There were two series’ that got underway last week at Saratoga Casino Hotel that signify that the end of the meet is near. Starting in 2016, the track has featured two end-of-season series’ for horses who haven’t recorded significant earnings in the year. The Holiday Trot and Holiday Pace are two-leg series’ each concluding with a final that goes for a purse, in many cases, higher than any that its participants have raced for over the course of the year. Some of the trotters and pacers that compete in the series may have had a great season the year before. Others may have recorded a significantly lesser number of starts than in seasons past and others yet may simply be lower-level competitors who race against lesser horses than those that accrue significant earnings over the course of the year. Whatever the individual case may be, there were 21 horses set to compete in leg one of the Holiday Trot contested on Wednesday afternoon and after two would-be participants were scratched, nineteen trotters comprised three divisions of the first leg, each of which went for a purse of $7,500.
By the time the first leg of the Holiday Trot was in the books at the conclusion of Wednesday’s Thanksgiving Eve race card, though there was no clocking that popped off the teletimer, there was one dominant effort from a trotter that stamped him as the series’ one to beat. And while only one favorite would emerge victorious in leg one, there wasn’t a result that could be considered an upset either. The first division of the fourth annual series for trotters that were non-winners of two races or $15,000 in 2019 (as of October 27) that had made a minimum of twenty starts featured just a field of five after two scratches and according to the betting public appeared to be a two-horse race between JS Trotting Bob and Schwarber. The former went off at odds of 6-5 and with lifetime earnings nearly more than the entire rest of the field combined had backclass on his side and was the winningest among the members of the field with three victories under his belt in 2019. Schwarber was the odds-on favorite despite drawing the outside post in the race. Those two favorites drew away from their rivals and traded strides in the stretch before Schwarber surged by to win in a mile clocked in 2:00. JS Trotting Bob had to settle for second. Brian Cross piloted the Margaret Spagnola-trained Schwarber who won for the third time this season for owner Gary Fisher of Glens Falls. Though Schwarber displayed a strong closing move on Wednesday, he would wind up being the slowest of the three leg one winners.
Jay Randall opted to pilot Awol Hanover in the second division and it proved to be the right choice as the Jimmy Nickerson-trained trotter put forth an effort that was so dominant that he emerged as the Holiday Trot Series’ one to beat. Awol Hanover cruised to the front-end on Wednesday and simply overpowered his rivals in the second half before drawing away to win by nine lengths as by far the most decisive winner of the series’ first leg. Though the final time of 1:59.2 would be a full second slower than the winner of the final division contested on the day, Awol Hanover appeared to have plenty left in the tank and was “under Randall wraps” in the stretch to cement his place as the series’ one to beat. The runner-up to Awol Hanover was Collector Classic who finished second despite making a break after the start as the even money favorite. The Vern Beachy trainee will be one to watch in the coming weeks as well.
The final division of the day went to Phil Fluet’s Barn Star who came into the series with just one win this season following a ’18 campaign in which he won nine times. Barn Star closed sharply on Wednesday and came on to win in 1:58.2, a final clocking that was the fastest of leg one. Fluet drove and trained three winners on the afternoon program including Barn Star who certainly tossed his hat into the ring as a potential star in the series whose second leg will take place this Wednesday (December 4th) and will conclude on December 11th with a final that will go for a purse of $20,000.
The Holiday Pacing Series, that had the same credentials for participants as did its trotting counterpart, got underway on Saturday night with three six-horse divisions that each went for a purse of $7,500. Bob Uhl’s Babinga Wood was the Claimer of the Year at Saratoga two seasons ago but fit the series after having a subpar 2019 campaign. On Saturday night, young reinsman Mitch Cushing found some early speed from regular closer Babinga Wood who cut the mile as his division’s 6-5 betting favorite. Despite a couple of different rivals putting in strong bids, Babinga Wood held firm and toughed out a victory in 1:56.2, a time that wound up being the fastest among leg one winners. Of the eighteen participants in the Holiday Pace on Saturday only three were mares. One of the ladies proved up to the task as Tim Miller Jr’s One Hand Keg Stand sprung the upset in leg one behind a last-to-first effort. Frank Coppola Jr. sat behind One Hand Keg Stand who, though she has often been a factor in her local starts, had only two wins on the season heading into the series. Her victory in 1:56.3 came at odds of 7-1. Though One Hand Keg Stand pulled off a bit of a surprise on Saturday, her win wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the Holiday Pace’s first leg. In the evening’s final division, fourteen year old Dinner Guest recorded his 77th career victory as he scored first-over at odds of 11-1. Dan Cappello Jr. piloted the old veteran who was named Claimer of the Year in 2018, just one season after Babinga Wood earned the same honor. On Saturday, Dinner Guest rolled first-over and overwhelmed his race’s favorite who was the front-end. The fourteen year old, who is owned and trained by Frank Multari of Saratoga Springs, stopped the timer in 1:57 in what could well be his final lifetime victory with just a couple of weeks remaining in what has been an illustrious career. With a pair of upsets in its first leg, the fourth annual installment of the Holiday Pace seems up for grabs and could turn out to be a great one. Leg two is set for Saturday December 7th with the $20,000 Final scheduled for December 14th on closing weekend of the 2019 season.
Live racing takes place on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon starting at 12 Noon and on Saturday evening with first post time set for 6:45pm. Only two weeks remain until the conclusion of the ’19 season at the Spa. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!