October 5-11, 2012
Most of the verbiage spent in this column relates to the fine four-legged performers at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, the horses whose incredible exploits leave us slack-jawed in disbelief night after night. Yet racing fans know that these performances wouldn’t be possible without the skills of the drivers who take the lines each night and attempt to guide their charges to victory.
That’s why we’re giving the Weekly Awards the week off to devote the article to the exploits of these drivers, particularly those that took place in Saturday night’s The Battle of Pennsylvania Driving Challenge. It’s one of our favorite events of the season at Pocono because it really does shine the spotlight on the drivers, allowing them to compete against each other for bragging rights.
The event also is the source of a friendly inter-track rivalry, as the Challenge incorporates not just Pocono drivers, but also drivers from fellow Pennsylvania track The Meadows. Nine drivers were chosen to compete this year. From Pocono: George Napolitano Jr., Matt Kakaley, Tom Jackson, Tyler Buter, and Joe Pavia Jr. From The Meadows: Mike Wilder, Tony Hall, Aaron Merriman, and Brett Miller, who won the event a year ago.
Here’s how it worked: Each of the nine drivers were randomly assigned to a horse in each of the nine selected races, with the exception of one race each where a driver got to pick whatever horse he wanted out of the nine-horse field to drive. This set-up allowed some strategy to come into play as well as a little luck in terms of drivers perhaps getting favorable post positions or stuck with several long shots or the like, although that luck tends to even itself out over the course of a competition such as this.
What was interesting was that only three of the nine races were won by drivers who had the selection in the race, meaning that the strategy often went out the window. Of course, at a track as competitive as Pocono, it’s typical for just about every horse in a given race to have a shot and for favorites to be cannon fodder, so it really was anybody’s ballgame.
Yet one man seems to have a knack for this whole deal, and that’s Brett Miller. To be successful in the Challenge, you have to not only win races, but you have to be consistently near the top in the order of finish. Since 50 points were awarded for first place, 25 were second, and so on down until just a single point was awarded for last place, it placed a premium on having not just wins, but also plenty of seconds and thirds.
Miller set the tone in the very first race aboard trotter Boiler Bob The QB, winning easily to quickly stake himself to first place in the Challenge. From there, he finished third, second, first, third, and second in the Challenge’s next five races, the consistently solid finishes giving him a huge lead that would be tough for any of the other helmsmen to surmount.
That’s not to say there weren’t other drivers who made things happen. George Napolitano Jr. and Aaron Merriman joined Miller as the only two drivers to pick up a pair of wins in the Challenge. Napolitano also had the longest shot to win in the event, picking up a victory aboard 9-1 shot Sonic Raider in a claiming trot. Tyler Buter, Mike Wilder, and Matt Kakaley also scored wins in the Challenge.
In the last race, Miller still had a pretty significant lead, yet Napolitano and Wilder still had mathematical chances to pull the rug out from under him. They each needed a win, but Kakaley won aboard Oyster Bay instead. That meant that it’s two titles in a row for Miller, which, even when you consider some of the luck that comes into play, is still a pretty impressive achievement.
The Challenge doesn’t prove anything about whether or not certain drivers are better than others. On another night, with different horses and draws, the results might have been quite different. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a great chance to honor these drivers with their own night. By the way, they also deserve applause for donating a portion of their winnings for the event to Marley’s Mission.
These guys are out there each race making split-second decisions which are often second-guessed, even as their ability to prevent potentially awful accidents with horses trotting and pacing in such close proximity to each other is always taken for granted. Not just the nine drivers in the Challenge, but every guy or gal around the country who sits in the bike behind a standardbred deserves the utmost appreciation of both their skills and their courage.
Such appreciation is what The Battle of Pennsylvania Driving Challenge truly fosters, and it’s why we here at Pocono are really proud to have it as part of our racing season.
That will do it for this week, but we’ll see you at the track. Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
October 5-11, 2012