The most common question I have fielded from fans over the course of the now fourteen years that I’ve been the announcer at Saratoga Casino Hotel is “who is the best driver up there?” That answer is obviously subjective, up for interpretation. Is the leading driver at a track always the “best” driver? One could certainly make that case but it may not always be true. Billy Dobson is the winningest driver this decade at Saratoga and can therefore certainly be considered the “best.” After making an impact at the Spa immediately upon coming to town, Dobson has thrived each and every year, winning six driving titles in the last nine seasons. Frank Coppola Jr. is just one year removed from going back-to-back as tops among local drivers. The winningest driver in Saratoga Harness history owns eleven local driving titles and seemingly hasn’t “lost a step.” Bruce Aldrich Jr. and Jimmy Devaux have been the sulky stalwarts at Monticello Raceway for the last decade-plus and continue to do double duty. Aldrich was tops among local reinsmen in 2015 when he won the driving championship at Saratoga for the first time. Devaux, a two-time leading driver at Monticello, is in the top three or four pilots annually at the Spa and currently sits second in the local standings while still third among Monticello drivers.
Some drivers seem to thrive a bit more with, say, pacers over trotters or young horses over veterans but to declare who is best is certainly up for discussion. The fact of the matter is the driving colony at Saratoga right now is, I believe, probably the strongest it has ever been. While my answer is not very concrete when asked who is best, I usually chime in with a secondary response. I may not have a strong opinion on best but one thing I always say is “Shawn Gray is the most underrated.” To even use the term underrated might not even be fair. After all, those that watch racing at Saratoga on at least a semi-consistent basis know of Gray’s prowess and his career resume is more than impressive.
Gray has more than 4.100 victories in a driving career that has spanned over twenty-five years. The reason that I say underrated when it comes to Gray is really two-fold. Shawn seems to fly under the radar a bit perhaps because he doesn’t have the long term history at Saratoga. A sulky stalwart in the state of Maine, Gray relocated to New York in 2012 and became a presence at Buffalo and Batavia in Western NY. Shawn, who helps run a stable with his wife Alicia, has been competing at Saratoga from time to time ever since while bouncing around to drive. In addition to being a fairly new addition to the Spa, another reason Gray sometimes goes a bit unnoticed is simply due to the numbers. Though he enjoys really as much success as any local reinsman from a percentage standpoint, Shawn doesn’t drive here all that often. Still traveling to compete at several tracks, including Plainridge in Massachusetts which opens this week, Gray isn’t available to drive on all of the local cards. For that reason, it is sometimes difficult for local trainers who seek continuity with their drivers to use him on a consistent basis.
Coming into last weekend’s action, regulars Billy Dobson had 236 drives, Jimmy Devaux had 258 and Frank Coppola Jr. had 215 starts. Even Bruce Aldrich Jr, who spends part of his week at Monticello, had tallied 162 drives at the Spa. Shawn Gray had 70. The veteran reinsman piloted 17 winners at the Spa coming into the weekend in those seventy starts resulting in a win percentage second only to Jordan Derue, another pilot who spends some of his time competing at other tracks and doesn’t get a ton of catch drives. The bottom line is, when Shawn Gray is in town and in the sulky, he piles up the wins.
Gray wound up with the highest driving percentage in all of North America in 2011 (.440!) in what would be his final year competing on a full-time basis in the state of Maine. Gray proved that was no fluke when he moved to NY in 2012 and enjoyed a career year. His 356 wins and more than $1.85 million in purses were both career highs at the time. He tallied more than a million dollars in earnings in all but one year since but it wasn’t until last season when he approached the numbers of his standout ’12 campaign. In 2018, Shawn Gray drove 310 winners in a season in which he had the third-highest number of drives in his career and piled up over $2.3 million in purses, a figure that exceeded his previous best by more than a half million dollars.
Gray has picked up right where he left off last year and on the final race card in March, he joined Jay Randall as the only drivers to pilot winners in all three Opens at the Spa this season. The regular driver for out-of-towner Wings Of Royalty, Gray finished third with that standout trotter in his first two starts of 2019. The following week, they went coast-to-coast to earn the victory in the $15,000 Sunday feature as Gray added Open Trot winner to his list of ’19 accolades. Shawn piloted veteran JK Panache to an Open Pace victory in February and guided Annabeth to an afternoon score in the Fillies and Mares Open a couple weeks later before completing the Open hat trick with Wings Of Royalty. Assigned the outside post in last Sunday’s feature, Wings Of Royalty flashed his characteristic early speed but toiled a bit late in the mile before finishing third.
Last week was sort of a microcosm of what has been the scenario for Gray in the past few years. He wasn’t here on Wednesday and got just two drives on Thursday. In those drives, he secured a win and second-place finish. Shawn piloted a winner and had a second on Saturday night as well, despite the fact that he had just four mounts, the same number that he had on the Sunday card during which he scored another two victories and had a pair of thirds. In ten drives last week, Shawn drove four winners, had two seconds and two third-place finishes. Where the roads will take Gray this year remains to be seen but if the trend of the last several years holds true, whichever track he is competing at on that given day is all but sure to have the 45 year old make some trips to their winner’s circle. Who the “best” driver is, is certainly a topic that could be debated but who the most underrated or under the radar driver is at the Spa really is little of a question. It’s Shawn Gray all the way.
Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon with action starting at 12:00pm. Saturday night racing begins each week at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!