Day At The Track

Nick Roland at Running Aces

10:29 AM 20 May 2017 NZST
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Nick Roland
Nick Roland, driver and trainer at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, Minn.
Running Aces Photo

Nick Roland returns to the Running Aces harness racing track as its leading driver and plans to have a busy first night Saturday when the facility just south of Forest Lake off I-35 opens its 10th season.

Roland, a 34-year-old Grinnell, Iowa, native, said he expects to be in every race, 8-10 a night.

Last year, Roland was among the top three finishers in most races and won about 30 percent of them. “That’s a pretty high win percentage in the harness racing world,” he said. “We’ve been at Running Aces every year since it opened.”

The Pioneer Press talked with Roland about harness racing and his experiences at Running Aces.

You were the leading driver at Running Aces last year. What is it about Running Aces that you like?

It’s relatively close to where I grew up. My family has raced horses for a number of years in the area. I’ve grown up knowing everyone from the area. Being kind of the hometown guy around here, I get a lot of first choices on horses that other people don’t.

You race your own horses as well as other people’s horses?

We have between 20 and 25 horses at Running Aces. Those are the horses I have to drive first. After that, I drive for a number of other stables in the area. I may be listed as the driver of several horses in a race and I pick one.

Where else have you driven?

This past year, we went out to New York and stabled out there in the winter. We raced at Yonkers, Monticello, the Meadowlands in New Jersey, Saratoga. We also raced in British Columbia. Also, we’ve raced in Sacramento.

Obviously, this is a full-time job for you.

In December and January, it’s pretty slow. Other than that, it’s pretty much full time.

How did you get involved in harness racing?

My great-grandfather on my mother’s side started racing back in the 1950s, and my grandparents on my father’s side started racing in the 1970s. My parents met at the races. It was kind of bred into me.

When did you decide harness racing was the sport for you?

I grew up doing it. I was able to put myself though college by being able to have horses at my parents’ farm. My parents insisted I get a degree and get a real job. It’s kind of a gypsy lifestyle, racing horses. I worked at an insurance company for a year and I was miserable. I did that for a year and quit and decided I was going to race full time, and I haven’t thought about doing anything else since.

Unlike in thoroughbred racing, where the jockey has to be diminutive, size isn’t as much of a factor. How big are you?

I’m a pretty big driver. I’m 6-foot-1 and about 170 pounds. Size isn’t as much of a factor in standardbred racing. The sulkies are balanced to offset the driver’s weight, but you don’t want somebody huge on there.

You don’t see many 300-pound drivers, do you?

Not any more. There used to be some pretty big guys that were top drivers. Nowadays, most of the top guys aren’t as big as me. The guys are under six feet tall and probably around 160.

In harness racing, is the driver also often the trainer?

I’m the trainer on our stable and; for other stables, the driver varies. Most trainers use “catch drivers,” which means they use a driver they can hire. Generally, most trainers don’t drive full time like I do. At Running Aces, there are a lot of trainer-drivers because it’s a small, isolated area. It’s not someplace you can expect to make a good living just catch driving.

Do you prefer pacers or trotters?

(The majority of harness racing horses are pacers — where the front and back leg on each side of the horse move in unison; trotters have a front and back leg on opposite sides of their body move in unison).

We do both. We have about half and half pacers and trotters. I guess I don’t have a preference. I like good horses, and it doesn’t matter to me if they’re a pacer or trotter.

Standardbred horses are the standard for harness racing. Ever race any other breed?

No, I haven’t. I have thought about getting into thoroughbred racing. With Canterbury Park being so close, there are a couple of guys I know and we were talking about going in together and claiming something there. We haven’t done it yet. It would be neat.

How different or difficult would it be to train a thoroughbred?

It’s hard to say because I’ve never done it. It is quite a bit of a different world. Thoroughbreds race, at most, twice a month. Standardbreds can race once a week. Standardbreds are much more hearty.

What question are you asked the most when people find out you are involved in harness racing?

Can you make any money doing it? I guess that’s the question I get asked all the time.

And what is the answer?

The answer is yes, you can make money doing it. If you’re a small-scale owner, you shouldn’t plan on it or count on it. The way to do it is to have a large number of horses so you can diversify your risk. If you have one that doesn’t make anything, generally you have one that makes up that loss.

Are we talking profits in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands?

It really depends on the scale you’re willing to go. This biggest standardbred trainer, I think, earned like $20 million in purses. His owners generally are the same two or three guys. They spend a lot of money but have hundreds of horses. In 2012, our best year, our stable made a little over $400,000 in purses at Running Aces. It’s not all profit but that was a good year. We had between 15 and 20 horses.

By Bob Sansevere

Bob Sansevere can be heard Tuesdays and Thursdays on the KQRS Morning Show, and he does a daily podcast called The BS Show, which can be listened to live on the Tom Barnard digital radio network or downloaded via iTunes, Stitcher or thebsshow.net.
 
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