It has been chronicled in this column for the last few seasons that although the driving colony at Saratoga Casino Hotel is strong, it has seen some changes in recent years. The combination of retirees, injuries and relocations has resulted in several of the track’s top reinsmen no longer competing at the Spa. For years, and in some cases decades, top-flight drivers such as Frank Coppola Jr, Bruce Aldrich Jr and Stephane Bouchard were sulky stars. With that strong trio no longer competing, we have seen some of the “old guard” step up, longtime Saratoga regulars who are getting more and more work of late. In recent seasons, we have seen some younger talents call the Spa home and become forces in the bike as Brett Beckwith, Luke Hanners and Leon Bailey have all become staples in the sulky in the last couple of years. In the early going of the 2023 campaign, there has been a new duo of New England invaders who are competing daily/nightly and enjoying some success in the young season.
Mcgwire Sowers has finished among the top handful of drivers at Monticello Raceway for each of the past few years. Sowers, a native of New Brunswick, Canada, began driving at the age of twelve. Yes, twelve! As a pre-teen, Sowers competed in non-betting races in the State of Maine where he and his family moved several years before. Mcgwire , the son of trainer Philip “Bo” Sowers, became a regular in the sulky in his teenage years when he competed at the fairs in Maine. It was immediately evident that racing was not only in his blood but in his future. Upon completing high school, McGwire moved between the Maine tracks and Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland where he drove for his father’s stable. By 2020, the Sowers’ were regulars at Monticello where Bo wound up being the top trainer that season.
Late in ’22, Mcgwire Sowers began to drive some in the final few weeks of the season at Saratoga. He piloted a handful of winners in his limited tries and despite driving “full time” at Monticello again early in ’23, Sowers drove at Saratoga on opening weekend when on the first race card of the year, he guided the winner in the evening’s final race when catch-driving a pacer named Bay Brute. Sowers has formed a stable of his own and has brought a few of his trainees to town to compete in the opening weeks. On Saturday night, his Machtu N recorded a victory in the $7,500 claiming race for pacers when the veteran came from off the pace to score at odds of 2-1. The 22 year old is certainly making an impression but just how much Sowers will drive at Saratoga remains to be seen but since he is a regular at Monticello, he likely won’t compete on the upcoming weekly Monday and Tuesday matinees at the Spa.
Another young reinsman with roots in New England has been calling the Spa home, at least in the early portion of the year. Late last season, we started to see Matt Athearn’s name pop up in the program a bit. Athearn is the nephew of two of the track’s top trainers of the last decade. Athearn’s mom Gretchen is the sister of former Saratoga leading trainer Heidi Rohr. Rohr shared her stable with husband Jimmy Nickerson who has been back competing at Saratoga in the early portion of the ’23 season. Athearn, a native of the State of Maine, has laid down racing roots in New England and spends a large part of his year competing at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts. Last year, Athearn finished seventh in the driver standings at Plainridge where the driving colony consists of several Spa regulars who split their time between the two tracks.
After Plainridge wrapped up its ’22 season, Athearn returned to his native Maine where he drove regularly at Cumberland Raceway. The youngster came to Saratoga for the final handful of race days to wrap up the year and recorded a pair of winners on what wound up being the final card. Driving for mostly Maine-based trainers, Athearn has been a regular in the opening couple weeks of ’23. On the first Monday matinee of the year, Athearn scored a driving double while piloting for last year’s up-and-coming trainer Chris Dubois. That pair kept it rolling last Saturday when their Six Degrees pulled off a mild upset after getting perfectly patient Athearn piloting while powering up the passing lane en route to registering the score. Much like Sowers, it isn’t likely we’ll see Matt Athearn be a regular at the Spa over the course of the whole year as he is likely to head back to Plainridge when they open back up this spring. But in the meantime, you can be sure Athearn will be in the bike for the totality of the next few weeks or months in a schedule that will consist of Saturday evening racing and matinees on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday each week.
Athearn has been living with his Aunt Heidi and Uncle Jim who are thrilled to have their nephew spending time with them while he’s in town competing. Athearn has earnings of over $1 million in three of the last four years and was only a pandemic shutdown away from reaching the seven-figure mark in the fourth of the four. Though his near future is much more likely to see him work at Plainridge and even Cumberland in Maine rather than Saratoga, while he’s here you can expect to see Athearn continue to pick up more and more opportunities and with them enjoy plenty more success. Mcgwire Sowers and Matt Athearn, two names to remember as we continue through February and into March as they could well be the new pair of twenty-somethings to make an impact in the sulky at the Spa.
Live racing moves into the portion of its schedule which consists of Saturday evening racing starting at 5pm and matinees on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays 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!