Track’s All Time Leader Returns To the Spa….Kind Of

Anyone who has been to the track in the last four decades knows the name Frank Coppola Jr. The Saratoga Hall of Famer is the winningest driver in the 82 year history of Saratoga Casino Hotel. Coppola piled up twelve driving titles at the Spa, the last of which came in 2017. The top-flight reinsman remained on top of his game in the follow seasons but at the conclusion of the ’19 campaign Coppola decided that it was time to walk away. When he did so, he owned 5,969 career victories, notably just 31 away from the 6,000 milestone. When I spoke with Coppola at the time he hung up his colors a few years ago, he did acknowledge that while it was time to wrap things up, the 6,000 win milestone was one he was aware and was candid in saying it did mean something to him.

In my conversation at the start of the 2020 season, Coppola didn’t use the word retire and said that we could see him again at some point. After all, Coppola had had a couple of stints in the past where he left the full-time driving grind. From 2004-2006, Coppola sat behind less than 200 horses total and again from 2011-2013, he barely donned his driving colors at all. This time, though, sounded a bit different when I spoke with the classy, understated Saratoga driving legend. He mentioned that maybe some time he would come in to drive a few horses here and there because after all, racing is in his blood although to be a full-time driver and have the success Coppola has enjoyed throughout his career, you have to be super competitive and no one is more competitive on the track than Frank. And for that reason, the idea of coming back only here or there was a tough one for the classy, likeable Coppola to grasp.

This winter, Jeff Cantine, Coppola’s longtime friend, approached the reinsman with the most all-time victories at the Spa, and asked if he would come and help he and wife Jackie train their young trotter. The Cantines acquired Trump De Vie late last summer and after the youngster made a break in his debut for his new connections took the rest of the year off. Trump De Vie had been training well but when it came time to put a race bike on the now three year old, the Cantines asked Coppola if he’d come take him a trip. “Frank has always been a phenomenal all-around horseman and we thought he could help us with our trotter,” Jeff Cantine told me. The former President and current member of the Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association has been a close friend of Coppola’s for decades. In fact, when Frank’s first ever horse, Harmony Dot, won for the first time, Jeff was in the winner’s circle picture. That was four decades ago!

The tandem paired up this winter when Coppola helped train Trump De Vie before agreeing to qualify him and when the Cantines asked him about the prospects of maybe driving him in a race, the Spa Hall of Famer quickly said “sure.” In the meantime, the Cantines had also acquired a young pacer name Sweet El Diablo and again, Coppola’s services were requested. When Frank piloted Sweet El Diablo for the first time on a late February afternoon, it marked the return to the sulky for Coppola after more than three years off. While the first few starts for Sweet El Diablo didn’t produce any big time results, Trump De Vie was thriving. The sophomore drew the rail for his 2023 debut and Coppola gave the trotter a pocket trip in his return. The Cantine trainee parlayed that pocket ride to victory and just like that, it was back to the winner’s circle for Saratoga legend Frank Coppola Jr who camped out in that winner’s circle for more than three decades. The next week resulted in a near carbon copy trip for Trump De Vie who again prevailed after powering out of the two-hole to score behind patient Coppola piloting. Last Monday (March 24), the youngster looked to move his record to three-for-three on the season and did it with relative ease except this time Coppola put the race’s favorite on the front end. That same afternoon, Sweet El Diablo finished third for the second consecutive week.

Now eight drives into his “return,” Coppola has three wins and a pair of thirds. But is he back? Coppola tells me no. “Jeff and Jackie asked me to help them out so I said I’d drive a few for them,” the sulky standout told me. When I asked if this opened the door to a comeback, he was quick to say no. Or at least probably not. “I retired a few years from my job with the city and from racing. I just didn’t want to be committed to the daily grind of driving. I still love it and enjoy the competition but I’ve been staying very busy. I golf a lot in golfing season and I even joined a bowling league for the first time this winter.” “So am I coming back to drive? No, I have no plans to do that.” The 63 year old Coppola did admit that the transition back to driving has been pretty smooth though and was quite literally like riding a bike as far as feeling left you never stopped. He also says while he has no plans to come back and drive full time, it’s a “never say never” type of mindset.

Jeff and Jackie Cantine have had horses at Saratoga for decades and although they retired their veteran trotter I’m Not Vanilla recently, they have enjoyed a strong start to their ’23 campaign. “The trotter (Trump De Vie) is a handy, good gaited horse,” Jeff told me. “He is paid into the Excelsiors so we could go that route but right now, we’re just trying to bring him along. He has to step up in class now since he’s been winning so he’ll certainly have some tougher tests coming up.” Cantine tells me that Trump De Vie is eligible to race in the John Mongeon Memorial Trotting Series that starts in a few weeks which will serve as a good gauge for what they’ll do with him in the coming months. As far as Sweet El Diablo, the Cantines bought him sight unseen out and he’s still a work in progress. “He has a good burst of speed to him. He’s got a lot to learn but has a great attitude and likes racing,” Jeff said. Coppola agreed telling me “he’s young and inexperienced but we’re tinkering with him a little more each week and he’s certainly getting better.” The Cantines plan to simply keep Sweet El Diablo racing at Saratoga throughout the year and hope that his education continues. So many people have asked me in recent weeks something along the lines of “is Frankie coming back?” And while the answer seems to be no, at least on a full-time basis, it has been great to see the former Saratoga staple still look as comfortable as ever in the sulky. His career win tally that continues to inch closer to a 6,000 milestone which, if nothing else, must at least be a bit intriguing to the driver who was and is the favorite of so many at Saratoga, be it trainers or fans of the track, who collectively would no doubt love to see more and more of the veteran reinsman in the coming months. Don’t bet on it happening but don’t completely count it out either!

Live racing takes place every Saturday evening starting at 5pm and continues with matinees on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday all spring with the exception of this Sunday when there will be no racing due to the Easter holiday. 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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