In the past few weeks, I’ve been asked by a few fans of Saratoga Casino Hotel who the best horse I’ve ever called is or if I have had any favorites along the way. Well, I don’t know if I necessarily have one favorite but roughly a half dozen or so names popped into my head immediately as far as the top horses I’ve ever announced here at the Spa. Yes, there are track horses that broke the track record in their appearances at the track such as Bolt The Duer and Dancin Yankee who each did it while competing in the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial Pace. While the efforts by those stalwarts were incredible, spending just a few starts racing at the Spa doesn’t often a favorite horse make. In fact, when Wiggle It Jiggleit came to town in the summer of 2016, he did so as the defending National Horse of the Year. He was the winner of the Gerrity in ’16 and is probably one of the two most overall talented horses that I’ve seen, and announced, in my now twenty years at the track (has it been that long??) More on who number one is later in the column.
There are a few names that jumped out in my head right away when thinking about the most successful longer term horses I’ve called here in my career. A pair that recently won awards in back-to-back years was impressive. Panocchio, trained by Saratoga Hall of Famer Jimmy Mattison, was named the Pacer of the Year in ’14 and ’15 and took home Horse of the Year honors in 2014. Maureen Salino’s Slugfest won Trotter of the Year awards in those same two seasons and was Horse of the Year in 2015. Both are still racing at Saratoga and though Panocchio has still dabbled in some Opens, neither is the same caliber horse as they were in their award-winning campaigns. Still, the length of time that they maintained top-flight status is pretty exceptional in this day in age in harness racing.
Sustainability is the key for me when analyzing the “top” horses that have competed locally over the last couple of decades. For that reason, a pair of Jackie Greene trainees stands out among the top all-time horses in my tenure here. Prime Interest at one point held the track record as the fastest trotter in Saratoga history and remained at the top for several years. He was named Trotter of the Year in ’08 (a campaign after which he also took home Horse of the Year honors) and ’10 as he sustained his top-level talent over the course of several seasons. Inducted into the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame in 2014, Prime Interest is probably the strongest trotter of my era here at the track. His combination of consistency, longevity and a high ceiling (his best was simply better than the rest) made him stand out for me as the top high-stepper in my tenure at the Spa.
When the topics of power and consistency are discussed, it is a different member of the Greene stable that comes to the forefront of the mind for me. Artful Way has achieved something that not only has never been done before in my era here but a feat that has never before been accomplished in track history. Artful Way currently stands as the three-time consecutive Pacer of the Year at the track and has earned at least a share of Horse of the Year honors in the last two seasons. Combining a blend of incredible early speed with the tenacity and will to win, Artful Way has a ceiling higher than any horse I’ve seen race here on a consistent basis in the last twenty plus years. The fact that he has dominated the Open ranks for three straight seasons is pretty much unheard of. The winningest Open horse at the Spa since Prime Interest, Artful Way is currently not racing due to an early season injury but has still added three wins in ’19 to his incredible tally of Open victories. Hopefully we’ll see him again soon but the accolades of Artful Way are unmatched as far as being a dominant, long-term force over the years at the Spa.
While I have mentioned several of the top horses to compete at Saratoga over the last decade or so, there are a couple of standouts from my “early days” at the track that pop-up when it comes to top-notch talent. A trotter that always amazed me earned Trotter of the Year honors in both 1998 and 1999. American Kash was the pride and joy of the Bill Blake Jr. stable. The classy trotter earned over a quarter million in his career. And remember, that was a career that took place before the purse increase after the installation of gaming machines. The one time Sire Stakes star got better with age before establishing himself as the top trotter at Saratoga for several years. A couple of things stood out, above and beyond simply the impressive stats for American Kash in his career. This trotter never got beat on the front end. When I say never, it happened I believe one time over the course of his entire time competing in the Open Trot. If you could figure him to be the lead, forget it. It was lights out. Also, Blake, who managed a small stable, drove the veteran trotter himself throughout his career and while Blake was clearly a capable reinsman, he wasn’t a catch-driver which elicited thoughts of what American Kash may have done had he been piloted by say, one of the era’s top drivers such as Frank Coppola Jr. or Dan Cappello Jr. Regardless, American Kash is right there with Prime Interest atop the list of trotters that I’ve called in my decades here at Saratoga.
The aforementioned group is simply sensational but there is one horse that rises above the rest when it comes to not only her accomplishments but the beauty and grace in which she did it. Bunny Lake, although based at Saratoga, only raced here a handful of times in her career. The John Stark Jr. trainee was named National Horse of the Year in 2001 after having one of the best seasons of any horse in harness racing history. The final time that she raced at the Spa was in an Open Pace when she squared off against the boys. Despite battling the boys and starting from post eight, Bunny Lake was the overwhelming 1-9 betting favorite in front of a packed house. I was fortunate enough to be on the track apron to watch the race and what I witnessed was nothing shy of incredible. More impressive and memorable than the five-length win was the way the superstar mare glided off the car. She was the best leaver I have ever seen to this day and to make the lead from post eight was impressive enough but how quickly she did it and the way in which she did it was the stuff of legend. Bunny Lake crossed over before the turn and, despite going through the first quarter in 26.4, coasted to victory. So Prime Interest, American Kash and Artful Way may be the most sustained talents as far as duration of dominance that I’ve witnessed but no horse in the better than two decade span that I’ve been involved with the track has ever been more impressive and breathtaking than Bunny Lake. A 2009 inductee into the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame and a 2010 entrant into the National Harness Racing Hall of Fame, Bunny Lake is the biggest standout I’ve ever seen race at Saratoga. A true homegrown talent, Bunny Lake was simply the best.
Live racing takes place every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evening during the month of August with first post time set for 7:05pm each night. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!