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HARRISBURG PA – The United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA), the trade organization of harness racing communicators and the largest organization of its kind in the world, has announced that it will be holding its 2017 Dan Patch Awards Banquet at the Planet Hollywood Las Vegas Resort and Casino on Sunday, February 26, with the organization’s annual meetings to be conducted the day before and that day. A part of the Caesars chain of gaming resorts, Planet Hollywood started operation on its present site, formerly the Aladdin casino/hotel, on the famous Las Vegas Strip next to the Vegas and Bally’s casino/hotels, in 2007, and the property was acquired by Caesars in 2010. It was the first resort operated by Planet Hollywood, which is an upscale restaurant chain owned by many Hollywood stars and founded in 1991. Among its features at the Las Vegas site are The Miracle Mile, a 170-store shopping mall, and AXIS, the largest auditorium on the Vegas strip, where performers such as Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and Lionel Richie have performed “in residence.” Its variety of on-site eating establishments run the gamut from a Gordon Ramsay-overseen restaurant to a Starbuck’s. The Dan Patch Awards Banquet annually honors the best and brightest performers, both human and equine, of the previous season. The awardwinners are selected by USHWA, which will be holding its Directors meeting on Saturday and its General Membership meeting on the banquet Sunday. The United States Trotting Association (USTA) will be meeting in Las Vegas starting the day after the banquet, Monday, February 27, headquartered at the Rio Hotel and Casino; Harness Horsemen International (HHI) is also having its annual meetings in Las Vegas in the general timeframe. A synergistic joint session of organizations is under discussion, but nothing has been finalized yet. “I’d like to thank chairman Gordon Waterstone and his entire Banquet Location Committee for its hard work in exploring options and then selecting and signing with Planet Hollywood,” said Tim Bojarski, president of USHWA. “Our organization is excited at the prospect of again going to Las Vegas, and Planet Hollywood has all of the necessary accommodations and infrastructure so that we can continue to present a first-class Dan Patch Awards Banquet, truly honoring the champions of our sport.” Details will be made available at the USHWA website, www.ushwa.org, and through trade media as they become available. by Jerry Connors, for USHWA

HARRISBURG PA - Ron Battoni, recently-retired executive vice-president of the Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen's Association and one of the leaders of Pennsylvania's re-emergence to the uppermost ranks of North American harness racing, has been selected to receive the Mary Lib Miller Award, the highest annual honor given by the Keystone Chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA), for long and meritorious service to the Commonwealth's Standardbred industry.   A former horseman, Battoni served for over a quarter-century at the helm of PHHA, and was one of the leaders for the horsemen's viewpoint when the enabling legislation of expanded gaming opportunities was being drifted in the early- and mid-00's. He along with other influential horsemen "rode herd" on the drafting of the bill, known as "The Race Horse Development and Gaming Bill," to maintain that some semblance of that pecking order would be, and has been, maintained in the decade since slots came to Pennsylvania - fittingly, first at Battoni's home track of The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono in November 2006.   Battoni also was the first to recognize the changing relationship between racetracks and horsemen's organizations, often bringing promotional ideas and other information to track management, so that both sides could participate in a win-win partnership that added a third winner -- the state's harness racing program. Ron also never lost sight of the fact that he and his PHHA board were the protectors of the horsemen, both large and small, and constantly championed their rights within the ever-changing relationships within the sport's gaming interests.   The Keystone Chapter of USHWA has also announced winners for outstanding performance in Pennsylvania (and beyond) during the 2015 racing season:   PA DRIVER OF THE YEAR - George Napolitano Jr., who set single-season records for dashes won at both the Downs and Harrah's Philadelphia, the latter arguably the single-toughest drivers' community in North America, and who had four months of 100 or more winners en route to finishing second in the North American dashwinning derby.   PA TRAINER OF THE YEAR - Ron Burke, again the dominating trainer of not only his home base of The Meadows, but also of the entire North American scene, with early development of future stars at The Meadows and the state's other tracks leading to a stable which produced 984 victories and $24.9M in pursemoney.   PA BREEDER OF THE YEAR - Hanover Shoe Farms, the leading breeder in North America every year since records began to be kept in 1949; this past year they outdid even themselves by posting a single-season record of $30,167,751 in earnings from their "graduates."   PA-SIRED HORSE OF THE YEAR - Pinkman, 2015 North American Trotter of the Year, winner of $1.8M in 2015 including the prestigious Hambletonian; he also won at all three PA tracks in 2015, including the Beal Championship at Pocono.   PA SIRE STAKES HORSE OF THE YEAR - Pure Country, also the national champion after going undefeated in 10 starts and winning the Breeders Crown; half those ten wins came in PA Sire Stakes company, where she swept her prelims and the Championship, setting a Sires single-year money record of $286,918.   PA HORSE OF THE YEAR, for a horse who campaigned with great success in overnight races at the state's racetracks - Atta Boy Dan, who raced in Pennsylvania's top classes, primarily at The Meadows, in 10 of the 12 months, won in nine of them, and won in sub-1:50 in six of them, fastest 1:49.1 at The Meadows.   These awards will be presented in mid-spring to the winners and/or their connections, at their home Pennsylvania tracks or when they come to the state for stakes competition.   by Jerry Connors for the Keystone Chapter USHWA    

