One week before the Super Bowl will be played in warm and sunny Arizona, the 82nd racing season kicked off last weekend on a cold evening at Saratoga Casino Hotel. When Delightful Joe hit the finish line first at a few minutes after 5pm on Saturday, we were officially back. Eleven race programs took place on both Saturday and Sunday despite the winter chill that February often brings in the Capital Region. The beginning of the 2023 campaign came after a longer than expected winter break which began when closing weekend of the ’22 season was canceled due to issues with the track surface following a winter storm. The start of the season brought about some changes as far as a new graphics package for those watching on TV and a few tweaks, albeit small ones, to the betting menu. The Jackpot Pick Six wager that kicked off last year will not return this season with the exception of opening day since there was a carryover from last season’s canceled program that needed to be paid out. Instead, there will be two Pick Fives daily, an early Pick Five comprising the first five races on every race card and a late Pick Five comprising the final five on the program. These pools will be exclusive of one another so if the early Pick Five is not hit one day, it will result in a carryover to the next day and not involve the late Pick Five, and vice versa.
About a month before the kickoff to the campaign, the annual awards ceremony was held in Saratoga in which thirteen award winners were recognized. Although there were awards following the 2021 season, the banquet, hosted by the Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association, went on a two-year hiatus due to Covid. The banquet’s return took place on Sunday evening January 8th. Starting a few years back, the Driver of the Year and Trainer of the Year Awards went to the leading driver and trainer, respectively, for the season. Therefore, Jimmy Devaux was the Driver of the Year after winning his second consecutive driving championship at Saratoga. Melissa Beckwith ran away with the trainer’s title in ’21 and thus was recognized as Trainer of the Year.
With a ’22 campaign that saw the most well-balanced group of Opens in recent memory, there was no real standout horse in any of the three top categories. The group of ladies competing to be Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year did have one member who was a few notches above the rest. The Melissa Beckwith-trained Sea Shadows won more Opens than any horse last year and thus not only was named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year but also took home Horse of the Year honors. Victorious eight times in the Open for distaffers, Sea Shadows was the winningest of any horse in Open company en route to her Horse of the Year Award. It was the second consecutive season in which the Saratoga Horse of the Year was a mare after Surreal Feeling took home top honors in 2021.
The race for both Pacer and Trotter of the Year were also very close with no clear standout among the strong candidates. Moonshine Kisses wound up being named the track’s top pacer after the Jackie Greene trainee recorded five wins and four second-place finishes in his eleven starts in the local Open Pace last season. Quadratic Bluechip emerged as the track’s top trotter in ’22 after winning a close vote for Trotter of the Year. The Lisa Zabielski-trained high-stepper won the Open four times and was the biggest money earner of any trotter at the track last year before being named Trotter of the Year. Zabielski also had a nominee in the Pacer of the Year and Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year races as well with her Optical Illusion N and Racey Rach N, respectively.
The biggest money earner for any horse last year was the Melissa Beckwith-trained Drawing Dragons who was named Claiming Pacer of the Year in addition to getting some votes for Horse of the Year, a rare feat for a claimer. Drawing Dragons won fifteen races at the Spa last season en route to more than $100,000 in earnings in his local tries in a year that saw his trainer Melissa Beckwith not only win the training title but also the Horsewoman of the Year Award. The training championship was the ninth at Saratoga for Beckwith. Jimmy Devaux’s season was so good in the sulky that he was named Horseman of the Year despite not being a trainer as some of the other nominees were. Devaux became the fifth different horseman to win the award in the last five years and seventh in the last nine years. Youngsters Luke Hanners and Chris Dubois took home the Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath Awards for up-and-coming driver and up-and coming trainer of the year, respectively.
With minimal two year old races contested last year, there were no awards given to freshmen but there were for sophomores who had a strong group of contenders in both the races to be named Three Year Old Pacer and Three Year Old Trotter of the ’22 season. The Three Year Old Pacer of the Year was a filly named Way Too Sweet who joined the stable of Andy Gardner in July and put up impressive stats in just about five months of racing at the Spa. In what was her first year of racing, Way Too Sweet began in maiden competition and pumped out the wins before recording her biggest career victory in November when she prevailed in the Bunny Lake Pacing Series Final which went for a purse of $34,200. The trio of nominees for Three Year Old Trotter of the ’22 campaign was formidable. Emerging as the top three year old was John Stark Jr’s Why U Bugging who rattled off an impressive thirteen wins to go with nine runner-up tries in the 31 starts that comprised her first racing season. Why U Bugging earned just shy of $100,000 while making every one of her starts at Saratoga last year.
The 2022 season is now behind us and the ’23 campaign has officially begun with opening weekend already in the books. The racing schedule, with the exception of the next week or so, will consist of Saturday evening racing each week followed by matinees on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. Tuesday racing begins on February 14 and note there is no racing on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb 12). 5pm is post time on Saturday evenings with all matinees starting at 12 Noon. It’s good to be back! Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!