There is no live racing taking place on Friday nights at Saratoga Casino Hotel for the remainder of the 2022 season but last Friday, a big crowd filled the lower clubhouse at the track anyway as the new Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame had its grand opening. The Hall of Fame used to be located in its own building next to the Jefferson Street entrance to the track but after being shut down for a period of time, the Hall had a grand re-opening on Friday night in its new location in the lower club. A somewhat small but beautifully thought out and put together Hall of Fame was revealed following a ribbon-cutting ceremony performed by some of the top management at the Spa combined with the hard-working Hall of Fame committee who put so much thought, time and effort into the re-launch. The clubhouse was packed with horsemen and women in addition to a group of fans who came out to support the event and this year’s inductees at the first induction ceremony for the Hall since 2018.
The new and improved Hall of Fame wasn’t just unveiled on Friday but it also added a pair of new members. This year’s horse inductee is a familiar name to fans of the track and the horseman inducted is a longtime Spa veteran and fan favorite as well. Panocchio and Brian Cross were enshrined as the 2022 Hall of Fame class. Panocchio was a two-time Pacer of the Year Award winner at Saratoga as he was named the track’s top pacer after his ’14 and ’15 seasons. In 2015, the superstar was also recognized with Horse of the Year honors at the Spa. Panocchio joined the stable of Saratoga Hall of Famer Jimmy Mattison back in 2013 and wound up racing 249 of his 255 careers starts under Mattison’s guidance. A Saratoga Hall of Famer himself, Mattison splits his time between Saratoga and Pompano in Florida and subsequently Panocchio did the same for close to a decade. And while Panocchio’s accolades at Pompano, which include being the winningest horse in the track’s history and the fastest horse in track history (he owns the 1:48.3 all-time track record), really his local achievements are what were considered most when he was selected as a Hall of Famer.
Panocchio won fifty races over the course of a four-year span from 2014-2017 and almost every one of those wins came while in the Open Pace at either Pompano or here at the Spa. A hard-hitting, gutsy pacer, Panocchio wasn’t your typical half mile track horse either in that he wasn’t much of a leaver. Most often, the classy star did his work from off the pace and did so en route to over $690,000 in career earnings behind 77 lifetime wins. Panocchio won on the final race night in the history of Pompano Park, which has now closed its doors forever, before competing for the last time in his illustrious career here at Saratoga back in May. On Friday, Panocchio’s well deserved induction was accepted by Jimmy’s brother Gerry Mattison who was the regular driver for Panocchio in the vast majority of the classy pacer’s local starts over the course of his career. Panocchio was owned by Jimmy and Vicki Mattison in partnership with Emile Johnson Jr. One of the top pacers in track history is now retired on a farm in Pennsylvania where he will enjoy his post-racing life.
Brian Cross is a name synonymous with Saratoga harness racing over the course of close to the last four decades. Cross began his career at the Spa in the 1980’s and took home awards for up-and-coming driver and up-and-coming trainer when named the Johnny Page winner in ’89 and Peerless McGrath winner in ’91. A fixture at the Spa ever since, the Vermont native has piled up almost 4,000 wins as a driver and over 900 as a trainer in his illustrious career and continues to add to those totals while currently sitting just outside the top ten in the local driver standings. Although he hasn’t won a driver or trainer title over the course of his career, Cross spent decades in the top five among local reinsmen while maintaining a top-flight, albeit medium-sized, stable. The classy, quiet Cross comes from a harness racing family and he credits his grandfather James Cross and father Roger with getting him involved in the sport that he has spent his entire adult life in. Brian’s brothers John and Ken have each been involved in harness racing at the Spa for decades as well. One of the top seasons in the career of Brian Cross came in 2003 when he wound up being named Horseman of the Year at Saratoga in a season in which his balance of skills in the sulky and in the stable were on full display. The veteran then rattled off a span of seven consecutive years in which he piled up purses of over $1 million as a driver. Congratulations to Brian Cross as well as the connections of Panocchio on their fantastic accomplishments on the track and for the achievement of being recognized as Hall of Famers. Just after his induction, Cross was joined in a photo by all the Hall of Famers who were on hand Friday, a list comprised of Harry Goodsell, Wally Hennessey, John Stark Jr, Dan Cappello Jr, Frank Coppola Jr, Earl Bean, Linda Flynn and Bert Belanger.
Before the inductees were announced and introduced on Friday night, the Virginia O’Brien 110% Award was given to Karen Forbes. Forbes, an employee in the track kitchen and longtime friend to so many at the track, has overcome a lot of personal adversity in recent years and continues to do so with a smile on her face and while bringing smiles to the many that she comes across in the backstretch on a nearly daily basis. A big-time shout out and congratulations is also in order to the crew who was instrumental is putting together not only the special evening but also in relocating the historic Hall of Fame. The Board of Directors for the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame is: Peg Spagnola- President, Linda Flynn- Vice President, Jan Turcotte- Treasurer, Cheryl McGivern- Secretary, as well as members Amanda Benson, Dave Coon, Lisa McTygue-Cross, Megan Rider, Mike Sentiwany Jr. and Kyle Spagnola. If you’ve yet to do so, come visit the new Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame locating in the lower clubhouse and enjoy a glimpse into the past of our historic track!
Live racing takes place every Saturday evening at 5pm and continues on Sunday and Monday afternoons with matinees 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!