HARRISBURG PA -- Within the space of 24 hours and 9 minutes, from Saturday night to Sunday night, Hall of Famer David Miller drove 10 winners, at three different tracks.   Miller's first winner of this "hot period" came with Relentless Dream at 8:34 p.m., the 4th race at The Meadowlands, after which he added Western Fame (5th) and City Hall (10th).   Shifting to Harrah's Philadelphia Sunday afternoon, the Buckeye got off to a slow start, then finished at a sub-26 rate, winning with Hickory Icon (7th), Mach To The Max (8th), True Blue Hall (11th), Stolen Car (12th), and Dabestleaderever (14th).   Miller then headed to Pocono Downs, where he won in the 4th with Some Fancy Filly and the 5th with Worth Watching, the latter victory coming at 8:43 p.m., just outside of a 24-hour span from his first in the series.   David's last three at Philly and two at Pocono came in five straight drives for him; in fact, had Mr Hasani N been able to win instead of finishing third in the ninth at Philly, Miller would have had eight straight successes in sulky appearances.   David is a regular at Harrah's Philadelphia, and currently he is second in the standings with 12 wins, one behind Yannick Gingras. At Pocono, he has turned up for Weiss Series action, and his four victories ties him for eighth in the standings of the young meet. The Meadowlands has been racing all year, while Miller took most of the winter off to stay in Florida, but he still has amassed 10 wins ther, putting him in a tie for 13th -- but his 17.9% win rate is higher than any driver above or equal to him in victories.   The sport's historians have another reason to be looking at Miller. After Sunday night's action, trotters and pacers guided by Miller have generated a career total of $199,496,035 -- so it shouldn't be long before Miller joins fellow Hall of Famers John Campbell and Ron Pierce as the exclusive members of the $200 Million Club.   Miller takes today (Monday) off, then has scheduled engagements Tuesday in morning qualifiers at Philly and during the twilight card at Dover.   by Jerry Connors  

Jason Settlemoir, a "youthful veteran" of the sport who has spent a quarter-century working in harness racing at several of its premier locations, has been selected for a six-year term as a member of the Hall of Fame Screening Committee, appointed by Tim Bojarski, president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, per the organization's By-Laws.   Settlemoir started his harness career as a teenager, being associated with the Terry Holton Stable and working in various media and operational capacities at Ohio's racing venues, including the Little Brown Jug Grand Circuit meets at the Delaware County Fairgrounds. Settlemoir was then tapped to be an executive by Jeff Gural when he purchased New York tracks Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, and again later when Gural took over operations of Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey. There, Settlemoir continued on to his present position of General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of the world-famous mile oval.   He also serves on the executive boards of the U.S. Trotting Association and Harness Tracks of America.   Settlemoir has already served two years on the Screening Committee as a voting member while president of USHWA between 2010 and 2012, as all USHWA presidents are voting members of every USHWA committee.   "Jason Settlemoir is a rare combination of old school and new breed when it comes to harness racing. Despite his age, his vast experience in the sport began while working for midwest racing legends 20 years ago and continued to develop through today, where he now oversees meets that feature the best trainers and drivers in North America," said Bojarski.   "Settlemoir's high moral standards, hands-on knowledge of harness racing and overall love of the sport make him uniquely qualified to view potential Hall of Fame candidates through the eyes of both horseman and administrator. And it's that perspective that will vet and deliver the best possible candidates to the highest accolade in racing."   The USHWA Hall of Fame Screening Committee gathers together the biographies of nominations for the Hall, which must come from the chapters of USHWA, and discusses them at meetings over the Fourth of July weekend in Goshen NY, the home of the Hall and the Harness Racing Museum.   The nominations are also discussed with an Advisory Committee of members of the Hall of Fame, and then the group's choices for ballot candidates are decided and go before the electorate, eligible USHWAns and Hall of Famers, later in the summer.   Jerry Connors    

The United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA), the major trade group of harness racing communicators in North America and worldwide, will be making a $1,000 contribution towards the fund created to assist the people affected by the tragic fire of March 16 at the South Florida Training Center which claimed the lives of 12 horses, injured others and severely affected the lives of many owners and trainers stabled at the Center.   "USHWA hopes this donation, along with the other harness racing groups and individual horsemen contributing to the situation at the training center, will aid in trying to restore some sort of normalcy to those involved in this devastating situation," stated USHWA President Tim Bojarski, who was elected when the group held its annual meetings in nearby Fort Lauderdale the first weekend of March.   "Owning a stable of my own, I am intimately aware of how overwhelming losing a horse in this (or any) manner can be. These animals are not only a livelihood, they are also family members and to have something like this happen is just heartbreaking. I, and the entire membership of USHWA, send out our thoughts and prayers to everyone who was affected and hope for a quick calm for them after this terrible storm."   "Several USHWAns visited South Florida Training Center the weekend of the organization's annual meetings and many connected with the center either attended the Dan Patch Awards Banquet that Sunday or have supported USHWA when they have had a horse of their own honored in the past. As they have been supporters of USHWA, USHWA supports them in their time of need" said Bojarski.   Funding will be donated through the GoFundMe account (https://www.gofundme.com/SouthFLTrainingCtr) set up by announcer Michael Carter of the Post Time with Mike& Mike podcast. In the nine days since the creation of the account, over $42,000 has been raised to aid the plight of the South Florida horsemen.   Jerry Conners  

