Top Twenty Harness Drivers of 2013 Part 1

Eb Netr

February 27th, 2013

It seems like a simple question: Who are the top twenty harness drivers of 2013? But if you think about it, that means different things depending on who is asking it. I can give you the top twenty drivers by wins, the top twenty by UDR or the top twenty by earnings. While each of those lists contain some of the same drivers, they're not exactly the same.

Of course, the biggest earnings come from driving at the biggest tracks, and the most wins come from drivers who get a lot of drives. I tend to think that earnings are a pretty good reflection of how good a driver is, because the top drivers get a good part of their earnings from higher caliber and stakes races. So, in response to an email that Bet America received, here's my answer to the question of who I think the top twenty harness drivers are for 2013. Please keep in mind that this list is based on earnings, and you may have another list and another opinion, which is fine. We all have our favorites. I'll list the earnings top ten this week and finish up in next week's newsletter.

One thing that struck me as I researched the careers of the top drivers was how almost every one of them either grew up in the business or started driving at a very young age. Several of them were younger than ten when they began to jog horses for their parents, who were involved in harness racing. I think this has a lot to do with their success. Talent is inborn and you either have it or you don't. There are harness drivers who have talent, but little success, because they lack experience. When you combine talent with very early exposure to driving standardbreds, success becomes much more achievable.

Corey Callahan tops the list because he's first in both earnings and wins. This horseman, who didn't even start driving professionally until he was in his mid-twenties, has certainly made up for lost time since 2005. His late start was because his father, Nick Callahan, well-known driver and trainer, wanted him to go to college and get a "real" job. Corey, who had grown up with harness horses, tried studying for another career, but it wasn't what he wanted to do and soon he was back at the barn and track, driving and winning races. Currently driving at Dover, Callahan has also been top driver at Harrington and Chester. Part of the secret to Callahan's success is his ability to rate his horses, whether they're quick to leave or come from off the pace.

Next on the list is Brian Sears. With earnings of almost a million, and wins in the Hambletonian, the Hambletonian Oaks and the Peter Haughton Memorial, this Yonkers standout has accomplished a lot since winning his first race as a teen. Three generations of Sears' men have excelled at the reins, so Brian comes by his talent honestly. Like Corey Callahan, he tried college, but dropped out of veterinary school because driving harness horses was what he wanted to do for a living. He's driven at several tracks, but has committed himself to Yonkers for the season, where he is rapidly gaining a reputation for being able to put his horses where they need to be to win and is in contention for top driver.

Ron Pierce, winner of the Triple Crown in 1999 with Blissful Hall and driver of Enough Talk, the Dan Patch Award winner, has driven on tracks in California, New Mexico, China, Canada and the East Coast of the US and now calls New Jersey home. A member of the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen, with too many awards to list, Pierce is known for his expertise with trotters and young horses. He has the patience to bring them along and enjoys working with them. He is very competitive, which makes driving trotters even more of a challenge, but he seems to be able to balance getting them out there in front with keeping them from breaking, which is why he's always at the top of the standings, year after year.

Matt Kakaley, winner of the Rising Star award for best young driver in 2010, is the son of driver John Kakaley and trainer Linda Kakaley. He got his first win on a horse that his mother trained at Pompano Park, but relocated to Ohio and now splits his time between Yonkers and Pocono. He drives for trainer Ron Burke at both tracks. While he's still learning and getting better, his driving style has matured over the last couple of years. He's more aggressive, but not in a reckless way. He seems to be getting very good at putting his horses where they're comfortable enough to win, whether that's on the lead or off the pace or in the pocket. He's already won a couple of stakes and I see many more stakes wins in this young man's future.

In 2012, George Brennan was one of 6 drivers who finished in the top ten for number of races won, money won and in the money UDR. He was honored with the Harness Tracks of America's Driver of the Year award for the second year in a row. Although he's never won the Meadowlands top driver title, he's been in the top 10 drivers consistently. He's also consistently ranked in the top 15 drivers in the country. He believes that being able to drive a harness horse to victory is something that must be learned at an early age and that it's also instinctive. If that's true, Brennan has that natural instinct, as he's shown by piloting some of the best horses in the country to two Breeder's Cup championships and countless other award winning races. In August of 2006, he had 7 winners on one card. And in January of 2010, he came close to his record again with 6 wins on one card.

Tim Tetrick grew up on a horse farm in Illinois, where he was jogging horses by the time he was 9 for his father, trainer Tom Tetrick. He's known for being able to rate a horse and get it to give all it can give without pushing it beyond its limits. His accolades include two Driver of the Year awards, two Breeder's Crown wins, a Hambletonian Oaks win in 2007 and the Hambletonian in 2012 with Market Share. Tetrick drives at the Meadowlands, where he led in earnings in 2012.

Dave Palone has been winning races for over 20 years now. He started right after high school, working as a trainer's assistant and then started driving and winning. Top driver at the Meadows for many years, Palone is known for getting the best from horses that aren't quite making it with other drivers. He has split second reflexes and the ability to gauge when to make a move or stay in the pocket and wait for racing room. Personally, when I play the Meadows, I never count out a horse with Dave Palone in the bike. Sometimes it seems as if he channels his competitive drive right though the reins into the horse and drives it to the finish line through sheer willpower.

A member of the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen, Palone has also won Driver of the Year several times and won the Little Brown Jug in 2005 with P Forty Seven. In July of 2012, Dave won race number 15,181, breaking the North American record held by Herve Filion, who was on hand to congratulate him.

Jody Jamieson is a Canadian driver who has also had success in the US. Son of trainer, Carl Jamieson, Jody comes from a family that is immersed in harness racing with his mother and sister also working in the family business. He started his career on the Ontario circuit, but has won and raced in Finland and Sweden in the World Driving Championship, which he won in 2001 and 2011. In the US and Canada, he's won the Little Brown Jug and the North American Cup. In 2012, he was tied with Sylvain Filion for top driving honors at Woodbine.

Scott Zeron won the Little Brown Jug in 2012 with Michael's Power. At the age of 24, he's already a seasoned pro with years of jogging horses for his father, Rick Zeron, a celebrated driver in his own right. Scott managed to complete college in 2009 while still driving as often as possible. In 2011, he represented Canada in Paris on a longshot named Peter Pan and pulled off a surprise second against some of the world's top drivers. He's known for his calm demeanor during races, but says that he's actually nervous before the first race. Once the gate starts moving though, he's fine and is able to just focus on the race, a top trait for a harness driver. Zeron drives at Woodbine and the other WEG tracks in Canada.

Yannick Gingras is one of my favorite drivers because he has fantastic timing. He's been quoted as saying that his father told him never to win by more than he has to. Apparently, he took that advice to heart, which sometimes gives his backers anxiety attacks as he closes from the outside in the stretch with just enough time for his horse to get its nose in front of the leader. He's another driver who has been driving since his teens and comes from a harness family. He says that he started jogging horses when he was 5, which might account for his ability to get the best from every horse he drives. Currently, he's the leading driver in wins at the Meadowlands. Yannick also donates a lot of his time and money to charities, including Toys For Tots and the Standardbred Retirement Foundation.

While all of these drivers have something in common - top earnings - there's one thing that's different for every one and that's their driving style. The smart harness handicapper learns what each one is best at, whether trotting or pacing, getting young horses to settle down and win, getting horses to win off a qualifier, at half mile tracks, five-eighths or mile tracks. Betting the top drivers when they have a horse that suits their driving style is a big step toward winning more money.