her previous connections and now All Speed Rising was again squaring off against Open pacers. She finished third once in the $15,000 Open before moving back to the level where she most recently won. On Tuesday, All Speed Rising was back into the feature for ladies off another win and was dismissed at odds of 11-1 against a group of the track’s top distaffers. Shawn Gray picked up the catch-drive for Gardner and was aggressive from the get-go. After sizzling through a first quarter in 27.2, All Speed Rising got a breather of nearly a minute in the middle half before drawing out to a lead that proved to be insurmountable for her competition. The six year old mare recorded her first ever Open win and continued the scorching hot streak of her trainer Andy Gardner who won three races on Tuesday and six during the three-day race week. Gardner has eclipsed his previous high tally for starts for a year and shattered his previous career highs in wins and purses earned in what has been an award-winning campaign for the track’s breakout training star.
The Open Trot belonged mostly to Cash Me Out and Squee Hanover in 2021 and the Fillies and Mares Open was dominated this season by Surreal Feeling who was named Horse of the Year last week. The other weekly feature at the Spa is the Open Pace for the boys and it was by far the most wide-open of the Opens this year. The Pacer of the Year once again this season was Crockets Cullen N but the classy veteran only prevailed in the Open three times in ’21. In fact, only one horse scored victories in the regular Sunday feature as many as five times. Trainer Amanda Kelley’s Some Waratah A won four Opens this year to finish in a tie for second behind Macheasy A who was the only five-time winner in ’21. Though Some Waratah A hasn’t raced here in quite some time, another of Kelley’s trainees has taken the baton from his stablemate and become a force in the Sunday feature. Lake Charles won his first local Open in early September and the young pacer finished up his season in style on Sunday afternoon when driver Leon Bailey put him on the front-end in the $15,000 Open and they never looked back. Lake Charles, who secured his second victory in the local feature two weeks ago, made another trip to the winner’s circle in the final pacing Open of the year as he went coast-to-coast in 1:53.3 over a track labeled ‘good.’ Kelley finishes up her season with seven wins in the Open Pace, more than any other trainer in a race that proved wide open all year long.
Monday and Tuesday’s matinees will be the final two race cards for the year with the 2022 racing season beginning on February 4th. Until next year, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season and we’ll see YOU next year at the finish line!