The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono previewed its 51st season of harness racing, which begins this Saturday night, at a Wednesday noontime press gathering for a group of local media whom Downs Vice President of Racing Operations Dale Rapson called "people who have been great in working with us over the years," citing the press, local horsemen, and Mohegan staffers as major parts of a renaissance which has led, as Rapson noted, "from Pocono being a place you went if your horses wouldn't do elsewhere" into one of the sport's North American leaders.   Rapson, starting his 38th season of employment at the northeast Pennsylvania oval, mentioned the track's signature cards, Sun Stakes Saturday (July 2) and Super Stakes Saturday (August 20), each offering over $2 million in purses, along with the inaugural Pennsylvania Classics for the state's three-year-old pacers which will offer $1 million in purses as part of a Kentucky Derby Day doubleheader card at The Downs. "We'll be bringing back (baseball great) Pete Rose to Pocono this year," he stated, then mentioned that "we are in negotiations for a couple more bigname sports figures to be making appearances at Pocono this year."   The related 1-2 punch that brought Pocono the most to its lofty position today was the authorization and then introduction of slots and casino gaming, the former of which led to the interest in and purchase of Pocono by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. Michael Bean, president/CEO of Mohegan Sun Pocono and president/GM of the Downs racetrack, noted in his remarks, "It seems hard to believe that it's been ten years since Mohegan came to northeast Pennsylvania. Since then, we've grown from Pocono Downs racetrack to become a world-class entertainment destination," with a full modern hotel, first-class restaurants and shopping, and of course racing and gaming.   During the press conference, held in the popular Pacer's Clubhouse, the media had as a backdrop sixteen qualifying races. Fastest performer of the day was the Armbro Deuce pacing gelding Rude Boy, wire-to-wire in 1:53.2 for driver Matt Kakaley and trainer Jason Robinson; equally-impressive was the Swan For All trotting gelding Sonnyforall, who stormed his third quarter in 27.4 to grab the lead entering the final turn and drawing off in 1:54.4 for trainer/driver Bill Mullin.   Pocono will open its 2016 racing season starting this Saturday on a Saturday-Tuesday basis in March, adding Sundays on April 3 and Mondays on April 11; this four-day-a-week configuration will be the main schedule for the year at Pocono. In a change, Sunday racing will begin at 7:30 p.m.; the trotters and pacers will be called to first post at 6:30 p.m. on the other three nights. The racing on the thoroughbred Triple Crown Days will again be a featured highlight, as will the early-season $250,000 Bobby Weiss Series for developing youngsters.   Jerry Connors

The United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA), the world's largest organization for harness racing industry communicators celebrating its 70th year of chronicling the sport through its membership, conducted its annual two days of business meetings this past weekend at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Resort. The weekend culminated in the Sunday evening celebration of the sport's best and brightest stars of 2015, both human and equine, at the annual Dan Patch Awards Banquet.   Per its usual two-year rotation policy, the presidency of USHWA changed - but not its strong commitment to exploring ways in which emerging social media can be utilized to solidify harness racing's present fan base and help build towards that of its future.   Tim Bojarski, publicist at Batavia Downs, Hoof Beats columnist, and the Webmaster for the organization's website www.ushwa.org, ascended from the first vice presidency chair to become president of USHWA, succeeding Chris Tully, the Goshen NY-based multi-media talent and chairman / driving force of the committee which produced the excellent Journal which accompanied the Dan Patch Banquet. Tully will become the USHWA Chairman of the Board, as the USHWA bylaws dictate, and was named a Lifetime Member of USHWA.   Shawn Wiles, the point person for all racing-related activities at Monticello Raceway, moved up to the 1st Vice Presidency position, while Kim Rinker, now directing the Ohio Sire Stakes efforts, was elected 2nd Vice President. Judy Davis-Wilson, a past president of the organization, elected not to stand for her Treasurer position after years of vital service to the group; with that, the Directors elected Barry Lefkowitz, former Roosevelt publicist and the head of USHWA's Audit and Finance Committee, as overseer of the organization's finances. Jerry Connors was revoted as USHWA Secretary.   The most important piece of USHWA business took place early in the two days of sessions, as Gordon Waterstone and Steve Wolf were chosen to be on the summer ballot for election to the sport's Communicators Hall of Fame. Waterstone made his mark in his native Michigan and environs, primarily at Detroit's Hazel Park, before becoming assistant editor at The Horseman and Fair World, and if elected will join his editor Kathy Parker as Communicators Hall members. Wolf, the Dinner Committee chairman of this year's successful affair, was an innovative publicist and dedicated USHWAn (one of only three people to win the organization's Member of the year twice) in his home area of New Jersey and metro Philadelphia before coming to Florida, where he ascended to the racing general manager position of Pompano Park prior to his becoming a respected media consultant for several cutting-edge harness organizations.   During the many committee reports and discussion at the USHWA meetings, the talk turned, as it does in most harness organizations in these days of consolidation, to formulating plans to continue ensuring the financial health of the organization, which performs among many others two vital functions mentioned above - the electing of Hall of Famers, and the sponsorship of the annual Dan Patch Banquet honoring the stars of the sport. Several plans and ideas were examined during the discussion sessions; incoming treasurer Lefkowitz said that initially his focus will be on increasing USHWA revenues despite the contraction of the times, as expenses usually stay within a small annual variance. He further noted that all members will need to become "contributors" to USHWA, in the workrate and communication sense to attract more interest surrounding the Dan Patch Banquet, which is USHWA's primary source of cash influx, with new methods of fundraising efforts, still under study, no less important.   One bright note at the meetings was the announcement of an increase in USHWA membership in the past year, reversing a trend that has carried through the current consolidation period. Many communicators now have the important tool of developed social media skills in their reporting arsenal, and other avenues of using emerging media were presented and explored during a U.S. Trotting Association/USHWA co-sponsored workshop on using social media in aiding awareness of major races. David Carr, who was honored for his recent election to the Communicators Hall of Fame at the Dan Patch Banquet, joined Rob Key, who has been the point man for harness racing's emergence in social media, and others presenting their views on how this new and important tool can best be "harnessed" to maximum effect for the sport.   With future 2016 efforts defined and assigned, the USHWA meetings ended with a look towards the group's 2017 conclave, which may be held in Las Vegas, likely in conjunction with the USTA's annual meetings, and possibly with the participation of other industry organizations.   Jerry Connors

