It was a year ago right now when the harness racing world shut down. The whole country closed its doors as we began what has been the longest year of most of our lives. With so many seeking any kind of entertainment, there just wasn’t anything for sports fans, horse players or bettors to do. During the shutdown, there was a popular Twitter surge where there was a lot of discussion about different historical lists and favorites. This spilled over to horse racing and I participated, assembling my list of the top ten horses I have experienced in my time at the track.
At the time of the making of my list, I had 25 years of watching the local horses and really being fully invested, first as a fan and then as a handicapper and announcer. Incredibly, it’s now been twenty years since I called my first race at Saratoga and I, along with many of you, have seen some great horses. My personal list was assembled to blend longevity and consistency with just the sheer “wow” factor. The horses I included were memorable from the accomplishments of either their career as a whole or from simply possessing the “it” factor that made them standouts. While the best horse I ever saw was National Horse of the Year Bunny Lake, she didn’t make my list because although she came out of the local stable of John Stark Jr, she did almost all of her damage out of town throughout her career. The list I put together, almost exactly one year ago, came to the forefront of my mind this week as we saw two of my top ten not only compete last week at the Spa but thrive.
The list of my top ten performers of the last 25 years at Saratoga looks like this….10) Spreester 9) Flapjack Attack 8) Landmark Honor 7) Panocchio 6) Hickory Rockette 5) Cash Me Out 4) Kelly’s Noah 3) Prime Interest 2) American Kash 1) Artful Way. Delving a little deeper on the trip down memory lane, Spreester was a horse who won Two Year Old and Three Year Old Pacer of the Year awards at Saratoga before establishing herself as a top-flight Open Mare. A NY Sire Stakes star in her younger days, Spreester won Filly-Mare Pacer of the Year and was the co-Horse of the Year at the Spa in 2018. Flapjack Attack was a horse that commanded the attention of every horse bettor for a few years at the track. A super-talent, he had the all-age track record for trotters at one point and was the favorite in the Open pretty much every week despite usually being assigned outside posts. He was a monster and when on top of his game, there weren’t many more dominant trotters. Flapjack Attack was the 2004 Trotter and Horse of the Year.
James Harvey owned and trained two stalwarts on my list in Hickory Rockette and Kelly’s Noah. Both of his stars achieved a rare feat in that they each went back-to-back as Pacer of the Year at Saratoga at a time and took home Horse of the Year honors once. Hickory Rockette didn’t have the long-term career that Kelly’s Noah did but when she was at her best, she was simply sensational. What made her accomplishments even more impressive is that when she won Pacer of the Year in consecutive years, she did so as a mare that battled primarily the boys. Hard-hitting Kelly’s Noah is a Saratoga Hall of Famer and one of the most successful horses in track history who year in and year out was a force among Open pacers.
Another horse to win Pacer of the Year in two straight seasons is Panocchio. Jimmy Mattison trains Panocchio who won the top pacing award in 2014 and 2015 but whose accomplishments span a far longer time than that. In fact, Panocchio is still racing these days and though he isn’t the top-notch Open Pacer he once was, he still competes at a high level. Panocchio always had to tough it out as he isn’t a horse who usually displays a lot of early speed. His trips were tough and he was tougher. Panocchio had a perfect blend of consistency and “high ceiling” as he beat the best for years. Landmark Honor’s career was a lot shorter than most of his counterparts on my list but when he was in his prime, there was no pacer as impressive. Landmark Honor set the all-age track record when winning one of his many Open Pace tries at the Spa. He recorded wins parked the mile in the Open and no horse could go overcome for difficult trips and still have success. It took a harness racing legend, Bunny Lake, to eclipse the mark set by Landmark Honor who was the Pacer of the Year at the track back in 2000.
Prime Interest and American Kash were probably the two best trotters I have watched. Prime Interest won Trotter of the Year in ’08 and ’10 and was named Horse of the Year in 2008. He was probably the best trotter at the track for three or four years. Including in his feats was breaking the track record for trotters. He was great on the lead but didn’t need it. In fact, he often seemed to be his best when coming from off the pace. American Kash came out of the stable of Bill Blake Jr. who drove the trotter in all of his starts. This was a tough as nails horse who was the first horse in track history to win the Horse of the Year award in back-to-back seasons and who NEVER got beat when he could make the lead. In fact, over about a five year span, the only time he was on the engine and didn’t win was in a race in which he suffered an unfortunate injury. He was simply awesome and finished in a virtual tie with Prime Interest on my list for top trotter at the Spa.
The horses who are number five and number one on my list have had their accomplishments chronicled in my column numerous times over the years, so this time, I’ll keep it brief. Cash Me Out has over $1.2 million made lifetime. He did it as a locally-based Sire Stakes star at ages two and three, winning the awards for those categories in ’13 and ’14. Cash Me Out turned into an Open trotter after that and he has thrived both locally and out of town. He was the 2019 Horse of the Year at Saratoga and last Monday, he was at it again. The Kyle Spagnola trainee made it look easy as a decisive winner in the $12,000 Open Trot. Cash Me Out isn’t the kind of horse that’ll shatter track records. He doesn’t make your eyes pop out when you watch him. But what he does do is win….and earn money. And now at age ten is still the dominant force among local trotters.
While I went back and forth a bit on some of the positions on my list, who was number one was never in doubt. Artful Way is the best horse I’ve watched on a consistent basis in my 25 years here. The Jackie Greene trainee won Pacer of the Year a record three straight times from 2016-2018 and earned at least a share of Horse of the Year in ’17 and ’18. He is the kind of horse that is breathtaking to watch. He can get away last, circle top-caliber pacers and make it look easy. Artful Way has plenty of early speed too and when he’s on the front, it’s pretty much game over. He won 42 races from 2016-2018 and did so against the best of the best. Maybe the top money earner in track history, Artful Way suffered an injury two seasons ago and has been lightly raced since. On Tuesday afternoon, the nine year old was back in the Open and he did what we’ve seen him do for years. Behind a monster surge which saw him close in a final half of 56 seconds, Artful Way powered past the race’s 2-5 favorite in the stretch to add another to his Open win tally, springing the upset at odds of 9-1. What we’ve seen from Artful Way was enough to make him my number one horse ever and that was before any impact he is making these days. Seeing him in the Saratoga winner’s circle just seemed natural last week. It’s been his home away from home. This is just gravy now for the top horse at the Spa in the last 25 years. It’s hard to believe but Artful Way is still winning Opens.
Live racing takes place every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with first post times of 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!