Three annual spring series’ were set to get underway at Saratoga Casino Hotel last week. The series honor the memory of three people who were instrumental to harness racing at Saratoga. John Mongeon Sr, J.P. Morel and Virginia O’Brien are names very familiar to most fans of the Spa, especially those that go way back. Two of the series’ in their memory were started close to a decade ago while one goes back just a few years. And while two of the series’ saw standouts emerge, the other had a set of unfortunate circumstances surrounding it that threw a curveball to all of those involved.
The eighth annual John Mongeon Sr. Trotting Series kicked off on Monday afternoon. The series for trotters honors the longtime trainer and driver of standardbreds who competed mostly at Saratoga. The father of Spa regulars Scott and John Jr, Mongeon was a fixture in the backstretch even years after the conclusion of his career in the business. Mongeon passed away in 2009 and the series in his memory was started in 2013. There were two divisions of the first leg of the Mongeon Memorial contested on Monday and a rising trotting star emerged as the clear one to beat. Dewey Arnold began his career competing in the Excelsior Series of the New York Sire Stakes as a two year old in 2020. The Dave Dewhurst trainee won his first lifetime start and did so in a $15,000 Excelsior race. He finished up his freshman season with two wins. Here in ’21, the speedy high-stepper put in a couple of strong qualifiers at Saratoga but made breaks in his first two races of the year. Dewhurst opted to bring the three year old out of town to Pocono Downs to compete on a bigger-sized track and it was there where Dewey Arnold’s star began to shine. He scored back-to-back jacks and the two victories came by a total of almost eighteen combined lengths! From there, he stepped up in class and again rolled to a decisive score, this one coming in a lifetime best 1:53.2.
Dewey Arnold returned to the Spa on Monday while riding a three-race win streak and really the only question seemed to be whether or not he could stay trotting on the half-mile track of Saratoga. If he could, he clearly was the series’ one to beat from a talent standpoint. On Monday, driver Jimmy Devaux eased Dewey Arnold out early and coasted out to the front-end with him. Once he got to the top, it was over. The Dewhurst-trained sophomore cruised to a well-measured victory in 1:57.2, a final time that proved to be better than two seconds faster than then Monday’s other division. Though Dewey Arnold was the speedy force in the eighth installment of the Mongeon Memorial, he wasn’t the only razor sharp trotter who rode a winning streak into Monday’s series. Cindy Michelle is just a youngster and the John Stark Jr. trained and driven filly had only four career starts under her belt heading into her try in the $10,000 division of the first leg of the series. The filly who came from off the pace to record all three of her victories utilized the same game plan on Monday. Stark piloted Cindy Michelle to her fourth consecutive score while stopping the timer in 1:59.3. The second leg of the series is set to take place on Monday (May 17th) with the Final, which will go for a purse of upwards of $30,000, the following week.
Tuesday marked the start of the 8th annual J.P. Morel Memorial Pacing Series. Morel was a staple in the sulky at Saratoga Raceway for decades. Morel, who spent the majority of his career at the Spa, was the winningest driver in the Saratoga Harness history at the time of his retirement. JP passed away in 2012 and is remembered with a pacing series in his honor. The series for colts and geldings had two divisions of the first leg which each went for a purse of $10,000 and much like in the Mongeon Series, a clear favorite emerged. Heading into Tuesday, Unique Beach looked like the series’ one to beat. The Melissa Beckwith trainee rattled off consecutive romps in 1:54 and a piece in two overwhelming victories in his two local starts. The four year old did appear to have one real challenger in his division as Thor And Dr Jones came in with only three career races but one was just more impressive than the last. Heading into the series, Thor And Dr Jones jogged in his local debut for conditioner Amanda Kelley who sits in second place in the local trainer standings. On Tuesday, Thor And Dr Jones proved to be no match though for Unique Beach who if he came into leg one as the series’ one to beat, he came out of it as the series stud. Unique Beach made it look easy winning in 1:55.4 by a commanding four lengths with Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey in the sulky. Thor And Dr Jones got the pocket trip behind the winner but faded just a bit late in the mile before finishing third. The other division of the Morel Memorial saw leading trainer Gary Levine add another to his win column as Furious Beach went coast-to-coast with Shawn Gray in the bike. If it wasn’t before, it is certainly now Unique Beach’s series to lose as his decisive win in a division far faster than the other contested on Tuesday set him apart from the rest of the rivals as he looks to add his name to the list of J.P. Morel Memorial Pacing Series winners.
The curveball that was thrown last week came in regards to the Virginia O’Brien Memorial Pacing Series. Long considered the First Lady of Saratoga Raceway, O’Brien was an incredible ambassador for harness racing at the Spa. She was a longtime employee in the press box before launching and running the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame. A few years after her passing in 2010, the track began a series in O’Brien’s memory featuring, what else, but lady pacers. The sixth annual O’Brien Memorial Series has been suddenly and unfortunately postponed following an ugly accident in what would have been the first division of the series. The accident resulted in the judges declaring the race a No Contest which means it never existed in regards to purse money, wagering and as far as points for the series. Therefore, the decision was made that Tuesday’s second division of the first leg of the series would be raced but the participants would not accrue points. Essentially, the series was canceled. Well, at least for the team being. More like postponed as the Virginia O’Brien Memorial Series has been pushed back two weeks and will now kickoff on May 26th with the first of two legs that will lead up to the $30,000+ Final. This will give the horses involved in the accident a chance to get ready to race the following week as the series will start all over again. The division of the would-be series was that completed served as a prep for the series and still went for the $10,000 purse it was slated to go for. The accident was an ugly one and all of our well wishes go out to all those involved in it, particularly driver Jay Randall who suffered significant injuries in the wreck. Our best to the classy, veteran reinsman who will undoubtedly have a lengthy recovery process ahead of him.
The Mongeon and Morel Memorial Series’ continue on Monday and Tuesday this week, respectively. Live racing takes place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon each week with first post times 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!