Eric Carlson got a late start to driving racehorses on a regular basis, but he has quickly risen to the top of the sport's standings. Last year, the Detroit resident won 603 races and ranked No. 6 among all harness racing drivers in North America. This season, Carlson sits in the top spot with 205 victories, holding a 12-win edge over second-place Scott Zeron.
Carlson, who now drives primarily at Northville Downs and Windsor Raceway, is winning at a nearly 28 percent clip, which helps make up for the fact he is eighth in starts among harness racing's leading drivers.
A former high school track star, Carlson also ran two years at the University of Michigan, where he got a degree in sports business management. The 35-year-old Carlson got his first driving victory at the age of 21, but didn't begin driving regularly until the age of 33. He won 361 times in 2009; he had 289 career triumphs entering the campaign.
Carlson recently took time to talk with Harness Racing Communications' Ken Weingartner about driving, running and jamming on the guitar.
HRC: We're into April and you're No. 1 in wins, so that's got to be a nice feeling.
EC: Yeah, it's off to a good start. We're a quarter of the way in (to the season), so it's not a bad spot to be in. No complaints from me.
HRC: You won over 600 races last year. Coming into this year was being in the thick of the driving race something you were considering?
EC: No, it never was. I pay attention to it now a little bit because some of the people I drive for will tell me where I am. That's cool, but it's not of focus of mine. It's just happened, which is great.
HRC: As we get deeper into the year, will you pay more attention to it if you're still in this position? Would winning the driving title become more of a focus?
EC: It would be awesome. It would be great for my career. Hopefully it would do something so I can launch myself into another circuit. I'm just thankful to the owners and trainers that put me down. I'll go wherever I can as often as I can.
HRC: You're only driving five days, so it's a little more remarkable that you're leading in wins.
EC: I know some guys can go doubleheaders in a lot of places, or at least race six or seven days. I'm just thankful things are going this way. Hopefully it will continue.
HRC: What's been the highlight for you so far this year?
EC: The purses at Windsor Raceway are up a little bit. Wins are great, but honestly I'm making a little bit more money because the purses are higher. You can't help but notice that. Aside from that, it's really kind of business as usual. Just trying to have my horses in the right place at the right time.
HRC: What was the highlight of last year?
EC: I drove a Michigan state champion named Cowboys Dreamer. She's a really fast filly; push button and did everything that you asked of her. She was one of the highlights. I went down to Lexington and got to drive for some accomplished trainers and drive some fillies and colts down there. That was a highlight. I just take pride in being able to drive people's open and invitational type horses. They put a lot of time and effort into getting them ready. It's kind of like a highlight every week to go and sit behind these quality horses.
HRC: You got into driving a little bit later because you went to college and worked for a while.
EC: My dad always had some racehorses so that's how I got into it and got the bug. He was a schoolteacher and had some midlevel claimers on the side. After college, I had some good jobs and bought a few horses on the side. Eventually I had four or five and it kept growing. Eventually I decided to quit and train fulltime. I was more of a trainer driving my own small stable and people I guess saw I was doing OK and started putting me on some of their horses. It just kind of took off. Now I don't train anything anymore. I started making more money driving than I did training, so I phased it out.
HRC: You got a degree in sports management at Michigan and then worked for an auto supplier, right?
EC: I also worked at a wholesale mortgage lending company and was an underwriter there. But the auto supply job was a good job. I worked there about 2-1/2years. I was thankful that my degree got me some good jobs. I made enough money where I could buy some horses.
HRC: You ran track for two years at Michigan too.
EC: I ran cross country and track. My specialty was the 800. I ran anything from the quarter-mile to the mile, but my main focus was the half. I say the 800 is the toughest event in track, between that and the 300 hurdles. It's pretty much a sprint. Anything over a mile you can pace yourself, and the quarter-mile is a sprint but it's not very long. The half-mile is pretty much a sprint for two laps, but I liked it.
HRC: You must have been pretty good.
EC: I was OK. I was fifth in the state my senior year (at Ypsilanti Lincoln High). I ran 1:55 in high school. Our team was good; we were state champions in the 4x400 relay, and I anchored that. I was pretty fast I guess.
HRC: Has being an athlete at that level helped you in any way with your career?
EC: I don't know about now with driving. Maybe a little bit in the way you drive horses, in rating a horse. I can understand it because I've felt the burn. I've had the lactic acid build up, so I know how the horses feel. I kind of sense it and feel it, but I'm sure other drivers can sense it too. It helped when I was training. I was an athlete myself and we're dealing with equine athletes.
HRC: Do you feel it benefitted you to go to college, or do you wish you got started driving earlier?
EC: If I got an earlier start, maybe I'd be at Yonkers now racing for that kind of money. But I can't say I regret it. Everything I've done in my life is fine; I've traveled, I've studied. I believe in having an education. And where I'm at now, I'm just thankful to everyone that got me here and I'm just trying to work hard and do the right thing. A lot of people are born into racing and it's second nature. That's not my case. My mom and dad were both schoolteachers and my dad was a hobby horseman.
HRC: What does the future hold?
EC: I guess business as usual. I just want to do the best I can for the people I drive for. I've been trying to get around a little bit more; I went to Indiana last year and drove some stakes races and went to Lexington. Who knows what will happen? In a year or two, maybe I'll be out east somewhere. That's my goal, to get myself to a bigger circuit. In the meantime, I'll do the best I can here.
HRC: When you're not racing what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?
EC: I still like to work out; run and mountain bike and go to the gym a little bit. I've played the guitar since I was in junior high school and I still play around with that. I spend a lot of time with my girlfriend (Michelle). But a lot is just focusing on racing. I study the horses and try to be prepared the best I can when I go to the track.
HRC: Where you ever in a band?
EC: (Laughs). My cousin played the drums and my brother thought he could sing a little bit, so yeah, we used to jam a little bit. We were OK. We could cover a few songs, and I wrote a few songs-- some bad rock songs. I can jam a little bit, but I didn't see myself being a rock star or lead guitarist for Guns N' Roses or anything.
HRC: But if you could, would you?
EC: I guess so. What's cooler than being a rock star? Truthfully, I think I'd hang up my lines and be a rock star if the path of life took me that way. But I like what I'm doing. It's cool. I'm very happy driving racehorses.
by Ken Weingartner, Harness Racing Communications