Special Touch

Gerry Sarama is still going strong after more than five decades in the sport

story by Tim Bojarski

Gerry Sarama is a name universally known in harness racing. He was a dominant driving talent for two decades that helped define a catch driver while successfully competing at the highest levels of the sport. At 78, he remains as relevant on the track as he was in the prime of his career. It only takes one look at his statistics to see Sarama has still got it after 57 years in the sport.

Sarama got involved in harness racing in 1963 when he was 21, after serving four years in the Marines. His father, Walter, had an auto wrecking business and raced horses on the side with his brother, Dan. And when Sarama returned from his tour of duty, he needed to decide what his future profession would be. Would he select cars or horses? Horses won.

Sarama’s first role in the industry was as a groom and he didn’t drive in his first race until the fall of 1966, which was three years after he started. His first win was with a horse named Double Trouble who would launch Sarama into the local limelight.

In 1967, Double Trouble was the barn’s hot horse, winning five consecutive races at one point, and Sarama began to receive attention for his work with him. In fact, he ended up having such a good year that he was honored as the most improved driver in western New York.

This was an era when catch driving was a new idea, as most trainers still drove their own horses. But it was easy to see Sarama’s talent and owners wanted him driving their horses. He was compared to the likes of Buddy Gilmour, Benny Webster, John Chapman, and Eldon Harner, who all started out on the same circuit.

“It was a lot different back then than it is now,” Sarama said. “Everyone [worked on] their own horses in the morning and at night, so in the beginning, there weren’t a lot of drives around. But that changed. The more I won, the more drives I got.”

Sarama moved to New York City in January of 1976 to race at Roosevelt Raceway and establish himself on the big circuit. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned.

Sarama went 0-55 in his first journey to the Big Apple, although wins eventually did come. Rather than going to Yonkers Raceway, however, when the Roosevelt meet ended, he decided to return home.

“It was tough down there,” Sarama said. “I was green at the time and I wasn’t getting many drives. The guys were good to me, but it just wasn’t working. I did meet some great people, though, like Sonny Patterson, Lucien Fontaine, Norman Dauplaise, and Carmine Abbatiello.”

After returning to western New York in 1976, Sarama posted another career year. Besides winning more driving titles, he became the first driver to ever win four sub-2:00 miles in the area in one season.

The four wins were during Grand Circuit week at Buffalo Raceway. The two most notable scores were Smooth Fella’s 1:58.3 win over the eventual Horse of the Year Keystone Ore and Tango Byrd’s 1:58.4 victory over Silk Stockings.

During that stretch of wins, then track announcer Joe Alto nicknamed Sarama “the man with the hands” because of his soft touch. The name has stuck ever since.

Sarama was content to be back home and winning, but he still sought to return to New York City. He wanted to prove to himself and everyone else he could compete with the best. Then that opportunity came along.

In 1980, Sarama drove a 3-year-old colt named Danielle’s Romeo in the Open pace at Buffalo Raceway and won in 1:57.4. The time equaled the second-fastest mile in track history, which was paced by Albatross. It was also the second sub-2:00 mile that Danielle’s Romeo recorded at that facility, becoming the only horse to do so.

The connections of Danielle’s Romeo were so impressed with Sarama’s work, they asked him to drive their stable of 18 horses on the New York City Circuit. The second time was a charm.

In 1981, while based at Roosevelt and Yonkers, Sarama had 177 wins and a
career-high $1.3 million in earnings. In a short time, he became as sought after at those tracks as he was at home and experienced the same level of success. Sarama’s mounts would earn more than $1 million in 1987 and 1988.

The single biggest highlight of his time in Gotham was when he finished second with Bay’s Fella behind Matt’s Scooter in the $461,404 Messenger Stake at Yonkers in 1988. Sarama cut the mile with fractions of :28.2, :57.4 and 1:27 before Matt’s Scooter overtook him at the top of the stretch and won by 2½ lengths.

“That race against Matt’s Scooter was definitely my biggest,” Sarama said. “He had won the Meadowlands Pace and was named Pacer of the Year in 1988. We did pretty well against him in the Messenger.”

After all the success he enjoyed, Sarama then encountered a series of setbacks. In two separate driving accidents that occurred several years apart, Sarama broke his hip and his ankle. And with his opportunities to steer horses diminishing at Yonkers, he returned to western New York for good in 1993.

Sarama continued to drive for several more years, but his starts were far fewer as he transitioned to training horses. As much as he did not want to train at the beginning of his career, Sarama discovered conditioning horses was a way to extend his passion and remain hands-on. It was no surprise Sarama enjoyed just as much success training horses as he did steering them.

“I kept breaking bones and it got harder to come back after each accident,” he said. “So, I figured it was a good time to train more than drive. Now I’m in the barn most days and in the paddock on race nights. The only thing I can’t do anymore is ride because of my equilibrium. But I plan on doing this until I die. I enjoy being with all my friends.”

For the past 13 years, Sarama has been one of the top trainers at Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway as he has posted high percentages and earnings each year. His primary owner of more than two decades is his longtime friend Mike Torcello. The two men currently have a stable of 18 horses. Sarama’s talents as a trainer combined with the skills of today’s top catch drivers like Jim Morrill Jr. have produced phenomenal results.

Since 1991, Sarama has 1,015 training wins as of Nov. 22 and $5.7 million in purses. He eclipsed the 1,000-win mark in October. During his driving career, which ended in 2010, he amassed 2,630 wins and $11.46 million in purse money.

Sarama was honored by Upstate New York USHWA in 2009 with their Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Upstate New York Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2010.

Has Sarama been saving the best for last? He was just named Trainer of the Year at the recently concluded 2020 Batavia Downs meet after scoring 30 more wins than his nearest competitor. And two of Sarama’s horses—Il Mago and Sir Richie N—were named trotter and claimer of the meet, respectively.

Tim Bojarski, past president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, is a freelance writer living in New York. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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