It’s hard to believe that it’s that time of year. The holiday season is upon us and that means the conclusion of the racing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel is near as well. Sunday afternoon’s race program will be the 170th and final for the 2017 campaign. And what a year it has been. The final week of the racing season will feature the conclusion of the two series’ that took place in December. Last year marked the first Holiday Pacing Series and Holiday Trotting Series to be contested at Saratoga. While most of the series’ this year were for young horses, the December ones were comprised mostly of veterans who may not have had their best season. The qualifications to be eligible for the pacing series were that horses had to be non-winners of $12,500 this year (before October 31st) with a minimum of 20 starts.
Leg one of the pacing series was contested two weeks ago and the two divisions saw a pair of mild upsets. Avogadro Hanover and Private Performanc each came from off the pace and surged in the stretch to secure a victory in leg one of the $7,500 per division series. Avogadro Hanover changed hands in late October and paid immediate dividends for his connections. The veteran pacer rattled off back to back victories for up-and-coming trainer Jaymes Mcassey and driver Billy Dobson. Heading into the series, Avogadro Hanover looked like he would be one of the top contenders. After all, he was just getting sharp. In leg one, the nine year old came from the back of the pack and scored a victory in 1:55.2, a time that wound wind up being the fastest for any winner in the series. It was in that race that Rocknrollroyalty sought to go coast to coast. Jimmy Devaux had just driven the Claude Huckabone Jr. trainee for the first time the previous week and despite pacing 1:54, had to settle for fourth place as he was caught in a mile that went in 1:53.1. Rocknrollroyalty was backed by the betting public to the tune of 1-9- in leg one, as big of a favorite as you can have. But that evening, the young pacer would not prove worthy of 1-9 status and came up second best after getting passed in the stretch by Avogadro Hanover.
Leg two of the Holiday Pacing Series was last Friday night and Rocknrollroyalty was at it again. The pacer that had been defeated at 1-9 in leg one once again drew post position two and moved out to the early lead under Devaux guidance. This time, though, Rocknrollroyalty would not be defeated. The betting favorite for the third consecutive start, Rocknrollroyalty got to the winner’s circle after hanging on to win in 1:56 to punch his ticket to closing weekend’s Series Final. He would be the only favorite to win in the four races that comprised the two legs of the series, a series that saw a fan favorite pull off another one of those mild upsets that we saw in leg one.
Harness racing rules state that a horse can no longer compete in a pari-mutuel race after the conclusion of his fourteen year old season. Well, this rule rarely gets implemented because quite frankly very few horses ever race up to their fourteen year old campaign. Simone Noud’s Paradise Willie hit the $300,000 mark in lifetime earnings in leg one in what was his 400th career race, a start in which he finished second. Vernon Downs invader Private Performanc tracked the veteran down in the leg one tilt that saw Paradise Willie reach the earnings milestone. In leg two, Frank Coppola Jr, who is putting the finishing touches on a season that will see him secure his eleventh driving title, the most of any driver in track history, was tasked with piloting Paradise Willie who drew the rail in what would be, in all likelihood, his second to last career start. Standing in the way of the veteran recording his 38th lifetime victory was Avogadro Hanover. Yes, that leg one winner that had clocked the fastest time of the series with his 1:55.2 score the previous week. On Friday, it was Willie’s night as the veteran showed he still had something left in the tank, going wire-to-wire in 1:56. Avogadro Hanover didn’t finish in the money in leg two but will no doubt still be one of the favorites in the $20,000 Series Final next Friday night in a race that will likely serve as a send off for Paradise Willie- the classy veteran who competed at Saratoga in almost all of his lifetime starts and who will look to go out a winner.
While there were two legs of the Holiday Pacing Series, the trotting series attracted less entrants and therefore was contested as a two week mini-series. The Snowflake Mini Series had its first installment on Thursday afternoon with trotters getting just one shot to punch their ticket to next Thursday’s championship. Much like in the pacing series, the favorites did not thrive in the Snowflake and it was another Spa veteran that stole the show. Eleven year old Mr. Butterworth scored an upset in 1:58.3 while dismissed at odds of 13-1 in a race ravaged by scratches. Trained by Laurie Tranowicz, Mr. Butterworth was the faster of the two winners of the trot on Thursday as fellow victor Wrightwood’s score came in 1:59.2 while going off at odds of 16-1. Both winning trotters were driven to their upsets by Phil Fluet, who has chosen Wrightwood to drive in Thursday’s $15,000 culmination of the mini-series. Fluet, who won the Johnny Page Award for the track’s top breakthrough driver in 2015, has enjoyed a career year in ’17. Fluet will finish sixth in the driver standings in what has been by far his best season to date at the Spa.
Next week, in my final column of the year, I will put a bow on the 2017 racing season and list the nominees for the awards which will be announced in January at the annual banquet. Live racing takes place this week on Thursday and Sunday afternoon beginning at 12:15pm and on Friday and Saturday evening with first post times set for 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!