They were friends and even roommates before their careers in harness racing ever began. They both got off to sensational starts to their career back in the 1980’s and are at the top of all-time leaderboard in the driver and trainer standings at Saratoga. They are both Saratoga Harness Hall of Famers and they are both still thriving at the Spa after several decades. Dave Spagnola and Frank Coppola Jr. have had, in many ways, very similar careers in harness racing. To say their careers are parallel, though, would not necessarily be accurate because really their careers have intersected at so many points.
Spagnola was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer and when he entered the Hall, he did so as the winningest trainer in track history. The only conditioner to have recorded over 1,000 wins at the Spa, Spagnola simply dominated the local training ranks for the better part of two decades after being named the track’s top up-and-coming trainer in 1987. Just two years later, Spagnola’s name was atop the trainer standings as he won his first of what would be several titles in ’89. In fact, Spag rattled off five consecutive training championships as he tallied the most wins of any local trainer each year from 1989-1993. While he went a few years afterwards without winning another title, Spagnola vaulted back to the top in ’99. He went on to score three more training championships from ’99-’01 to move his track-best tally to eight. On Friday night, Spagnola had a training double, adding two more wins to his total to bring him to 56 at the Spa this year and put him in seventh in the ’16 standings. While he may not have that standout stable star that he has had in seasons past, Spagnola continues to pump out wins to add to his total of now almost 1,300 at Saratoga, by far the most for any trainer since records started officially being kept by the USTA in the early 90’s. When Spagnola was inducted into the Hall of Fame in June, he was fittingly introduced that evening by his longtime friend and cohort Frank Coppola Jr. Both members of the Spagnola stable who comprised his training double on Friday night were piloted by who else but Coppola, who himself was a 2011 inductee into the HOF.
Frank Coppola Jr.’s driving career has been often chronicled in this column in years past. The seemingly ageless sulky wonder is enjoying one of his best years yet in 2016. Coppola, who will turn 57 next week, is still on top of his game. Despite facing a daunting deficit as late as the summer, Frankie has surged up the standings and now enjoys a commanding lead with less than one month remaining in the racing season. Barring something unforeseen, Coppola will win his record-setting eleventh Saratoga driving title this year. A driver renowned for his class and love for the sport, Coppola is a competitor. The man loves to win and that is something he did for the 5,000th time in October of last year. A true Saratoga driver, at the time of his historic 5,000th victory, Coppola had driven over 4,800 of those winners right here at his longtime home track. With well better than 200 wins to his credit during the ’16 campaign, Coppola has now made over 5,000 trips to the Saratoga Harness winner’s circle alone, making him one of only two drivers in track history to accomplish that feat (Dan Cappello Jr also has more than 5,000 local scores.) In the midst of this sensational season, Coppola has become the winningest driver in Saratoga Harness history with now just shy of 5,100 local victories. The veteran reinsman has “left” and come back on a few occasions but every time he returns, he seems to have lost absolutely nothing as far as his skills or aptitude to put his horses in the right spot at the right juncture.
Coppola, who holds the single season record for wins by a driver behind a 341-win 2009 campaign, had maybe his best night of the year on Friday when the track’s leading driver piled up five more wins. The lethal tandem of the last several decades of Coppola and Spagnola went two-for-two together as Frankie piloted Riverofroyalty to a career best score and pacer Saulsbrook Alana to victory for the second straight week for Spagnola. During one span, Coppola secured victories in four out of five races on Friday night including one while sitting behind a 39-1 longshot winner. The name Spagnola, by the way, currently shows up near the top of the trainer standings a couple of times as Dave’s son Kyle is thriving at the Spa and sits in third among local conditioners in ’16. While not on an exclusive basis, the younger Spagnola often secures the services of Frank Coppola Jr (they combined for a win on Saturday night) to pilot his trainees because after all, it worked and is working for dad so why not follow in those footsteps as well. And why not use the man with the most wins in track history and is just a few weeks away from becoming an eleven-time driving champion to pilot as many of your trainees as possible? Dave Spagnola and Frank Coppola Jr, two harness racing “lifers,” two Hall of Famers, and the two men who have secured the most wins in track history in their respective categories. Simply put, the good friends and former roommates from decades ago are local legends…..and they’re not done yet!
Live racing takes place every Thursday beginning at 4pm and continues on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 6:45pm. Sunday matinees kick off each week at 12:15pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!