Seemingly for decades, the driver standings at the end of every year at Saratoga Casino Hotel would have Frank Coppola Jr. or Dan Cappello Jr. on top. Most years, it was those two Saratoga Hall of Famers finishing one-two. Billy Dobson came to the Spa in 2010 to set up shop here full-time. He made an immediate impact winning the driving title in his first full local season. Fast forward a bit more than a decade and Dobson has not only been the track’s sulky star but now owns eight driving titles at Saratoga. Jimmy Devaux has been a regular at both Monticello and here at the Spa over that span and after finishing second among local reinsmen on a few occasions won his first Saratoga driving title last year. Dobson and Devaux have quite a ways to go to match the local longevity of Coppola and Cappello but they have emerged as a dynamic duo among local drivers.
While Dobson and Devaux have accounted for nine of the last twelve driving titles, there has been an influx of “newbies” that is beginning to thrive. Brett Beckwith, the son of longtime pilot Mark Beckwith, made a major impact in his rookie season in the sulky in ’21. At the age of 18, Beckwith took home the Johnny Page Award for top up-and-coming driver at the Spa last year and is already establishing himself as one of the track’s top catch-drivers. Another pair of young reinsmen began to make a local impact late last season for the first time and that pair has thrived in the early going of the ’22 campaign.
Luke Hanners drove a few horses at Freehold for local trainer Jaymes McAssey last year at which point the track’s former Peerless McGrath Award winner for top up-and-coming trainers suggested to Hanners that he come to Saratoga to give it a go.. Hanners made the trek in on Sundays last fall when he drove for McAssey and quickly started to pick up more and more catch-drives. The 21 year old enjoyed more than a little success in the sulky in his Spa debut and after travelling to multiple tracks throughout the wintertime is establishing himself as a Saratoga regular in the early going of this year’s meet.
Hanners got off to a little bit of a slow start on opening weekend when the young pilot made just one trip to the winner’s circle. The “cold start” wouldn’t last long though as Luke piloted three winners on Saturday Feb 12th including one while driving for McAssey. Last Tuesday afternoon, the early favorite for the Johnny Page Award rattled off three more wins and did it in style. Hanners scored a natural hat trick securing victories in three consecutive races on the matinee card. The Hanners hat trick got started when he drove for who else but McAssey and guided young pacer Allboutthematerial to her maiden victory. Following a win in a $10,500 race for fillies and mares, Hanners finished off his mid-card tear by sitting behind the winner of Tuesday’s $15,000 featured race.
Chasethecloudsaway won sixteen times in 2021 and Hanners was her driver for several of them. The Monticello-based distaffer wound up being the favorite in the local Fillies and Mares Open almost every week throughout the final two months of the season at the Spa. Chasethecloudsaway scored in the Open four times in November and December to wrap up her sensational campaign. Following one qualifier at Monticello, the five year old was back at it on Tuesday when she competed in the $15,000 Open. Hanners put her in position in the early going before coming first-over with the Chris Petrelli-trainee who didn’t waste any time getting back into the win column to complete the three-bagger on the day for her driver.
On Saturday evening, Hanners continued his hot streak when he and the trainer who is responsible for bringing him to town simply starred. Jaymes McAssey had three winners on Saturday evening and his training triple featured Hanners in the sulky. That tandem didn’t waste any time making trips to victory lane as Hanners had four wins and McAssey three by the time the fifth race of the evening was complete. Pacers Diamond Cowboy, Delightful Joe and Fireball each recorded Saturday scores for their red hot connections who made runs up the, way too early to really consider, driver and trainers standings after enjoying a big week at the Spa.
While the young and to this point nomadic Hanners is still trying to cement his role as a regular at a track, the other Spa newbie has already has already had the title of “driving champion” attached to his name. Leon Bailey has been the leading driver at Vernon Downs for the last two years and came to Saratoga last fall to compete regularly for the first time. He enjoyed a fair amount of success and really followed a similar blueprint to Hanners as far as getting a few drives and then building more and more before the end of the meet. Also like Hanners, Bailey didn’t have a great first week of this season but has steadily seen improved results. On the night that saw Hanners record his first driving triple of ’22, Bailey sat behind the winner of the $15,000 Open Pace. Lake Charles won the featured race for pacers three times late last year and didn’t waste any time tallying a victory as Bailey guided the Amanda Kelley trainee to an impressive wire-to-wire win in 1:54.3 on February 19th. Last Saturday, Lake Charles came up short of repeating and finished as the third-place finisher in the Open though Bailey was not winless on the evening. In fact, the night’s first five races were all won by the “young invaders” as Hanners scored an early grand slam with a Bailey victory sandwiched in between. It’s still Dobson and Devaux leading the way among drivers at Saratoga and while that isn’t likely to change any time too soon, there are a couple of invaders calling the Spa home these days in Luke Hanners and Leon Bailey who are making their presence felt. And especially in the case of Hanners, the recent red hot streak is placing him up in the mix among the top drivers in the very early going of the 2022 campaign.
Live racing takes place on Saturday evening every week starting at 5pm and on Sunday and Monday afternoons beginning at Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!