Last season, in what was obviously a very different year in the world and in the sport of harness racing, there were no awards given out at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Between the fact that it was an abbreviated season and one with a much different look as far as classes and levels at the Spa, the track decided just to recognize the leading driver and trainer with awards. It was the first year without awards at the track since 1994 and only the second since the awards began being given out all the way back in 1953! There was no holiday banquet/awards ceremony last year so the awards were tabled until 2021. Though there again will be no banquet, the voters will get their ballots to cast votes for several different worthy horsepersons and horses who will be acknowledged with a presentation in the winner’s circle during closing week of the ’21 campaign.
To allow us enough time to assemble the nominees and give the voters ample time to cast and return their ballots, the information and statistics up through last week’s action at the Spa will be considered. The awards will look a little bit different this year with some of the categories being eliminated (suspended) but the majority of the slate will still be given out. As has been the case for the last several seasons, Driver of the Year honors will automatically go to the leading driver and barring something extremely unforeseen that will be Jimmy Devaux. It will be the first driving title at Saratoga for the veteran reinsman who got his start at the Spa decades ago and has three driving championships at Monticello Raceway to his credit. Devaux has been the dominant force in the sulky all season long and has maintained a big lead over his closest pursuer, eight-time Saratoga champion Billy Dobson, in the driving standings in ’21. The race for Trainer of the Year is a much closer one for who will replace Gary Levine as leading trainer at the Spa. Levine won his first training title last season and is once again enjoying a strong campaign this year, sitting fourth in the standings with about one month of racing remaining. Who will supplant him though remains to be seen. Larry Stalbaum currently sits atop the standings but his lead is well within reach for Melissa Beckwith who is pursuing her ninth training title at Saratoga. It is certainly a race to watch over the course of the final five weeks of the season.
The aforementioned Stalbaum and Beckwith could lead the way among nominees for Horseman and Horsewoman of the Year honors, respectively. Stalbaum seems to be a logical favorite to take home the award as he not only is currently the leading trainer but also looks like he’ll finish third in the driver standings. What a season it has been for the 58 year old veteran horseman who leads a strong list of contenders for Horseman of the Year. Melissa Beckwith has been named Horsewoman of the Year five times in her career and will certainly be one of the frontrunners for the award again in ’21. There are clear-cut favorites for the Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath Awards this year, awards that honor the track’s top up-and-coming/breakthrough driver and trainer, respectively. Brett Beckwith has had a terrific rookie season in the sulky. The 18 year old son of Mark and Melissa Beckwith has vaulted himself into the top ten in the driver standings in his first year in the bike. Driving at several other tracks in his freshman campaign as well, Beckwith has been a daily regular at the Spa in ’21 and would seem to be a shoo-in for the Johnny Page Award. Andy Gardner has burst onto the scene this year and to call this season a breakout one for the 38 year old would be a massive understatement. Gardner sits third in the trainer standings and will finish no worse than fourth in his likely Peerless McGrath Award winning campaign.
A couple of familiar names sit atop the earnings list for the season among the top Open Pacers and Open Trotters at the Spa. Crockets Cullen N was named Pacer of the Year in 2019 after enjoying a sensational final few months of that season and would have likely been a lock to repeat last year had there been awards given out. Here in ’21, it hasn’t been quite as smooth sailing for the prize trainee of owner/trainer/driver Larry Stalbaum but the results have still been there. The veteran pacer has won the local Open three times but all three victories came within a month-long stretch in mid-summer. Overall, the ten year old has won seven races at Saratoga this season and amassed over $64,000, a tally that is far greater than any of his fellow pacers. Quagmire Bluechip has become a force in the Open Pace this year. Brett Beckwith has been the regular reinsman for the Janice Connor trainee who enjoyed a strong summer stint and has hit the board in eleven of fourteen local starts, all of which came in the Open. Simple Kinda Man and Some Waratah A round out the group of nominees for the track’s top pacing award for colts and geldings.
The last winner of the Horse of the Year Award at Saratoga was Cash Me Out. The millionaire trotter hasn’t necessarily been as sharp this season as in years past but he’s continued to add to his Hall of Fame resume after having another monster year in the Open Trot. The Kyle Spagnola-trained ten year old has won the Open eight times in ’21 and piled up over $91,000 in earnings in his local starts to become the front-runner for the award again. Cash Me Out, though, hasn’t won an Open since Labor Day and has opened the door to a rival to perhaps take the award away from him. Squee Hanover has turned into a force for Andy Gardner and the young trotter has now won the Open five times and hit the board in the trotting feature nine times in ten starts since late September. Squee Hanover has won an incredible eleven races at the Spa this year, more than any other trotter. Dewey Arnold and Bridge Works have also put together award-winning caliber seasons and round out the four nominees to be named the track’s top trotter. Among the “big three” award categories, the biggest favorite of them all is among those battling to be named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year. Surreal Feeling’s win last Tuesday was her ninth in the ladies’ Open at Saratoga this season. The Dale Lawton trainee has finished first or second in all thirteen tries in the Open this year en route to almost $84,000 in local earnings. The superstar mare’s competition for the award is Rckaroundtheclock N (the winningest horse at the Spa this season), Robyn Camden and Birch Island Betty. There are no guarantees on anything….but Surreal Feeling is all but a lock to be named the track’s top Filly and Mare Pacer when the award winners are announced during closing week for the 2021 season at the Spa next month. There are also categories for Claiming Pacer of the Year and Filly and Mare Claiming Pacer (there were very few races contested for claiming trotters this season.) All the award winners will be recognized in the winner’s circle during closing week for the racing season in late December.
Live racing takes place every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday afternoon with first post times set for Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!