Harness racing driver Aaron Merriman was unaware he was on the verge of reaching career win No. 5,000. When he found out, it was in a way reassuring.
"I had no clue it was coming," Merriman said, adding with a laugh, "I haven't done as well as I used to, so I didn't think I was winning races that much, but I guess I was. It's nice to look forward to something."
The 33-year-old Merriman entered Thursday needing five wins to get to 5,000. Despite missing time because of injuries, Merriman will become the fifth youngest driver to reach that milestone. A total of 79 drivers have won at least 5,000 races in harness racing history.
"To even be racing is good," said Merriman, who was sidelined for four months in 2010 as the result of a racing accident that left him with two broken wrists and a broken left elbow. "It's a nice accomplishment and hopefully there are many more wins to come. It's a nice milestone in my career."
Merriman was the leading dash-winning driver in North America when he was injured in June 2010. The previous year he won a career-best 706 times, good for third place among all drivers, and earned $5.05 million in purses. He averaged 590 victories per season from 2006 through 2009 and was the top driver at Northfield Park all four years. The Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, native has totaled $23.1 million in purses for his career.
Last year, Merriman split time between Northfield Park in Ohio and The Meadows in western Pennsylvania on his way to winning 445 races and earning $3.61 million. The purse total was the second best of his career.
His top triumph in 2011 came with Fawkes in the $125,000 Currier & Ives for 3-year-old trotters at The Meadows. Fawkes, who later started in the Hambletonian for trainer Jonas Czernyson, won the Currier & Ives at odds of 48-1. Merriman and Fawkes used a relentless first-over drive to erase a 5-1/2 length deficit at the halfway point and win by three-quarters of a length in 1:55.3.
"That was nice," Merriman said. "The horse really felt good. I drove the horse the way he felt and it really gave him a chance. When you win with a horse that doesn't look like they should win, especially in a stakes race, it's a very good feeling. That was one of my highlights because on paper the horse looked overmatched.
"I drove the horse very confidently and gave him an aggressive trip and he responded. He was a nice horse and very nice people to drive for. They were very happy. It made me feel real good."
This season, Merriman is sixth in victories at Northfield Park and second in win percentage (21 percent) among drivers with at least 100 starts at the track. He also is sixth in the standings at The Meadows.
Overall, Merriman has 44 wins, which is good for 10th place among all drivers in North America.
"Just getting back to racing and getting drives and competing at a high level, I'm real happy with it," Merriman said. "Winning never gets old. I've got nothing to complain about. I'm just happy to be winning races and getting to race for the people I get to race for. There are a lot of great people in this business and that's one of the things I've learned to appreciate."
Merriman has reduced his schedule since his accident in 2010, but is enjoying the time away from the track, particularly the time he gets to spend with his 8-year-old son Kristopher.
"I'm busy, but not as busy as I used to be," Merriman said. "I still put a lot of miles on, but I'm not after every win I can get. I'd still like to pursue the dash title one more time, but it won't be this year; maybe next year. We'll see how things go.
"I feel pretty good. I feel as good as I can feel. It's nothing I can change. I'm a realist; I have to live with it. But I love the sport and that makes it nice. I'm blessed to be in the position I'm in right now. A lot of people would love to win 5,000 races. I started my career late -- I was 21 -- and I've had multiple times where I've had to sit out and here I am getting ready to reach a nice milestone.
"When you think of (winning) 5,000 races, that's a lot of races. I'm just very happy I've had this opportunity."
by Ken Weingartner, Harness Racing Communications
<a href="http://www.ustrotting.com"><strong>Courtesy of the US Trotting Association's Web Newsroom</strong></a>