Old Guard Still Finding Some Success

In some of my columns in seasons past, I have chronicled the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings that have thrived at Saratoga Casino Hotel in recent years. In a sport that sometimes has a stigma of being an “old man’s game,” there has been an influx of youth not only competing locally but thriving. Our Peerless McGrath Award nominees last year Jaymes McCassey and Brett Derue have followed up their breakout season with another strong campaign here in 2018. The Peerless McGrath Award recognizes the track’s top breakthrough trainer for that year and, though not always, usually goes to someone in their twenties or thirties.

Kyle Spagnola, son of former training champion at Saratoga Dave Spagnola, won the award in 2012 and though he is having a bit of a down year, continues to make a local impact annually. Kyle won his 500thcareer race as a trainer on Friday evening. Brett Crawford, who was the Peerless McGrath Award winner in 2011, is enjoying another solid season as a trainer in ‘18 but has broken out this year as a driver. In a strong and crowded driving colony, the 31 year old Crawford has established himself as a nightly sulky regular, oftentimes driving in more than half the races on a given card.

While the new crop of trainers and drivers continue to make their mark at the Spa, there is a trio of “old guard” members who have been part of the business for their entire lives and are still finding their way to the winner’s circle after all these years. Longtime fans of Saratoga Harness no doubt will have stories of the “old days” at the Spa and there is a pretty good chance that those stories could include the names of Percy Davis and Jimmy Allen. Percy was always known at the Spa as the “trotting king” and with good reason.

A lifelong horseman, Davis thrived with trotters doing pretty much anything for the horse that needed to be done. In addition to training and driving his horses, Percy was known as the guy who would be the best as getting a trotter “rigged up”- making sure the shoeing and equipment was just right. He was always considered the best. Davis loved to take on the challenge of any trotter and not only had some of the track’s top highsteppers over the years but would often purchase trotters from local trainers who were having trouble with a particular horse.

While Percy never managed a large size stable and therefore wasn’t the type to be near the top of the trainer standings in a year, the trotting king always trained a high percentage. Though his days as full-time trainer are far behind him, the 78 year old Davis is still at the barn every day.

While he does still have a trotter in his barn, ironically it is a pacer that has given Davis his two wins this year. A new acquisition to Percy’s stable, Silverinyourpocket wasted little time in making his mark at the Spa after coming to town in August. A lower-level conditional pacer, Silverinyourpocket rattled off back to back victories for Davis, who though still dons his colors to drive from time to time, teamed up with drivers Bruce Aldrich Jr. and Frank Coppola Jr. for the wins. Percy Davis, age 78, and still training winners, albeit winners of a different sort for the conditioner who does have over 2,000 victories as a driver and more than 2,500 starts as a trainer in his career with the great majority coming with trotters.

Jimmy Allen was a top catch-driver going as far back as the late 1960’s. Allen’s career highlights include finishing second in the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands in 1979 when his Chiola Hanover was the runner-up in harness racing’s biggest race. Allen stopped driving early in the 80’s and didn’t return to the sulky until 1998 when he tried to reestablish himself among drivers at the Spa. Driving first for his brother, Saratoga Harness Hall of Famer David Allen, Jimmy began to pick up catch-drives, tallying as many as 410 mounts in a season, doing so in 2001.

Allen moved his career win total to over 2,000 before essentially hanging it up once again in 2010. Jimmy has driven on occasion in the last few years most recently this season while steering a two year old colt that he trains. Scott The Great has emerged as a pretty nice two year old for Allen who drove the freshman to victory at the Plattsburgh Fair this summer. The win was the first for the legendary reinsman since the ’10 season.

While Jimmy focused mainly on the driving in his career, he has trained a few here and there but had only one career training victory before this season when Scott The Great not only won at the fair but also on Labor Day afternoon when he scored in a $6,500 New York Sire Stakes Excelsior B start at Vernon Downs. Though the 79 year old didn’t drive the colt to victory in that start, Allen did make the trek to the winner’s circle last week, a feeling that he was certainly used to going as far back as fifty years ago when he was doing it regularly both here at Saratoga and elsewhere.

Though Davis and Allen have driven a few times this year, they have stuck primarily to training their new young pacers. Harold Smith on the other hand is still putting on the colors and competing as a driver. Smith is the king of the Fair circuit in New York State and the native of Malone, NY still thrives while taking the Fair tour throughout the summer months. These days, Smith’s driving is mostly contained to Fair competition but in some cases, such as last Thursday afternoon, the 84 year old still wears his colors and pilots at the Spa.

Several Smith trainees compete at Saratoga throughout the course of the year but his damage is done at the numerous Fairs throughout New York State. With massive success on the circuit, Smith winds up with high training percentage on a year-in, year-out basis. When you look at Smith’s career stats, every year is a near carbon copy of the previous one.

The harness racing veteran is getting close to the 1,000 win mark as a driver, with the great majority of those victories coming while competing at the Fairs, the home away from home for Harold Smith. Percy Davis, Jimmy Allen and Harold Smith- all still enjoying some highlights on the track and doing so some fifty years after beginning their careers in harness racing.

Live harness racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon beginning at 12:15pm and on Friday and Saturday evenings starting 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!

Saratoga Casino Hotel | Saratoga Springs, New York

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