BEDFORD PA - The Pennsylvania Fair Harness Horsemen's Association, in conjunction with their good friends at the Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen's Association and the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, honored their best and brightest harness racing stars of 2015, both human and equine, at the annual awards banquet traditionally held after the USTA District 7 (Pennsylvania) meeting.   The event was held at the historic Bedford Springs Omni Hotel and Resort, in the hometown of USTA District 7 Chairman and PHHA President Sam Beegle, who presided over the distribution of awards with Darryl Breniser of MH Eby, Inc., always among the most generous of suppliers of door prizes, with this year's prizes climbing by one unofficial count to approximating $15,000. 20-30 inches of snow fell over different parts of Pennsylvania during the 36 hours before, during, and after the banquet, but of the 180 ticket purchasers approximately 100 attended (and those that didn't but called in and canceled were included in the door prize drawings).   The highlights of the evening were the inauguration of two awards which will become annual Fair Banquet events. The first award was the Walter "Boots" Dunn Rising Star Award, named after the former Chairman of District 7, fair legend, and possessor of the spirit of a colt even if the body has bouts with lameness. Boots himself was present to give the award to Brady Brown, the up-and-coming western Pennsylvania horseman who was fourth in the fair driving standings last year. At age 22, Brown already boasts three drives behind Fair Championship winners, and when you consider that there are only twelve drivers who have more in their career - and their names are Hammer, Schadel, Merriman, Hall, Offutt, Zendt, McNeight, Bolon, Schoeffel, Palone, Stillings, and Wilder, a collection which has to his credit two Hall of Fame members, two national dashwinning champions, and four national UDR champions - and you can see the sky is the limit for young Brown.   The second new award was the Top Gun Award, which was given in its inaugural year to the legendary Roger Hammer, not merely because of his resemblance to Tom Cruise, but for the fact that for the umpteenth year Hammer led all Pennsylvania fair horsemen in driving wins (86) and training wins (81).   A third award was presented in absentia to Ron Battoni, longtime executive vice-president of the PHHA who semi-retired (Beegle kept emphasizing the "semi-") at the end of 2015, and who was one of the major driving forces behind the fair horsemen getting their share of the prosperity generated in the Keystone State with the introduction of slots. Battoni was going to drive from his brother's birthday party in North New Jersey Friday night to Bedford (Meadowlands to Bedford is 269 miles), but the snow put paid to that idea; quick-thinking PHHA marketer Ed Kobesky did a panorama cell phone shot of the crowd applauding Battoni, which he will no doubt enjoy.   Two sets of eight horses and their connections earned awards last night - and there were 16 different winners because none of the leading pointwinners during the 20-stop fair season could come back to win their Fair Championship race at The Meadows October 10, showing what a tightly-matched group from top to bottom this year featured.   Pointwinning leaders:   2TC - Keystone Shotgun, owned by Roger Hammer and Todd Schadel, and trained by Hammer; 2TF - A Little Laid Back, owned and trained by Hammer; 2PC - Billy's Falcon, owned and trained by Hammer; 2PF - Unbeamlievable, owned by Mason Shaw and trained by his father Jason;   3TC - Wimborne Hanover, owned by Susan Daugherty and trained by Bill Daugherty Jr; 3TF - Peoplesaimnogood, owned and trained by Hammer; 3PC - R N Nate, owned and trained by Hammer; 3PF - Betterthanrevenge, owned by the Thomson Sisters Racing Stable and trained by Harold Brocklehurst (who, surprisingly, was the only native of Albuquerque, New Mexico at the banquet).   Fair Championship racewinners:   2TC - Major Matter, owned by Rick and Regina Beinhauer and trained by Rick Beinhauer; 2TF - Waterview Hanover, owned by Susan Daugherty and trained by Bill Daugherty Jr.; 2PC - Wagon Master, owned by Bob Key and trained by Mike Gillock; 2PF - Worthy Jackie, owned by the Bay Pond Racing Stable and trained by Sam Beegle;   3TC - Simeon, owned by Dave and Delores Wade, Jerry Brittingham, and William Peel III, and trained by Dave Wade; 3TF - Piano Rose, owned by Ralph Del Priore Jr. and trained by Steve Schoeffel; 3PC - Royaltyhasarrived, owned by Virginia & Kathy Schoeffel and Michael Munn and trained by Steve Schoeffel; 3PF - Crumcake, owned by Mike and Yvonne Medors and trained by Pat Medors.   A final note - you may have done the division of those $15,000 of door prizes by even all 180 tickets sold and gotten about $85 for an average "swag takeaway" for a $35 ticket. We invite you to come to the Pennsylvania Fair Banquet next year!   (And who won the most "swag," including a $6000 Spyder racing bike? Well, if your guess has initials other than "RH," you need to spend more time at the Pennsylvania fairs next year!)   Jerry Connors  

