Veteran driver Jay Randall has had a knack for dominating the Open Trot at Saratoga Casino Hotel when the weather is cold. In 2014 and 2015, the Maureen Salino-trained Slugfest was named Trotter of the Year at the Spa and much of the reason he earned the postseason awards was due to the fact that he thrived in the first couple months of the racing season. After winning the Open four times in the first two months of his Horse of the Year campaign of 2015, Slugfest prevailed three times in the trotting feature in the first couple months of both ’16 and ’17. In ‘16, Slugfest fittingly won the season’s final trotting feature. While the veteran Slugfest has yet to be heard from this season, it is another talented trotter that Randall has become the regular pilot for that has taken over as the king of the cold.
Ulster has pretty much always been a Saratoga horse. Though he had a few stints racing out of town primarily at Vernon Downs and at the Meadowlands, Ulster has spent the majority of his career at the Spa, competing for a few different trainers. He displayed ability early on his career but he never could seem to put things all together. Breaking was a big issue for Ulster who did put on a lifetime mark at the Meadowlands as a four year old in the fall of ‘15 while trained by Kyle Spagnola. After bouncing around between three tracks in ’16, Ulster was back at the Spa full-time in 2017.
Last year was a career year for Ulster who competed against top level conditional competition as well as Winners Overs before spending much of the final months of ’17 in the local Open Trot. Splitting the season between the stables of Joe Facin Jr. and his daughter Amanda Facin, Ulster enjoyed his breakout campaign, earning more than $81,000 by way of six wins, seven seconds and five third-place finishes. It was in the final month of ’17 in which Ulster really started to dazzle and seemed to complete his metamorphosis into the top-flight trotter that he has become.
One week after going wire-to-wire in the $15,000 Winners Over, Ulster won his first local ever Open on December 10th. Moving first over at the half, Ulster drew off from the competition to pull off a mild upset at odds of 6-1. The following week, on closing day, Ulster once again scored an Open victory and once again did it despite getting a first-over journey. The Canadian-bred trotter was ultra-impressive becoming one of only a few horses to go back-to-back in a feature last year. Following a two month layoff, Ulster qualified on February 10th and, surprise surprise, won that too. Though it is hard to put too much stock into any qualifier, Ulster’s performance was bolstered by the fact that he beat pacers in the morning “scrimmage game” and did so behind an impressive final half.
For any horse to win his or her first start of the year is extremely rare. For an Open horse to do it is even more of an oddity. Ulster was tasked with drawing the outside post in the season’s first feature on opening day. Randall, who has seemed to fit Ulster like a glove, had the seven year old leave a bit despite the fact that Ulster’s game does not normally consist of him showing early speed. The rising star slid out approaching the three quarter pole and stormed right past his competition to prevail in 1:57.1. The victory was the fourth in a row for Ulster (not counting the qualifier), dating back to last year, and the third consecutive in the Open for the gelding. The second start of the season for Ulster yielded a fourth place finish following a difficult journey, again after starting from the outside post in the race.
Ulster’s one race “losing streak” came to a quick end when on March 4th, he went as impressive of a mile as any horse has this season. Once AGAIN starting from post seven in a seven-horse feature, Ulster left and dropped in early in front of two horses before again beginning a journey that has become his favorite. Randall guided Ulster first over and ground the leader into submission before stopping the timer in 1:55.3 for his fourth Open win in five tries. The final time also marked the fastest of the young season for any trotter at the Spa. On Sunday afternoon, Ulster was assigned the outside post. Post difficultly hasn’t seem to daunt Ulster over the course of his last handful of starts and Sunday was no different. Assigned the outside post in the $12,000 Open, Ulster changed tactics a bit and Randall pointed the star high-stepper out to the early lead. After prevailing with the trips he’s endured of late, it almost seemed like once Ulster hit the front, the race was over. And it was. A three-time Open winner now this season, Ulster bested his own previous mark for the fastest mile of the year by a trotter when he stopped the timer in 1:55.2 in what was his fifth career victory in the local feature, and fifth in his last six appearances in it.
It has been business as usual for Jay Randall as the veteran reinsman continues to have success in the Open Trot, finding a new star high-stepper to pilot that has dominated the action in the cold months of racing. Ulster certainly has a LOT to do to come close to the accolades and successes of Slugfest in recent years but the two talented trotters do have several similarities, not the least of which being their regular driver. Randall, aided in part by the success this season of Ulster, has gotten off to a big start to his 2018 campaign, highlighted by a Thursday afternoon card on which he piloted three winners. Randall, who has been a staple at the Spa for the past twenty years, doesn’t usually finish among the top five handful of drivers at Saratoga but is a steady and consistent force on a year-in, year-out basis. Randall has found a new star to pilot and that is the track’s breakout trotting star Ulster who has simply dominated the track’s top trotting competition in what has become a coming of age for the veteran campaigner.
Live racing takes place on Thursday and Sunday afternoons starting at 12:15pm and on Friday and Saturday evenings beginning at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!