Velocity Smokin’ His Way into the Open at the Spa

In contrast to the majority of trainers in harness racing it seems, for Bob Uhl, horse racing isn’t exactly in his blood. In a sport that sees so many of its participants have family ties to racing, Uhl didn’t get interested in the game until he became a teenager. One of his teachers at Colonie High School, Joe Landers, had horses at Saratoga Casino Hotel and when Uhl expressed interest in coming to the barn sometime, he made his way up to the track for the first time. And from that point on, he was hooked. Uhl helped out in Landers’ stable jogging some horses and cleaning stalls. Soon after, Bob got a horse of his own with whom he won his first ever race with at Green Mountain race track in Vermont. Some 45 years later, Uhl still has horses, or at least a horse, just like he has ever since the ‘70s when he got his start.

Although he’s raced horses for nearly five decades, Uhl has never relied on harness racing for his employment. Bob was able to continuing training on the side as his career as a police officer in his native Colonie consisted of him working the 3-11:00pm shift on the department. That allowed him to have a horse that he could take care in the mornings. Uhl isn’t usually going to buy a hugely expensive horse so he always tries to find a claimer that strikes his fancy and has always been open to an opportunity to make a private purchase that might come his way.

After 25 years on the police department, Uhl retired in 2004 and could focus strictly on his passion for horses. He sold his house and moved up to Ballston Spa to be closer to the track. Several years later, his friend Steve Delligan expressed interest in getting in on a horse and did just that when he and Uhl claimed a pacer named Stirling Cadillac in 2016. The horse didn’t stay in the Uhl stable for long as he was claimed right back from he and Delligan a few weeks later but as Bob says, that’s just part of the game. “Even if I have just one or two horses maximum, you have to classify them properly. I told Steve when he got into this that it was fine to fall in love with your horse but be prepared, we may lose him in a week or two,” Uhl told me. “Steve gets it. He understands. He really loves horses and horse racing now. He’s fascinated by the whole thing. He’ll come into the paddock and help me out when we have a horse racing.”

In 2017, Uhl and Delligan were presented with an opportunity to purchase a horse privately and acquired a pacer named Babinga Wood. They had massive success in that ’17 campaign with the horse who started in lower level conditional claimers and wound up finishing the season with an award for Claiming Pacer of the Year. Babinga Wood went on such a tear that his ’17 campaign ended with a few starts in the Open. The 2018 season brought much of the same as far as success for the Uhl trainee who towards the end of that summer parlayed a pocket trip to victory in the Open Pace. The win, in which he set a lifetime mark of 1:51.4, was the first in an Open in the career of Uhl who never had so much as a start in the Open in his career before doing so with Babinga Wood. At the conclusion of the ’21 season, Uhl retired Babinga Wood as the veteran pacer just couldn’t recover well enough from an ankle injury. Uhl searched for months and found a great home for Babinga Wood who now enjoys his retirement on a farm in Lake Luzerne.

With Babinga Wood no longer racing, Uhl had a few months without a horse and he was getting antsy. He didn’t want to get one just to get one but instead opted to wait for the right opportunity to arise. One presented itself last month when one of Babinga Wood’s former trainers Joe Cilione contacted Uhl about a horse he was looking to sell. Cilione and his family were set to move to Florida and didn’t want to put their horse on the internet but rather wished to send their horse to a trainer that they knew for sure would give him the appropriate care and TLC. “Joe and his wife April saw how much I took care of Babinga and they reached out to me when they were trying to sell Velocity Smoke. I was looking for a horse so we figured things out. They are such great people who really care about their horses. They were always supportive of Babinga even after they sold him to me so when they were moving and needed to sell, they said they’d love if I’d take the horse,” Bob told me. The Ciliones then sold Uhl Velocity Smoke, a horse who had certainly shown some impressive flashes over the course of his couple years at the Spa but certainly didn’t look like the kind of horse who would have a super high ceiling. When Uhl acquired Velocity Smoke though, he was immediately impressed. “He is a sound horse who trained great,” Uhl gleamed. “I wasn’t sure how he’d be but I definitely liked what I saw.”

Velocity Smoke drew post seven in his debut out of the Uhl barn and his trainer recalled that it was a perfect spot for a bit of a test run. “I knew with the bad draw that we’d have a tough time getting into the race. He got away last and closed really well. Only got beat three lengths,” Uhl noted. “From that point on, he just took off.” And take off he did. In his second start for Uhl, Velocity Smoke pulled first-over with driver Alek Chartrand at the controls and powered right past the race’s favorite en route to a decisive five-length victory. The following week, with Chartrand driving at Vernon Downs, Phil Fluet got the driving assignment. Fluet got a cover trip for Velocity Smoke who overcame the step up to repeat, drawing away late to win by open lengths once again. From there, it was a vault all the way into the Open for Velocity Smoke who on paper was a bit overmatched. After all, he was squaring off against the likes of the formerly dominant Hudson Phil as well as Lake Charles, the winningest horse in the local Open Pace this season.

In his Open debut, Velocity Smoke once again got away towards the back of the pack, landing seventh in the eight-horse co-featured race. Fluet again mapped out cover for Velocity Smoke who made steady progress on the leaders before fanning to the far outside turning for home. When he did, he meant business and the rising star came charging home to win the Open Pace in just his fourth start since moving to Uhl’s stable. “I knew he’d race well but I didn’t think we could beat those horses,” Uhl admitted. A winner of his second career Open as a trainer, Uhl acknowledged that the sizzling fractions in the race certainly helped the cause. “26.3 to the quarter and 55.2 to the half probably won’t happen again. It really helped but my horse tries. He works hard and he was really good that night.” And that could be an understatement by the rising star’s trainer. In last Saturday’s installment of the $16,000 feature, the win streak came to an end for Velocity Smoke who wound up finished third while putting in another giant effort in an Open. Fluet brushed the Uhl trainee to the lead approaching the half. He dug in before giving way late and ultimately finishing third. What a run for Velocity Smoke who Uhl is really excited about and with good reason. “He’s a sound horse who tries. When we got him, we figured he would be a solid check getter so he’s been a pleasant surprise. I told Steve to enjoy this wave because the wave won’t stay high forever,” Uhl said. And he should know. He’s pretty much seen it all in his close to five decades in harness racing. Velocity Smoke is starting to look like a Babinga Wood sequel for Bob Uhl who is certainly enjoying the ride.

Live racing takes place on Friday and Saturday evenings with first post times of 5pm and on Sunday and Monday afternoons with matinees starting at noon. 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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