Spa Racing Season Reaches the Head of the Stretch

With Thanksgiving upon us, we now, amazingly, have just four weeks remaining in the 2018 racing season at Saratoga Casino Hotel and there are several races within the races which remain up for grabs. This summer, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that Billy Dobson was destined to run away with his fifth local driving title at Saratoga Casino Hotel and his first since 2013. At one point this summer, Dobson’s lead in the driver standings was as big as almost fifty wins. For much of the campaign, it looked like the only competitive “race” among drivers would be between Frank Coppola Jr. and Jimmy Devaux for second-place. Fast forward to now the final month of the meet, despite the fact Dobson has continued to win at a solid clip, Devaux has closed the gap considerably. In fact, heading into the action last week Devaux trailed by just four wins. With 2016 and 2017 leading driver Coppola all but assured a third place finish in ’18, Dobson and Devaux are poised for a battle for supremacy among local drivers in the season’s final month.

While the 34 year old Dobson already owns four local driving titles, the veteran Devaux is seeking his first. The top driver at Monticello on several occasions, Devaux has finished among the top handful of reinsmen every year since coming to the Spa over a decade ago. Still currently fourth in the Monticello standings, Devaux continues to do double duty as one of New York’s winningest catch-drivers and has simply been on a tear this fall at the Spa. Behind a surge that started late in the summer, Devaux has chipped away at what appeared to be an insurmountable deficit in the standings and trailed Dobson 237-233 in wins heading into last week’s action. Devaux has been the regular reinsman for the Don Billings stable this year and together that pair has piled up the victories of late to currently sit second in the driver and trainer standings, respectively. Following the conclusion of Sunday afternoon’s racing, Dobson continues to hold a four-win advantage over Devaux with four weeks left to battle it out. While Dobson is seeking his fifth crown, Devaux is looking to become the fourth different driver to win the Saratoga title in the last five years. It will certainly be an interesting race within the races to keep an eye on as we head into the final four weeks of the season at the Spa.

For all of the drama building in the driver race that will seemingly come right down to the wire, 2018’s “under the radar” driving star this season at the Spa is veteran Jay Randall. As chronicled in several of my previous columns this year, Randall is enjoying a renaissance in ’18. The longtime Spa regular will all but certainly finish the season in fifth place among local drivers after piling up his impressive win total despite having a significantly lesser amount of drives than the competitors ahead of him in the standings. Randall had another terrific week last week as he piloted four winners on Thursday’s matinee, securing two of those victories in co-features that went for purses of $11,000 each. On Friday night, Randall sat behind Round The Beach as that three year old filly rode a six-race win streak into the Fillies and Mares Open. Round The Beach went coast-to-coast in the $18,000 Open to become the second John Macdonald trained-mare to win the ladies’ Open this season with Randall in the sulky. Round The Beach, who is now seven-for-seven since joining Macdonald’s stable last month, joins All Charged Up as winners of the local Fillies and Mares Open this year.

Randall’s season has really been highlighted by his work with the Amanda Facin-trained Ulster. Ulster was the dominant force in the Open Trot throughout the first few months of the year as he recorded five victories in the first nine installments of the Open in ’18. Ulster was scratched from Sunday’s scheduled start in the in the feature so his win total remains at ten for the season with eight of those wins coming against the track’s top flight trotters. With award nominees being assembled this week, Ulster has had his final start that will be considered by voters as he looks to lock-down the Trotter of the Year award. In every one of Ulster’s victories this year, the rejuvenated Randall has been at the controls.

While near shoe-in for Trotter of the Year Ulster didn’t have a chance to add to his bulky total in the win column last weekend, superstar Artful Way did. The Jackie Greene-trained standout went last to first in Saturday’s $20,000 Open Pace in what was his sixteenth victory of the season and ninth in the local Open. Artful Way recorded his first win in the Open Pace at the Spa in the final week of the 2015 campaign. In ’16, he took home Pacer of the Year honors after winning the Open eight times. Last year, Artful Way recorded ten victories in the regular Saturday feature en route to earning Horse of the Year in a season that culminated with him taking home the trophy for Pacer of the Year for the second consecutive season. The six year old campaign has brought about much of the same for the local star as Artful Way has piled up sixteen wins already following his last-to-first score in 1:52.4 on Saturday night. Frank Coppola Jr. has been the regular driver throughout Artful Way’s time at the Spa and piloted him to what was his incredible 28thwin in the Open Pace at Saratoga since coming to town late in the ’15 campaign. Already a big favorite for both awards in ’18, Artful Way all but locked up Pacer of the Year honors with his most recent win and will become the first horse in track history to win that award in three consecutive seasons. While some of the awards, such as Trotter and Pacer of the Year, have been all but decided, there remain a couple of races within the races to watch as we head into the home stretch of the 2018 campaign at the Spa with the pursuit of the driving title at the top of that list.

With Thanksgiving on Thursday, the live racing schedule changes just a bit this week with a Wednesday matinee taking the place of the regularly scheduled Thursday card. Wednesday and Sunday afternoon programs will start at 12:15pm while Friday and Saturday evening cards begin 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!

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