For various and assorted reasons, we have seen a drastic change in the upper echelon of the driver’s colony at Saratoga Casino Hotel in recent years. This season those changes have really come to the forefront as we have lost a host of drivers including a handful of the top reinsmen at the Spa from the last several seasons. Last winter, we saw the track’s all-time leading driver Frank Coppola Jr. hang up his colors after over three decades in the sulky at the Spa. Losing the twelve-time driving champ was certainly a hit to the driver’s colony but when you consider some of the other reinsmen who had left before him and some who have not been around more recently since the hiatus caused by the pandemic, there is huge opportunity for other drivers to step up and climb the ranks and for others still trying to establish themselves to try to become regulars in the sulky.
Coppola isn’t the only former leading driver to be missing from the Saratoga program these days. Bruce Aldrich Jr. won the driving title at the Spa in 2015 and was a force in his close to a decade in which he did double-duty piloting at Monticello and Saratoga. Citing mainly the wear and tear caused by constant traveling, Aldrich left Saratoga midway through last season and focused his efforts solely on Monticello. Coppola and Aldrich were two of the constants near the top of the driver standings for years. Couple their departures with the forced retirement a few years back by top catch-driver Stephane Bouchard whose injuries from an on-track accident resulted in him ending his illustrious driving career and we have seen a bit of a hole in the driver ranks at the Spa. We have had drivers come to town from other tracks, some of whom have set up shop at Saratoga and others who have come and gone. Now, since returning from our lengthy mandated closedown, we have seen some more shakeup amongst our regular reinsmen.
Jimmy Devaux has been a constant in the top five among local drivers since, similar to Aldrich, he went “full time” at both Monticello and Saratoga about a decade ago. Devaux has been a force in the sulky at the Spa and even more so since the departure of the aforementioned top-flight reinsmen. While Devaux hasn’t left us, he is currently on hiatus from driving as he tends to some personal issues at home. We expect to see him here again, though it may not be in the cards in the short term. Also, last year’s Johnny Page Award winner for top breakthrough driver at Saratoga Steve Genois has not been back since the return from the pandemic. A native of Canada, Genois may or may not return when the border lockdown is lifted, whenever that may be, but we don’t expect that he will be back.
For all of these reasons, there have been openings for other drivers to thrive this season and particularly since our return from the layoff. The opportunity for a new crop of drivers is certainly there whether that be for the group of veterans who will now be getting more chances to be out there every race as well as for the “younger” crew, many of whom have enjoyed success already in past seasons and some of whom are still trying to make a name for themselves. Phil Fluet is a perfect case for a driver who was in the top ten in the standings the last few years who instead of being in maybe half of the races on a card may now be in, say, 80% of them. The 2015 award winner for breakthrough drivers at the Spa, Fluet is no rookie. He has enjoyed success in the sulky at other tracks before coming to Saratoga and has done a good job since making a home here a handful of years ago. Now, Fluet has become the regular driver for a few of the top trainers here who may have used a Devaux or a Coppola on a regular basis. Fluet is one to watch as far as gaining opportunities as we move forward.
Another trio of past Johnny Page Award winners has gotten off to a good start since the return. Jordan Derue won the award way back in 2009 but is still just 29 years old. Derue traditionally bounces around to different tracks though Saratoga is clearly his home base. Driving not only his own trainees this year but also picking up more catch drives, Derue has thrived in minimal chances in 2020 and has thrived since the return two weeks ago, winning more races than any other driver in the two week span. Alek Chartrand won the award for top up-and-coming/breakthrough drivers in 2017 and has begun to pick up a few more catch-drives along the way. Chartrand who drives most of the horses that he trains had two wins on re-opening day on June 18th. Both of Chartrand’s wins came with horses who drew post eight on the afternoon card. Brett Crawford was named top breakthrough driver in 2018 and though Crawford has driven for years, the ’18 campaign was the first in which he really broke out as a catch-driver. Crawford won three races on the first Sunday afternoon card since the reopen including one with defending Horse of the Year Cash Me Out for whom he is the regular driver.
A pair of young twenty-somethings is getting more and more chances these days at Saratoga as well. Steve Rybka had a solid 2019 in his first full year as a driver. Rybka has gotten many more opportunities in recent weeks and will likely see an uptick is usage with so many of our regular drivers no longer in the mix. Rybka came into the year as the favorite for the Johnny Page Award in 2020 but young pilot Mitch Cushing has surged right into that conversation after becoming more of a regular at the Spa. The 22 year old pilot usually drives in the New England circuit but came to Saratoga last fall on a fairly regular basis. In the first month of the ’20 season, Cushing was a Spa regular and enjoyed quite a bit of success so much so that he was in the top ten when we shut down in March. If Cushing remains at the Spa, which is a big if with Plainridge Park in Massachusetts scheduled to open next month, he would find himself not only as the favorite for the Johnny Page but also a potential top five driver in the local standings. This crew of young reinsmen will get its chance to vault up the standings now with the increased opportunities in coming months. Greg Merton, a top-flight catch-driver in New York for quite some time, came to town on Thursday and could well become more of a regular moving forward. His presence in addition to Larry Stalbaum, who has made Saratoga his home court this year, could give local trainers a pair of extremely successful veteran reinsmen to use as well. The driver colony certainly has a new look these days which is something to watch as we move forward into the summer season at the Spa.
Live racing takes place on Thursday and Sunday afternoon beginning at 12 Noon. There is a $3,000 guarantee in the Pick Five pool each day with the Pick Five beginning in the first race. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!