Gary Levine won the Peerless McGrath Award at Saratoga Casino Hotel back in 2008 at the age of 26. Levine has been around horses for much of his life as his father Steve was a trainer for years. In his breakout ’08 campaign, Gary has a phenomenal season. Levine finished that year with a training average of a sensational .367 behind 69 wins in 300 starts. While he would race a bit at other tracks throughout New York, Levine competed primarily at his home track of Saratoga. That blueprint still fits Levine some thirteen years later as the now veteran conditioner continues to thrive. In fact, the Levine barn has never been hotter than it’s been over the course of the last year and a half.
2020 was a year unlike any other in our world and that certainly was true in the sport of harness racing. With the whole industry shut down for a period of several months, Levine’s usual mode of operation was put on hold. Gary isn’t the trainer that breaks and raises babies and doesn’t often take part in the New York Sire Stakes. He rarely has a maiden in his barn and it’s rare for him to feature an Open level horse in his barn. The now 38 year old trainer focuses on the classes pretty much in between maidens and Opens and that’s where he does his damage. Levine will claim horses from time to time to but his focus is buying and selling horses. There are several different ways that trainers build their stable and one of the common methods is simply through connections. They buy and sell horses whether via the internet or through personal connections either from home or from other tracks. This is Levine’s sweet spot as the top-flight trainer turns over his stock at a much more rapid rate than other conditioners do. The process of buying and selling was halted last year during the height of the pandemic and Levine wasn’t able to construct his barn via his normal preferred method. While there was some turnover of horses as the summer went on, Gary raced what he had and still put together his best year ever in ’20.
Gary Levine took home his first training title last year, finishing the Saratoga meet with 54 wins, five more than Melissa Beckwith who had won the previous trainer championship. Levine certainly did it with quality but maybe even more so did it with quantity. Levine started more horses at the Spa, 280, than any other local trainer last year. He features a blend of mares and colts and geldings, of trotters and pacers, but again, rarely races in a maiden or an Open. The rare exception to two of the common trends among Levine trainees is Bontz N. The veteran pacing mare was acquired by Levine midway through the 2019 season and pretty much dominated the top-flight mares at the Spa. She came up just one vote shy of winning the Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year Award in ’19. In last year’s chaotic and abbreviated campaign, Bontz N was again near the top among the lady pacers at the Spa. If there had been awards given out, she almost certainly would have taken home the top honor. At the start of the ’21 campaign, Bontz N went on a nice run at Yonkers, winning a pair of races in February. While she hasn’t been her best in the early going of the Spa season, Bontz N did finish second on Wednesday afternoon in a start in which she dropped in company. The second-place finish was one of three on the afternoon for Levine who had three horses in and finished second with all of them. Watch for Bontz N this Wednesday as she drew the rail seeking a return to her winning ways.
Berazzled is one of the many new acquisitions to the Levine stable this season and on Wednesday made her debut in the Fillies and Mares Open. The seven year old mare came to the Spa with over $400,000 in earnings and finished first or second in her first four starts out of Levine’s barn. On Wednesday, Berazzled was tasked with taking on a 1-5 betting favorite in the feature for the ladies and put in a big-time effort for Levine. Berazzled toughed-out a first-over trip on the race’s favorite and almost gunned her down in the final strides before finishing as the runner-up in her debut in the local Open. She’ll be back at it this Wednesday when she in the morning line favorite in the $10,000 feature. Levine’s three Wednesday “bridesmaids” on the filly and mare-filled card last week all raced well but certainly “second best” wasn’t the trend of the week for his barn. After all, the track’s defending training champ enjoyed a three-win afternoon on Tuesday to pad his lead in the standings in the early stages of the ’21 season.
Levine races as many horses in a year than any trainer at the track and is well on the path to lead the track’s trainers in starts again in ’21. On Tuesday afternoon, the Levine stable had five horses in to go and all five of them were installed at odds of 5-2 or less in the morning line with four of them being their race’s favorite. The day looked like it would be a big one for the Bennington, Vermont native and the afternoon played out just as it appeared it would. Levine won three races on Tuesday to go with a second and third-place finish. The horses that won for Levine fit the regular blueprint for the leading trainer. Rancousy went coast-to-coast as the big favorite in just the pacer’s second start out of the Levine stable and King Street was making his debut out of Gary’s barn when he scored on the engine. Western Beachboy, who completed the Levine Tuesday hat trick, is one of the veterans of his barn. After all, Western Beachboy has been with Levine for about six months, a near eternity for a Levine trainee. His style works. His philosophy suits him perfectly. Gary Levine buys and sells horses. Sometimes, he moves them up through the conditional ranks before selling them. Other times, he races them once or twice before moving them on to someone else’s stable. On occasion, such as in the case of Bontz N, Levine will hang on to a few of his trainees and keep them for the long haul. It isn’t a blueprint that too many trainers use. Perhaps for some it is too much of a daunting task to keep buying and selling horses and then to have to “get to know” the new horses in an attempt to immediately thrive with them. Levine is doing it to perfection over the last few years and the trainer who succeeds in part due to quantity is certainly doing so with quality as well in pursuit of a second consecutive training title at the Spa.
Live racing takes place every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with first post times set for 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!