Aaron Merriman won three races yesterday, giving him a total of 836 sulkysitting victories for 2015 to increase his leading in this year's North American harness racing dash championship to four over George Napolitano Jr., who had the definitive reiteration of his season being finished given by himself and his wife Kathy.   There had been a brief flurry of interest yesterday when Napolitano's name was down on two Chris Oakes-trained horses at Pompano on Sunday, but harnessracing.com immediately contacted George, and both he and Kathy restated that George would not be back into the sulky into 2016. "Chris Oakes wanted me to fly down on Sunday, but our son (Kristopher) is in school until Friday, and we have things to do around here (Pennsylvania)," Napolitano told harnessracing.com.   Aaron Merriman began adding to his lead on Wednesday by posting a driving double at The Meadows during afternoon racing, reporting home first with the up-and-coming trotter Kirty Dream in the fifth, and then taking the 15th and final race by a head with another trotter, Bella Palazzo, who paid $16.20 after going first-over and then holding off the late charges of the two favorites.   Aaron's staying until the last at The Meadows meant that he did not get to Cleveland's Northfield Park until the fifth race and had only nine drives in all, but he did add another tally to his continent-leading total by sweeping his field in the last quarter with the pacer Card Dealer.   Thursday is a dark day for both tracks; on Friday, Northfield has its usual nighttime scheduled card, but The Meadows, with groups looking to hold holiday parties at the track, switched his normal afternoon racing to nighttime on Friday, and Merriman has decided to race at the Pittsburgh track that night.   After tomorrow, The Meadows has three cards left on its 2015 schedule, daylight sessions next Monday through Wednesday. Northfield has nine more nighttime cards planned: this Sunday through Wednesday, and then Saturday the 26th (making up the card that normally would fall on Christmas Day) through its closing on Wednesday, December 30.   This, then, should be the last report of its type. We leave Aaron Merriman with a lead of four, 13 more possible programs of participation to extend that lead ... and a clear path on the road leading to his first North American crown.   Jerry Connors

Harness racing driver Aaron Merriman finally made it back to the top of the 2015 North American driving win standings on Tuesday - but at Northfield last night, it was more a rollercoaster ride than a smooth progression to the top.   With the score starting the day at 832-830, Merriman two victories behind George Napolitano Jr. (who yesterday reiterated to the Daily Racing Form's Derick Giwner that he did not plan to drive again this year), Merriman first went to work in the afternoon at The Meadows, where he narrowed the lead to one with a victory with trotter Pathian in the day's fifth race. (Pathian would make quite a story herself, as she raced three times in four days at the State Fair of West Virginia in August - and set five track records, including lowering the half-miler's all-time standard to 2:01.1.) Merriman drove through the 13th at The Meadows, then headed to Northfield and his date with destiny.   Arriving at the Cleveland-area track in time for the sixth race, Merriman started his evening action with a third - and then the ride on the rollercoaster began. In the seventh, Aaron utilized the rail to work out a pocket trip with second-choice Sand India Blu, behind favored Dayplanner. Merriman ducked his horse into the Northfield passing lane, and went to the fore 100 feet from the finish - only to have his trotter go offstride within the shadow of the wire, finishing first, but being placed second for the lapped-on break.   The next dip in the ride would come in the ninth, when Merriman never saw the rail with Mustodian, circled a parked horse to challenge on the turn and go to the lead in the stretch - only to have another Merriman, Michigander Jason, follow his move with Stardust Memories, who just got by Mustodian in the final strides for a neck victory. Still 832-831 - but that was about to change.   In the tenth race Aaron gave a textbook drive to Howabout Hanover in a claiming race for non-winners of six races lifetime, tucking fifth and watching a wild early battle result in splits of 27.3 and 55.3 in 41-degree temperatures on the twicearound. Merriman moved his horse into position behind a limbed-the-mile horse, then swept three-deep off the third turn to engage frontstepping Arrow at the 1:24.3 ¾. Late on the last turn and through the stretch, there was no question which horse had more left in the tank, as Howabout Hanover strode off to a 4½ length victory in 1:53.4 - a time only 4/5 off his lifetime mark taken at the roomy Hoosier Park earlier this year, with the mercury at 78 degrees. Merriman was again tied for the driving lead at 832 - and the horse's scattered backers marveled at collecting $18.60 on a horse rated 5-2 on the morning line.   Merriman endured a breaker in the 11th and a horse mired by dull cover in the 12th, but when opportunity knocked in the lucky 13th, he opened the door, and went inside. Literally - again working out a pocket trip, here with 9-2 shot Lock Three, Merriman went to the passing lane, and while for a second it looked like his horse wouldn't kick in fast enough in the short Northfield stretch, Aaron got a late bit-grabbing burst from Lock Three to rally for a half-length tally - 2015 victory number 833, and a lead he does not seem likely to lose until the end of the season.   If you have a chance to watch the replays of the races concerned in the drama at Northfield last night, it's worth the effort to watch Aaron Merriman's body language, and how it progressed. After the seventh race, the camera follows Merriman after the race, and you can see him briefly shake his head as he was bringing his misbehaving trotter under control. In the ninth, the shot to watch is the tight-up stretch replay, as Aaron's face goes in the stretch from reflecting faint opportunity to a grimace of certain knowledge as Merriman edged past Merriman late. In the 10th, the stretch camera shows Aaron exhibit a tight-lipped half-grin as he draws away in the lane, and in the winners enclosure, he actually waves to a couple of people upon existing.   For the historic 13th, the stretch shot shows Merriman so intent on rallying his pacer up the inside that he is a study in concentration, and he shows little emotion in Victory Lane. But stay with that replay to the very end - Northfield shows a stock picture of the winning driver after the post-race ceremonies are over, and the very last shot you'll see is of a widely-grinning Aaron Merriman. ______________________   REPHIGURING THE PHINAL PHILLY NUMBERS - George Napolitano Jr. wound up with 399 wins and a UDR of .397 after the last day of racing at Harrah's Philadelphia this past Sunday; Gil Garcia-Herrera's final numbers were 153 victories and a .438 UTR. The totals were checked in the tallying system after the Philly card, but the numbers included in Monday's story did not include the Sunday results, which had not yet gone through the system as official. (The 832 seasonal figure for "GNap," verified again the next morning along with Merriman's, is official.) We apologize - but any way you look at the figures, the two horsemen had terrific seasons at Harrah's.   Jerry Connors    

