New Leader (Re)-Emerges Among Drivers at the Spa

Billy Dobson burst onto the scene at Saratoga Casino Hotel late last decade and quickly became a dominant force. The Michigan native moved east in 2008 and enjoyed immediate success driving at Monticello and Yonkers Raceways. The young, up-and-coming reinsman raced a bit at Saratoga that season in a year in which he won a career high (at the time) 337 races in total. Dobson competed at a host of tracks in ’09, including Saratoga, before deciding to make a go of it at the Spa on a full time basis in 2010. While Dobson was establishing himself as one of the top catch-drivers at the Saratoga in ’10, he did so while trying to supplant veteran driver Frank Coppola Jr., who was coming off the winningest year for a driver in track history.

In 2009, Coppola made 341 trips to the winner’s circle at the Spa, the most of any driver in a season in the illustrious history of Saratoga Harness. When Dobson became a regular the following year, the young pilot gave the crafty veteran all he could handle in the race to be top dog at the Spa. There was blue, gray and white in the winner’s circle an awful lot in 2010 as both Coppola and Dobson piled up victories. Both reinsmen don similar driver’s colors and between them, they wound up piloting over 500 combined winners in what would turn out to be an epic battle to be top driver at the Spa in ‘10. Dobson secured his first driving title that season as he bested Coppola 258-255 after a race that would come down to the season’s final weekend. It seemed as if it was a bit of a passing of the torch from the multiple-time driving champ to the new kid in town. At the conclusion of that year, Coppola hung up his colors and wound up going on what wound up being a hiatus from driving while Dobson took over as the track’s sulky star and simply dominated in the years that followed.

Billy Dobson went on to not only become the track’s leading driver but did so in historic fashion. Dobson wound up winning an incredible five consecutive driving championships from 2010-2014 highlighted by a ‘11 campaign in which he won 407 races. Coppola took a few years off but returned to the sulky on a near full-time basis in ’14. By 2015, Frankie was right back to where he was accustomed to being, at or near the top. Bruce Aldrich Jr. won the driving title at the Spa in ’15, becoming the first driver not named Coppola or Dobson to win in nearly a decade. By the time the ’16 campaign wrapped up, it was Coppola who was back atop the standings as he won his record-setting eleventh local driving championship and did so at the age of 58. Dobson finished second to Coppola last season in a role reversal from the ’10 campaign in which Dobson took over in what seemed at the time to be a changing of the guard.

Here in 2017, it was back to the top for Dobson early on as the now 33 year old came out of the gates strong and just seemed to pad his lead each and every week. The five-time champ enjoyed a big lead throughout the summer as Coppola sat well behind in the standings. In the last few weeks though, Coppola has been a monster in the win column and the ageless wonder not only closed the seemingly insurmountable gap between he and Dobson, he surpassed him. For the first time of the year, a name other than Dobson’s was atop the leader board and following a week that saw Coppola record a trio of hat tricks, the winningest driver in track history was back on top. Led by victories in the $19,500 Fillies and Mares Open with It’s A Miracle on Friday and with defending Horse of the Year Stirling Cadet on Sunday, Coppola finished the week with a five win lead over Dobson, a lead that swelled even more after last week’s action.

Coppola, who is nearing 5,500 career victories, has piloted more than 5,000 of those winners at Saratoga. Doing a lot of his damage of late as the regular reinsman for Jackie Greene, who sits second in the trainer standings, Coppola has displayed incredible longevity to go with the consistency and ability that has always been on display throughout the career of the Saratoga racing legend. He is likely in store for yet another battle in the standings with Dobson here in ’17 as they square off in what is serving as a rubber-match for the top drivers who split decisions in ‘10 and in ’16 while competing for sulky supremacy at the Spa. Though the final result is still almost two months away, Coppola rode his momentum into last week and is making his case to earn his unbelievable twelfth local driving title as he continues to prove to be ageless. Frank followed up a five-win Thursday with three victories on both Friday and Saturday nights. That marked five consecutive race cards in which Coppola piloted at least three winners in what has been a sensational stretch for the sulky standout. Don’t count Dobson out though. The former Johnny Page Award winner for up-and-coming drivers at the Spa has already amassed close to 3,800 career victories with approximately 2,500 of those wins coming at Saratoga despite not having raced here for a full decade yet. It is a race worth watching over the course of the final seven weeks of the racing season at the Spa.

Live racing takes place on Thursday and Sunday afternoons with matinees starting at 12:15pm. Friday and Saturday evening cards begin at 6:45pm each week. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!

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