Young Stars Shining Bright at the SpaYoung Stars Shining Bright at the SpaWe often hear it said that harness racing is an old man’s game. Well, not so fast. If you’ve watch what’s gone on in recent seasons at Saratoga Casino Hotel, you have seen that there are several “young” people thriving in the sport. First, of course, there’s Billy Dobson, who in his twenties won a handful of local driving titles. Beyond that, it seems that in recent seasons, there has been an influx of young talent thriving at the Spa as both drivers and trainers.
Every year, there is a winner of the Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath Awards recognizing the track’s top up-and-coming or breakthrough driver and trainer, respectively, from that season. Some years there are runaway winners and other seasons find close races in the voting for one of the awards. Just as is the case with the Rookie of the Year award in sports, not all of the winners of the Johnny Page and Peerless McGrath become long term stars but many enjoy long-term careers in the business.
In 2017, the two nominees for the Peerless McGrath Award for breakthrough trainers were Jaymes McAssey and Brett Derue. Both “new” young trainers had terrific seasons at the Spa. The 27 year old McAssey wound up taking home the award after his dynamic freshman campaign. Of McAssey’s 126 starts in ’17, only about a dozen came out of town and just one of his 29 victories came while racing elsewhere. McAssey piled up impressive stats last season at the Spa, recording 28 wins in 114 local starts with another 38 second and third place finishes combined en route to a training average of a hearty .368. Mostly focusing on low to mid-level claimers as well as some young horses, McAssey enjoyed a breakout season in his first year as a trainer and did enough to best Brett Derue in the race for the McGrath Award.
Unlike McAssey, Derue, the brother of former Johnny Page winner and twenty-something Jordan Derue, wasn’t a true freshman in ’17 when he had a breakout campaign. Derue’s training career started a decade ago and the native of Canada amassed 80 wins in his first few seasons as a trainer. After 2012, Derue tabled having his own stable but stayed involved in the sport, mostly as assistant trainer to one of the track’s top conditioners Jackie Greene. Derue went back out on his own late in ’16 which meant that 2017 was his first full year back in the training business. And what a year it was.
In fact, Derue’s numbers were eerily similar to those put up by McAssey in ’17. Out of his 124 starts (compared to 126 for McAssey), Derue scored 26 wins (McAssey had 29), twenty-two of which came at Saratoga (Derue won three races at the Meadowlands and once at Yonkers.) His trainees hit the board in nearly half of their starts last year. While Derue came up just shy of earning the McGrath honors, he did take home some hardware at the end of the season banquet as his Golden Tate was recognized as the track’s top claiming trotter for the $12,500 and above levels. His Cracker Pullet was also a nominee for Claiming Pacer of the Year at the lower level. In summary, in almost any other year, Derue’s credentials would have earned him the McGrath Award but his season was tremendous nonetheless.
McAssey appears determined to prove that his award-winning freshman campaign was no fluke and the start of his sophomore season has gone much like last year did. In fact, after his big night on Friday, McAssey has an early season training average of .406. With three of his stable’s pacers competing on Friday night, McAssey had a pair of winners to go with a third place finish. Pacing mare Smart N Articulate made an impact locally last season when she set a lifetime mark of 1:54.4 and on Friday, the four year old recorded her first victory of the year. Her win was the second on the night for McAssey whose Fire N Diamonds went wire-to-wire in just her second start since being claimed. McAssey already has four wins and six seconds in just eighteen local starts in ’18. Jaymes McAssey, last year’s Peerless McGrath winner, is off to a terrific start to his sophomore season as he continues to thrive with mostly claimers and young horses in his “smaller” size stable.
In most years, Brett Derue would have done enough to take home the award last season for breakthrough trainers but instead, he ran into the McAssey buzzsaw. Seeming like an old, crafty veteran compared to McAssey, the 33 year old Derue had his best career season last year and has had similar results at the start of his ’18 campaign. On Friday night, as McAssey registered his training double, Derue started the mare who has been his stable’s star in the season’s early going. Miss Bling headed into her Friday tilt riding a three-race win streak after overcoming a variety of difficult trips from bad posts to score her hat trick.
Miss Bling and McAssey’s Smart N Articulate will square off this Friday night after being separated by only a nose when they ran one-two the only time they competed against each other in ’18. Last weekend, though the journey got the best of Miss Bling, it was a different Derue-trained distaffer who would be the stable’s star on Friday. Cansherocklikedoc was making her debut for Derue who acquired the three year old filly via private purchase last week. Cansherocklikedoc drew the rail on Friday and paid immediate dividends for her new connections, setting a lifetime mark in her first start for Derue. Often utilizing the driving services of his brother Jordan, Derue has had plenty of success with a variety of drivers in what has been a dynamic start to his 2018 campaign.
The rising-star has begun his season with a training average of over .500!! While that percentage is certainly not sustainable, Derue is surely making a continued impact as last year’s Peerless McGrath nominees are showing how their successful 2017 seasons were no fluke as the “young guys” continue to thrive at the Spa.
Live racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon with matinees starting at 12:15pm and on Friday and Saturday evenings with action beginning at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!