Suppose this shaped up to be the first day of what should be one of the best weeks of your life - a week when you went to the lead in the North American harness racing drivers dashwinning derby.   And then you lost in your first 17 drives of the day.   But Aaron Merriman kept his cool. He won with his 18th steer of the day ...   ... and his 19th ...   ... and his 20th - and suddenly things had righted themselves.   That trio of victories in Northfield's 11th, 12th, and 13th races last night boosted Merriman's 2015 sulky success total to 830, leaving him just two behind current leader George Napolitano Jr.'s total, with Napolitano done for the year.   Merriman may not have won a race at The Meadows yesterday afternoon, but as racehorses often do, he "had excuses": for one, he did achieve four second-place finishes, and at 7-2, 9-1, 10-1, and 46-1. Another was that that 7-2 shot, along with another at 3½-1, were the only two horses in 11 drives where Merriman went off less than 7-1 - and he had four mounts who were 30-1 or more!   Also, the southwest Pennsylvania track has been going through a period where the opening card of the week has been "Meadows Manic Monday," with the last nine weeks generating nine horses paying $50 or more, three of them topping the $100 return line for a $2 win bet, and the average win bet paying off at $16.15. Yesterday it was the turn of Hall of Fame driver Dick Stillings to join in the fun, getting a 27.2 last quarter out of Purdy Sam in a "nw3" race, rallying him from seventh at the ¾ pole to win for trainer Doug Hamilton - and return $114.80 to win.   At Northfield, the hot driver was Chris Page, who had five wins on the night, including taking four of the first five races. But Merriman kept at his craft, and was eventually rewarded with the consecutive triple. In adding four seconds and five thirds in his 23 miles for the day, Aaron - despite that 0-for-17 start - managed to post a .300 UDR for Monday.   Merriman now has doubleheader action set for Tuesday and Wednesday. Both The Meadows and Northfield race Friday, but unusually The Meadows has a night card scheduled for Friday this week, so Aaron will have to make a choice.   But by then, the form would indicate that he will be King of the Driving Hill for 2015, and not likely to be looking down or back.   Jerry Connors

Aaron Merriman outslugged George Napolitano Jr. in Friday's "round" of the ongoing 2015 North American harness racing drivers dashwinning title battle, posting six winners to Napolitano's five to narrow "Nap"'s lead to six, with the current score Napolitano 829, Merriman 823.   Napolitano got in a serious punch during Friday afternoon's racing at Harrah's Philadelphia, scoring five victories in 13 sulky turns. Four of the victories came from the barn of Gil Garcia-Herrera, who now has mathematically eliminated Ron Burke from winning the Philly trainers crown, with a 15-victory lead with 14 races to go. (Team Burke was digging to the end, though, also scoring four times on Friday, all with horses guided by Yannick Gingras.)   But with the action switching from The Meadows to Northfield Park Friday night, Merriman uncorked a "1-2 combination," following up on his earlier double at The Meadows with four victories at Northfield to "outpoint" his opponent for the day by one and thus making his deficit six.   Harrah's Philadelphia, The Meadows, and Northfield Park are all dark on Saturday, which means the next report in this series will come Monday, after Merriman races the Sunday night card at Northfield, and Napolitano winds up his 2015 season by driving on the last card of the Harrah's Philadelphia meet on Sunday afternoon. After that, Merriman has doubleheader action on Monday through Wednesday at The Meadows and Northfield, while Napolitano has said that he would end his 2015 campaigning after Philly on Sunday (and indeed has no drives listed anywhere after the Philly card) - and it's not hard to see "the changing of the guard" during that period or slightly thereafter.   FINISHING LINES - Napolitano will be completing a "grand slam" of eastern Pennsylvania racing on Sunday, winning the dash and UDR titles at both Philly and Pocono. At Pocono, "GNap" notched 407 winners, breaking his own record, while posting a UDR of .407; at Philly, Napolitano will likely be adding to his seasonal local record of 396, which eclipsed Tim Tetrick's 380 figure of 2011, and has a .398 UDR going into the final session....On the training side, Garcia-Herrera will be taking his first Philly dash title - Burke had worn the crown the last two years, and five of the last six - but the UTR title is still very much on the line, and that score entering the final card is Chris Oakes .440, Garcia-Herrera .439.   Jerry Connors

