Paul O’Neil is no stranger to seeing members of his stable thrive in the Fillies and Mares Open at Saratoga Casino Hotel. O’Neil, who calls Saratoga Springs home, has owned horses since the early 1990’s. He grew up in a family who loved to gamble and loved horse racing so Paul has been coming to the track ever since he can remember. He always wanted to own horses and felt that by the early 90s, he was financially comfortable enough to dabble into owning. O’Neil grew up with longtime Saratoga regular Jay Randall who trained for O’Neil when he got his first horse in 1992. From there, he was hooked.
O’Neil has had a handful of trainers over his course of thirty years in the business and when he got what would be his best horse ever, O’Neil sent her to the stable of Dan and Wally Hennessey. O’Neil purchased Godiva Seelster in the fall of 2013 and after making an immediate impact the following year turned into a full blown superstar. Godiva Seelster became one of the top pacing mares both at Saratoga and at Pompano Park in Florida where she split her time. She enjoyed 14-win campaigns in both ’15 and ’16 and continued her mastery of Filly and Mare Opens in the coming years until late in ’17 when the Hennesseys reached out to O’Neil tell him that it didn’t look like the Open was going to fill enough at Pompano and suggested that he take his prized distaffer to another trainer.
O’Neil did just that and shipped Godiva Seelster to Ohio to join the stable of O’Neil’s trainer Jessica Roegner. Paul met Roegner and husband Don Sherman during their time at Saratoga and told them he would eventually send them a horse. He did that with Godiva Seelster who had a few more superstar campaigns left in her tank. The talented mare flashed stints of dominance in the Opens at Northfield and Scioto in Ohio before eventually wrapping up her career in the early stages of the ’20 season. When she did so, she did it after an incredible five consecutive years in which she piled up over $100,000 in earnings winning dozens and dozens of Opens along the way. A nominee for Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year at Saratoga, Godiva Seelster owned one of the highest win percentages of any female pacer in her time at the Spa. “She was a special one,” O’Neil told me. “She set the world record for a mare on a half mile track while racing at Northfield. Her mark of 1:50 has since been lowered but she was a superstar. She ran out of gas there at the end of her nine year old season, understandably, and we knew it was time for her to wrap things up. We didn’t think we’d ever have another one like her,” Godiva’s longtime owner admitted.
O’Neil, who is always exploring different avenues in search of horses to purchase, was sent info from a horse agent in 2019 on a mare named Sea Shadows who was racing in Canada. He watched some of her replays and was instantly impressed with a few things that he saw. “Something about her just struck me right away,” O’Neil explained. “I liked how she carried herself on the racetrack- looked professional.” O’Neil purchased the four year old for $60,000 and sent her to Roegner in Ohio who immediately enjoyed success with Sea Shadows. She rattled off a couple of wins and was quickly vaulted into the Fillies and Mares Open at Northfield, Scioto and the Meadows in Pennsylvania. By the time her four year old season wrapped up, Sea Shadows won thirteen times en route to just shy of $100,000. A very Godiva Seelster-like campaign.
Sea Shadows took a slight step back in 2020 and the early portion of ’21. She just wasn’t competing at the same level, so much so that Roegner and Sherman suggested to O’Neil that a change of scenery might help her. O’Neil knew right where to go. He called Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey and explained the situation and what he thought Sea Shadows potential was. With his brother Dan now retired from training, Wally was running just a small stable but welcomed O’Neil to ship Sea Shadows down to him in November of last year. She spent time in the Opens at Pompano and wrapped up another decent albeit non-descript campaign. Once the calendar showed 2022 though, Sea Shadows really rediscovered the winning way.
Starting out her year in Florida, the seven year old completed the Pompano meet by competing in their Open, earning the second spot in the final Fillies and Mares Open in that track’s history. Hennessey came up to Tioga Downs to stable for the summer and Sea Shadows had no trouble acclimating to the North when she cruised to victory in her debut in the Tioga Open. When the race didn’t fill at Tioga, Hennessey, who isn’t very equipped for shipping, suggested to O’Neil that he leave the horse in the stable of Melissa and Mark Beckwith here at the Spa. Sea Shadows won her first start out of the Beckwith barn when she scored a decisive victory in a June 6th Open with Hennessey driving. In that particular start, the veteran brushed to the lead approaching the half mile pole but in her subsequent starts and wins, Sea Shadows wasted little time powering out to the front-end. “She’s always been great from the back of the pack. She’s a terrific closer but on the half mile track, she’s been able to make the front quite a bit,” O’Neil told me. “Once she’s gotten to the lead, she’s been awfully tough. She doesn’t like to let one pass her.” And tough is an understatement. Fast forward three months from the time Sea Shadows debuted out of the Beckwith stable and she now owns five wins and a second-place finish in seven local races with each of her tries at the Spa coming in the Fillies and Mares Open. Sandwiched between some of those local scores, the star distaffer has gone to Plainridge Park to compete but hasn’t enjoyed anything close to the success she’s had while racing at the Spa. And while O’Neil says he loves how versatile Sea Shadows is and that some of the best miles she’s put in have consisted of her coming from off the pace, among her five local victories in the Open, the breakout pacing star has recorded four of them while on the front-end. When I asked her owner if there are any resemblances between Sea Shadows and his past superstar distaffer Godiva Seelster, he said “Godiva was one whose early speed was her biggest asset. Shadows can really do it either way even though she’s been a leaver of late. “She’s a beautiful mare, well-mannered and really does everything right on the track. She’s got some work to do to catch up to Godiva but it isn’t really fair to compare the two. That’s a lot to try and live up to. They’re both super-talented, hard trying mares but their methods are quite a bit different.” While Sea Shadows may have some work to do if she’s to match the career successes of O’Neil’s all-time top horse, one thing she has a real chance to do that Godiva Seelster never did is become Pacing Mare of the Year at Saratoga. No doubt, with still almost three months left in the season, Sea Shadows is one of the front-runners for the award which honors the track’s top lady pacer for the season in a year that has already seen her earn over $100,000 by way of twelve wins.
Live racing takes place on Friday and Saturday evenings starting at 5pm and continues with Sunday and Monday matinees that begin at 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!