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Top Twenty Harness Drivers of 2013, Part 2

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Eb Netr

March 6th, 2013

Last week, I wrote about the ten top earning harness drivers on a list of twenty. Today, I'll write a little about the next ten who made the list.

Jason Bartlett grew up in Maine, a state where harness racing is taken seriously and has a long history. He lived and worked for his grandfather, Richard Bartlett, the trainer. By the time he was in high school, he was driving at fairs and Maine tracks. His grandfather was a hard taskmaster and quicker to point out mistakes than to compliment, but Jason says that it made him the driver that he is today.

In 1998, Bartlett had 1 win, 1 second and total earnings of $1,809. Ten years later, in 2008, things had changed dramatically. With 656 wins and 482 seconds out of 3,192 races, and earnings of $6,711,251, he was 4th for wins and 15th for earnings in the US. 2008 was also the year when he won the James Dancer Memorial with Brother Ray and the Molly Pitcher with Jkmusicofthenite. In 2010, he won the Lady Maud with Anndrovette and the George Morton Levy with Foiled Again, one of my favorite horses. Bartlett races at Yonkers where he is one of the top drivers.

Eric Carlson took a different path to driving success from that of most of the drivers on this list. His parents were both schoolteachers, although his father owned a few horses as a hobby. Eric went to college and took a career path that led away from the track, but he just couldn't stay away and began to buy standardbreds and train them. One thing led to another and, before long, he was also driving them and other people's horses.

Although he was 21 when he first crossed the finish line ahead of the pack, it wasn't until he was 33 that he started driving on a regular basis. After winning several driving titles in Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, Carlson, who always dreamed of driving on the Eastern Circuit, now drives at the Meadowlands and other tracks on the East Coast.

Like many of the drivers on this list, Ross Wolfendon was encouraged to get an education and a career outside of harness racing by his father, Peter Wolfendon, the award winning New Zealand driver. And like many of the listees, he did, but then went back to doing what he loved, driving harness horses. In 1993, he came to America, planning to stay for six months. He's been here ever since.

Now driving at Dover, Wolfendon has driven at tracks all over the country, on both coasts and many places in between. He's settled in Delaware though, because he wanted a home base that was close to a harness track. Wolfendon recently drove Mississippi Hippy to a win in a $10,000 pace for young horses for trainer Joe Hundertpfund. They're a team that bears watching at the Delaware oval.

Billy Davis Jr. tells a story about how, when he was 8 years old, and jogging a horse for the second time in his life, the horse took off like a shot, galloped around the farm and scared the daylights out of him. The next day, he got back in the cart and jogged horses again. He says the reason he did it is because he loved what he was doing then and he loves it now.

Son of trainer Bill Davis, young Billy wanted to be his own person and be recognized for his own accomplishments, not his father's. His father agreed and told him to be himself, not try to pattern himself on other drivers, even good ones. Billy moved to Ontario from British Columbia because harness racing was dying in BC and thriving in Ontario at the time.

Davis is known for his hard work and willingness to do whatever he has to do to further his career, even if that means driving at 3 tracks in one day on the WEG circuit. At 26, Billy Davis Jr. has a long career ahead of him wherever he drives.

Aaron Merriman is the top driver at Northfield and in the top 3 at The Meadows, so apparently he's figured out how to drive to win on both tracks. He says that driving at the 5/8ths Meadows has helped him get more patient when he drives on the 1/2 mile Northfield track. Patience may account for Merriman's skill with trotters at both tracks. Give him a good post and a good trotter and he's very likely to be in the payoff at the end of the race.

Merriman grew up watching his father, Lanny, drive and train harness horses, but didn't jog a horse until he was a teenager was almost twenty before he drove in a race. He's made up for lost time since though in spite of a serious accident at The Meadows in 2010 that kept him off the track for 5 months. In 2012, he achieved his 5,000 career win on Genesis See Yah at Northfield.

Allan Davis says that he learned a lot from his father. Considering that his father is Hall of Famer Eddie Davis, what he learned is well worth knowing. Allan started working in his father's barn when he was 18 and trained horses for his father for several years, although he wanted to be a driver as well as a trainer.

The year that really started Davis on the way to achieving his goals was 2004 when he went to Monticello and won the Rising Star Award from the United States Harness Writers Association. When he returned to Delaware, suddenly everyone knew his name and trainers from some of the smaller stables were asking him to drive for them. When Rosemary Smutz started giving him drives, other trainers realized that he could win and he was soon driving for Wayne Givens, one of the top trainers at Dover.

With top trainers giving him their best horses, it's almost a certainty that Allan Davis will be higher on this list next year. So far this season, he's already surpassed his wins for all of last season at Dover.

Mike Wilder started his career at the age of 14 at the Greenville Fair. When he got a cash award for Ohio Youth Driver in 1988, he used the money to buy his first Standardbred. Since then, he's received many more awards including the Peter Haughton Award in 1994. That was also the year that he won his first driving title at Lebanon Raceway.

Over the course of his career at Lebanon, he won that title 12 more times, and 10 of those titles were won in consecutive years. In 1999 and 2000 he added the Scioto Downs title to his portfolio, but his goal was to conquer The Meadows, so he moved to that track in 2001. Since then, his name is always in the list of top drivers there and he's one driver who always has to be considerd for exotics. In February of this year, he surpassed $40 million in career purses.

There's something about Ohio that seems to breed good harness drivers. Tony Hall grew up in Ohio and started his career at Lebanon, the half mile track there. His father and brother both trained horses part time, but for Tony, nothing but driving full time would do. While at Lebanon, he earned several driving titles and also drove at Scioto.

But it was at Northfield Park where he and Sand E Fifty Five won the Courageous Lady. Spurred on by his win, Hall joined the highly competitive driver colony at The Meadows. It isn't easy to make your mark at a track where Dave Palone drives, but Wilder gradually began to impress trainers with his ability to rate horses and get the most out of them. Soon, he was driving for Ryan Angus and Andy Rickert, and, occasionally, for Ron Burke, leading trainer at The Meadows.

Tony has also driven at The Meadowlands, a very different track from the 5/8ths Meadows. He has a talent for driving under sloppy or unfavorable conditions and once won a race on a sloppy track at 21-1 in a division of the Valentowner Pace at The Meadows in 2011.

Winning the Little Brown Jug is every driver's dream, but Chris Christoforou made it a reality in September of 2000. Before that, there were many, many other awards for the son of winning trainer Chris Christoforou Sr., including three O'Brien Awards, 2000 Ontario Jockey Club Driver of the Year and two Breeder's Crown wins in 1993 and 1999.

Sidelined for several months, while he completed a rehabilition program, Christoforou has surmounted his personal problems and is back on track and second in the driver standings at Woodbine.

The Miller family from Ohio is prominent in harness racing, which gave Brett Miller a good start. His father, Del Miller trains and drove on the Ohio circuit and top driver, David Miller, is his cousin. But it's his talent with the reins that has led to some amazing accomplishments.

In 2007, at Northfield, he won 10 out of the 13 races on the program! This put him in the company of Greg Grismore who did it on one program and Walter Case Jr. and Dave Palone who each did it on two programs at commercial tracks. In December of 2012, Brett Miller got his 6,000th career win at The Meadows where he is consistently one of the top drivers.
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