Well, if harness racing driver George Napolitano Jr. is ending his sulkysitting for 2015 on Sunday, he looks like he intends to go out a-blazin'.   Napolitano won four times at Harrah's Philadelphia Thursday afternoon, stretching his lead over Aaron Merriman in this year's North American dashwinning driving derby to seven - the current score is Napolitano 824, Merriman 817.   On a "Trottin' Thursday" card that featured 11 trots in 14 races, Napolitano won three times on the trot and once on the pace, extending his one-year Philly record to 387 victories after having broken Tim Tetrick's old mark of 380 this past Sunday. One victor on each gait was supplied by Gil Garcia-Herrera, who will win his first Harrah's conditioners crown, with a 146 victory total through the Thursday card.   Actually, Napolitano had a fifth horse cross the wire first, but the Garcia-Herrera trotter Czech It Out, known to be hard to handle, eased out of the pocket at and after headstretch rather than use an open passing lane, and in doing so caused first-over Jailhouse Juice to take up slightly, necessitating the placing of Czech It Out for interference. Ironically, the horse who was 2pl1, Schalom G, was a beaten favorite in this class last week -- with Nap up, but was overlooked Wednesay and returned $48.80 in being placed first - after coming quickly up the passing late late.   The action today (Friday) finds Napolitano with afternoon duties at Harrah's in the penultimate card of the year at the riverside oval in the south suburbs of the City of Brotherly Love, while Merriman will go day and night at The Meadows and Northfield, with two-time defending NoAm champion Ron Wrenn Jr., whose 2015 output of 750 wins has him third, joining Merriman at the Cleveland oval this evening.   All three drivers are scheduled to be out of action on Saturday; Napolitano is then scheduled to drive his last slate of races for the year at Harrah's Sunday, having said he intends to do no driving, "unless you count motorcross," for the remainder of 2015. This will leave the door open for Merriman, who is supposed to race at Northfield Sunday night and then in Meadows-Northfield doubleheaders on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.   FINISHING LINES - George Napolitano Jr. is unfortunately not a stranger to potentially-historic achievements being lessened by a disqualification from first. Many people remember him tying Dave Palone's one-card single-dash pari-mutuel driving win record with 11 Victory Lanes visits at Pocono on June 10, 2011, but not too many remember that "GNap" crossed the wire first TWELVE times that night - but with one on the run, and disqualified for an LOB.   Jerry Connors

You wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy the kind of luck that harness racing driver Aaron Merriman has been plagued with the last two days.   Merriman left Northfield Park Friday night tied for the 2015 North American lead in driving victories with George Napolitano Jr. at 812. Since Merriman's two bases of operation, Northfield and The Meadows, were dark on Saturday, Aaron took a mini-jaunt to California early Saturday, planning his return flight so that he would be back in Cleveland to drive Northfield's Sunday night card.   But while Napolitano was ringing up seven winners at Harrah's Philadelphia on Sunday , Aaron was stuck with a different kind of "seven" - a flight delay that caused him to miss his connecting flight to Cleveland, where he finally arrived Sunday night seven hours later than planned, with the Northfield card all but done.   Aaron bounced right back, though, on Monday, beginning a string of three Meadows/Northfield doubleheaders (while Napolitano's action during that period would be limited to Wednesday afternoon, the start of the last four days of the season at Philly).   Only Aaron's luck didn't change on Monday, as he rolled "another seven" - seven seconds (along with five thirds and two other checkgetters), but zero winners in his 23 drives at his two ovals. (To show how well Merriman did on one scale - he had a UDR of .217 going 0-for-23, which is very hard to do!)   Merriman was unlucky he ran into three drivers who had very hot hands on Monday. At The Meadows, both perennial leader Dave Palone and Eric Goodell each had five visits to Victory Lane; at Northfield, two-time defending North American dashwinning champion Ron Wrenn Jr. came home first six times (he now has 744 wins in 2015 as the closest driver behind Napolitano/Merriman). Aaron also didn't have the best of equine stock in front of him Monday - only once in the 23 races did the public make his horse the favorite (an equal number to the horses he drove that were dismissed at 133-1 or more!).   But fear not for Aaron Merriman, a resilient soul, and one who really can say "Time is on my side," as the Rolling Stones sang. For while George Napolitano Jr. has a seven-win lead going into today (Tuesday, when he is not racing), he has only four more opportunities to add to his 2015 win total - he has stated that at present he does not intend to drive beyond closing day at Harrah's Philadelphia this Sunday. Merriman's December could include nine more Meadows matinees and at least 16 scheduled nighttime cards at Northfield - both tracks have evening racing planned for Friday, December 18.   It still appears Aaron Merriman will get home first in this particular race - and the memory of these past two unfortunate days will just be a bump in the road in the rearview mirror.   Jerry Connors

When the advantage George Napolitano Jr. had over Aaron Merriman in the 2015 North American harness racing dashwinning derby dropped from its high of 24 on November 21 to zero this past Tuesday, combined with the fact that this week is the last week of racing at Harrah's Philadelphia for "George Nap" -- his other main track, The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono closed (not coincindentally) on November 21 -- it was assumed that George's chance for a second dashwinning championship (he won in 2010) were dead.   Well, hold on a second ...   It's true that Merriman looks to have a definite edge in opportunities for victories, with both of his driving ovals, The Meadows and Northfield extending their seasons well beyond this Sunday.   But on Sunday, with Merriman not in action at Northfield, George Napolitano Jr. won seven races -- half the 14-race card at the riverside oval just south of Philadelphia -- and has regained that much of a lead in this back-and-forth derby.   Naploitano guided the winners of races 1-2-3 at Philly yesterday -- none of them favorites, then added victories in races 5, 8, and 11 before bookending the card with a 5-1 win in race 14. The win with Charger Blue Chip was his 381st of the year at Harrah's, allowing him to break the single-season total for victories, the 380 total registered in 2011 by Tim Tetrick (who, semi-ironically, is in Australia for a driving tournament connected with the Inter-Dominion Championship).   Napolitano is now scheduled to drive next at Harrah's on Wednesday afternoon, while Merriman is penciled for day-night action at The Meadows and Northfield Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.   FINISHING LINES -- In last week's Napolitano-Merriman matchup, the big winner was ... Ron Wrenn Jr., two-time defending dash champion and third at this point in 2015; he had 19 Northfield victories to raise his year's total to 738; Merriman had 17, and Napolitano 14 ... As for Tetrick, he has a win and a second (beaten a neck at 30-1) in three starts in the Down Under driving competition, according to reports. The victory came earlier today (Monday; remember the time difference) at the Pinjarra track, where he thrilled the fans with a consecutive "treble" of victories.   "The report of my death was an exaggeration." -- Mark Twain, in London in 1897, responding to Stateside rumors about his health. Jerry Connors

“Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” -- Leroy “Satchel” Paige, legendary Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Harrisburg, PA --- Mr. Paige, this is Aaron Merriman and Ronnie Wrenn Jr. Ronnie, Aaron -- this is Mr. Satchel Paige, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher and icon. He is the author of the quote that starts this story. And the “something” he refers to is named George Napolitano Jr. For most of 2015, a casual glance at the leading dashwinning drivers in North America might have given you “déjà vu all over again,” as another baseball legend noted. Aaron Merriman has had the lead in the standings, with Ronnie Wrenn Jr. right behind. This is exactly the same scenario as happened in 2014, when Merriman led until the final days of the year, then saw Wrenn make a tremendous late push to secure himself his second straight North American title. But over the last three-plus months, a new wrinkle has emerged. (Well, not exactly new -- he was third behind “Double A” and “Ronnie” in 2014, and was national champion in 2010.) But the graph below shows what is meant by “a power move in the middle of the race”: MONTHLY AND SEASONAL TOTALS                                     AARON MERRIMAN   GEORGE NAPOLITANO JR.   RON WRENN JR.     Month Year   Month Year   Month Year                     end of April     290     124     263 May   66 356   101 225   78 341 June   70 426   77 302   61 402 July   79 505   100 402   67 469 August   63 568   106 508   62 531 September   52 620   92 600   75 606 Oct. 1-11   28 648   43 643   23 629 That’s right -- “George Nap,” 166 victories off Merriman’s lead at the end of April, has narrowed the gap to five after the racing of Sunday (Oct. 11). Wrenn has stayed within 20 or so victories of the lead throughout the year -- but now he finds himself looking up at two people, not one. And Napolitano shows no signs of present abatement, as the October numbers posted above show. A brief background: Merriman and Wrenn both have a base at Northfield Park in Cleveland. Wrenn has 488 seasonal victories there as of Oct. 11, Merriman 401, though their UDRs are practically the same (Wrenn .398, Merriman. 396). Where Merriman has gotten his edge is by doing “double duty,” also racing regularly at The Meadows near Pittsburgh, where he is in fourth place with 209 wins, behind perennial leader Dave Palone and the “second-third interchangers,” Mike Wilder and Tony Hall. The double duty sometimes means Merriman misses the last few races at The Meadows or the first few at Northfield; interestingly, the same thing happens with Napolitano. Napolitano’s season has one focus: a 100-mile strip of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and its Northeast Extension, between The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono (which races in 2015 from March 21 to Nov. 21, at night) and Harrah’s Philadelphia (which races March 20 to Dec. 11, during the day). During the eastern PA winter hiatus, Napolitano has in the recent past been going to his “official USTA” home in Florida, where he races a much-reduced, intermittent schedule at Pompano (he had 26 wins between the end of 2014 at Philly and its 2015 opening, with only 85 drives in 21 cards raced). But what a focus he has had in the Keystone State in 2015, by George! He had 100 or more wins in three different months (May, July, and August), and he had 10 winners in one day three times (July 26, Aug. 16, and Sept. 16). Between Philly and Pocono, there have been 124 cards between July 1 and Oct. 11; George has participated in 121 cards, and he has had at least one victory on 118 of those cards (97.5 percent). He is the runaway leading dashwinner at both tracks; at Pocono this will be his ninth win title, breaking a mark he shares with Bill Lambertus. This spectacular success rate has enabled Napolitano to get into the thick of the discussion of the North American sulky leadership. If he would have a couple of weeks producing at his current rate, it would not be a surprise to see George Napolitano at the top of the charts soon. Postscript “Objects in the rear view mirror may appear larger than they actually are.” --- A song by Meat Loaf, among other things Having said all of the above, it does not seem likely that George Napolitano Jr. will wind up as North American driving champion in 2015. Pocono raced its last Friday of the season this past weekend; there will be racing only on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday until season’s end, 18 more cards. Philly has four cards a week the rest of October, then reduces to three a week up to the final week of its season, 31 more cards. So Napolitano has fewer than 50 racing days left in his prime time. Even if he wins at his per-card rate since July 1 of 2.88, that would mean 141 more wins this season, 784 in all (if he can maintain this breakneck pace). George did not drive at Pompano at all from Dec. 14 of last year until Jan. 17 of this year. Merriman has his regular doubleheaders; Wrenn has been known for supplementing his Northfield total with day excursions to other pari-mutuel ovals (especially in his native Michigan, where he has 57 wins this year). And just for one example, Wrenn won more than 100 races last December alone in wrestling the win crown from Merriman in the final days. So, Mr. Paige, thank you for your counsel. It’s usually never a good idea to focus on what may be behind -- it’s always what’s up front, the pursuit of the next goal, that is the primary motivating force. I think these three talented “youthful veterans” would thank you and agree with you -- and they’ll go out and give North American harness fans some real excitement as the clock on 2015 winds down. by Jerry Connors  Jerry Connors is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania and was recently voted into the Communicators Hall of Fame. The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

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