On Sunday afternoon, the 79th racing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel kicked off. Exactly two months to the day of the conclusion on the 2019 campaign at the Spa, racing began with a matinee that included the annual long-sleeve t-shirt giveaway for fans that purchased a live racing program. There were food and beverage specials on Sunday that will also be featured on Monday’s Presidents’ Day matinee. Fans can enjoy $1 hot dogs, jumbo pretzels, pizza slices and PBR draft beers. From a bettor’s standpoint, a $5,000 guaranteed pool highlighted the wagering menu on opening day with the wager again being guaranteed on Monday afternoon. Fans also got their first glimpse of the new SaratogaBets Simulcast Center, an exciting new trackside venue offering carrel seating, self-service and live teller wagering options in addition to bar and food service at Diamond Joe’s.
The ten-race program on Sunday was highlighted by the return of the track’s defending Horse of the Year Cash Me Out. The millionaire superstar took part in the first feature of the season, the $15,000 Open Trot which consisted of a field of just five participants. While the track’s defending top dog suffered broken equipment and subsequently pulled up in the race, it was invader Shorething Fashion who sprung a mild upset at odds of 3-1 with driver Jay Randall piloting for trainer Mike Eaton.
While fans seemed to be excited for the return of live harness racing at Saratoga Casino Hotel, there was one question that popped up among several of the track’s regular patrons. “Where is Frankie?” was a common inquiry on opening day. “Frankie”, of course, is Frank Coppola Jr. The veteran reinsman is the track’s all-time winningest driver and has been a staple for the better part of three and a half decades at the Spa. In Sunday’s program though, his name was nowhere to be found. And unfortunately, that will be the case moving forward. Coppola, whose name has been synonymous with Saratoga harness racing since the 1980’s, has decided not to return this season. The 60 year old Coppola was an employee of the City of Saratoga Springs Department of Public Works for decades and thus did double duty for years and years. Frank retired from the City two years ago and focused his efforts on being a full-time driver, a vocation that he thrived in since beginning his career in the sulky more than forty years ago.
I spoke with Coppola last week who confirmed that he wouldn’t be returning to drive this year. “I decided this winter that I’m not going to be coming back,” the Saratoga Hall of Famer told me. “The everyday grind of driving just isn’t something that interests me at this point.” Frank didn’t use the word retire and alluded to “never say never” as a kind of mindset. After all, Coppola has had a couple of stints in the past where he left the full-time driving grind. From 2004-2006, Coppola sat behind less than 200 horses total and again from 2011-2013, he barely donned his driving colors at all. For some reason though, this time sounded a bit different when I spoke with the classy, understated Saratoga driving legend. He mentioned that maybe come summer time he would return to drive a few horses here and there because after all, racing is in his blood. In addition, to be a full-time driver and have the success Coppola has enjoyed throughout his career, you have to be super competitive and no one is more competitive on the track than Frank. One number that stood out to me when I heard of Coppola’s decision not to return is 5,969. That is the career win total for the Spa veteran. 6,000 is a benchmark that Frank acknowledged as being one that he was aware of being close to and honestly, one that seemed to intrigue him. And why not? 6,000 career wins is a staggering number, especially for a driver that didn’t travel much throughout his career. Coppola is and always was a Saratoga guy. It is home for him and almost all of his nearly 6,000 victories came here at Saratoga.
When discussing his illustrious career, I asked Frank if there was a particular race and any horse that stood out to him. He mentioned the Pepsi Series Final that he won with a horse that he trained as well as drove named Sunset Blue close to forty years ago. He was friends and partners with the owners of the horse which made it even more special to him and the purse of $40,000 was a staggering one at that time. As far as a standout horse, he mentioned Artful Way, the three-time Pacer of the Year and two-time Horse of the Year at Saratoga who Coppola drove to all of his stymieing and record-breaking amount of Open Pace victories over the last five years. Coppola was the regular driver for trainer Jackie Greene, who is a two-time training champ at the Spa, and subsequently sat behind several of the Horse of the Year Award winners over the last decade. Whether or not we see Frank put on his light blue and white colors again remains to be seen and while my feeling is his days as a full-time reinsman are likely through, I do think we’ll see him on the track again at some point and maybe he’ll reach that 6,000 win plateau after all. But either way, congratulations to Frank Coppola Jr. and thank you! Thank you for being what this and every business should be about. Class, heart, talent, desire and doing it the right way. It was an honor to watch from high above the track and see a true artist of the sport perform his task at such a high level.
With Coppola joining Bruce Aldrich Jr as former leading drivers that are no longer in the daily program, the opportunity is there for other drivers to step up and get opportunities. Whether it is someone like Brett Crawford or Steve Genois, the track’s top breakthrough drivers of the last couple of years, who will continue to climb the driver standings or someone like Steve Rybka who showed some flashes in his first full season on the track in 2019, the opportunities to thrive and succeed will be even greater as we move forward in 2020 and beyond. One name to watch for is Shawn Gray. Gray is no rookie. In fact, the Maine native has piloted over 4,000 winners over the last twenty years. Shawn drove all of Jackie Greene’s horses on opening weekend and if he drives at Saratoga on a full-time basis this year will likely be picking up more and more drives as the season progresses.
The 2020 racing season is officially underway and will feature matinee racing this week on Monday, for President’s Day, as well as the regularly scheduled Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon cards, which will be the normal schedule throughout the year. First post time for each matinee is set for 12 Noon. Until, next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!