Well, it goes without saying that this year has been drastically different than years past- in the entire world and certainly in the sport of harness racing. With casinos remaining closed, purse money is just not there like it normally would be which has caused a major reduction in purses since the reopen and also in racing days this summer. What normally would have been a four-night per week schedule pre-Covid, the calendar has consisted of three race cards per week. With the horse population and available purse money reduced, there really only have been enough horses and money to race our horses two days per week. The summer though has consisted of racing on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays with the exception of one week where the Wednesday card was canceled. The reason we’ve been able to have three-day weeks is the presence of the New York Sire Stakes. A normal summer staple, Sire Stakes racing takes place for two and three year old New York breds who have been paid into the process for quite some time. Thus, the vacancy of casinos hasn’t impacted the money that the young horses compete for- at least not for this year. With Monticello Raceway failing to reopen, there were a few extra Sire Stakes programs to be distributed throughout the track in New York State that are open. Thus, we at Saratoga Casino Hotel have seen a slight increase of stakes races this summer.
It seems that for decades there have been particular stars within New York Sire Stakes action not just here at Saratoga but throughout the state. Dating back a couple of decades, Wally Hennessey was considered the King of Sire Stakes. New York was “Wally World” in the summertime with the veteran reinsman dominating stakes action. Hennessey wanted to cut back on his travel and while he would and does pop up from time to time in NYSS races, Wally stopped driving the circuit. At that point, veteran Jim Morrill Jr. jumped into the role as New York’s top stakes driver. Enjoying massive success wherever he’d go, Morrill was a summer standout every single year when he’d come to Saratoga. Morrill would not only thrive in stakes races when he came to town but would often drive in the “regular” races on the card on a given night as well. It wouldn’t be strange to see Morrill’s driving average be up near the .500 mark in a given year in his somewhat limited starts at the Spa.
While we have seen Morrill a few times in 2020, there has been a new stakes star shining at Saratoga this summer. His name isn’t new to the New York driving scene and he is certainly familiar to harness racing fans. But this summer, it’s been a bit different for Jason Bartlett. The 39 year old Maine native has thrived since moving to NY and is a multiple driving champion at Yonkers Raceway. Bartlett has been a regular at Saratoga this summer on days where the card includes Sire Stakes action. Success for Bartlett is nothing new. After all, the sulky stalwart already has piled up over 8,500 career wins en route to purses earned of more than $115 million. This summer, Bartlett has been simply a star at the Spa, winning three or more races four times thus far in just seven appearances. Normally there are eight Sire Stakes programs per year at the track and this summer we picked up one more to have a total of nine. With seven of them now in the books following last Wednesday’s action for three year old trotting fillies, Bartlett has piled up eighteen wins in 47 total drives.
Every day or evening where the top-flight drivers from North American converge on Saratoga to take part in NYSS action, most of the star pilots drive in their stakes races and head back on the road home. You can’t blame them. On several occasions where we race during the day, many of the drivers have to get going to race at other tracks in the evening. When they are here to compete in nighttime racing, by the time the stakes races conclude for the evening and they get back on the road to head home, it makes for a very late night for guys who often spend most of their days either behind a horse or behind the wheel of a car. Bartlett, though, has stuck around on several occasions and made himself available to local trainers to drive their horses in the less expensive races. This was the case last Wednesday for Jason who had six drives in stakes races winning two of them and finishing second in two more including the $156,600 richest race of the season at the Spa. Tasked with competing against a 1-5 favorite in the big race, Bartlett sat patiently with young filly Without A Warning who wound up charging home in the stretch to get up for second. After his six stakes races were done, Bartlett didn’t hop back in the car targeted for the Thruway. Instead he stayed until nearly the conclusion of the thirteen-race card. Hanging around certainly worked out for the standout driver who wound up piloting six Wednesday winners! Bartlett won the $8,500 Fillies and Mares Open while sitting behind the Jimmy Nickerson-trained Cay’s Blessing. Bartlett and Nickerson also teamed up for another winner in the race that followed the Open. Bartlett hanging around on Wednesday may have been for reasons other than picking up a few live drives though.
Three year old pacing filly Racine Bell has been a Sire Stakes star since the beginning of her career last year. The Dave Dewhurst trainee earned more than $140,000 in ten starts as a freshman in 2019. Bartlett was the fairly regular reinsman for Racine Bell throughout the stakes season that concluded with her finishing second in the $225,000 Stakes Final in Batavia. The three year old campaign has been just as successful for Racine Bell who used a Wednesday race at Saratoga seemingly as a freshener for the filly who had been off three weeks following the second of her back-to-back victories in the NYSS, a start in which Bartlett piloted her to a pocket-sitting win in a $77,300 race. With little difficulty scoring in a decisive romp clocked in 1:53.4, Racine Bell appears poised to once again secure a NYSS victory as she drew the rail for this Wednesday’s try in a $74,500 stakes race at Saratoga with Bartlett again set to be at the controls in a race in that will see her be the odds-on favorite.
Bartlett hasn’t been the only star of the summer Sire Stakes season at the Spa. Last Monday afternoon, with two year old pacing fillies featured, a track record was set when Linda Toscano’s Heart Of Mine sprung a mild upset winning in 1:53.2 to secure her spot as the fastest freshman pacing filly in the history of Saratoga. Jim Marohn Jr. was Monday’s sulky star as he piloted both winners in the $70,300 stakes races scoring a double with Heart Of Mine and superstar Test Of Faith who continues to be the dominant force among two year old pacing fillies. Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday evening this week will be the final installments of the NYSS for the season at the Spa and are sure to feature more and more Jason Bartlett who has been the standout among the summer stars during stakes season at Saratoga.
Live racing takes place on Monday and Tuesday afternoon this week starting at 12 Noon and on Wednesday evening with first post set for 7:15pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!