After more than 9,500 in wins and $215 million in earnings, the 60-year-old Hall of Fame driver has officially retired on the 10th anniversary of The Wave and will spend his days on a series of adventures, including prospecting for gold.
by Bob Heyden
Ron Pierce, 60, has not driven since March 7, 2015. He always held out hope he might drive again, but today he’s officially calling it a career. Harness racing’s second leading money driver, with over $215 million to his credit, has announced he is hanging up his red, white and blue colors.
“It was time. I feel great,” Pierce exclusively told Harness Racing Update this week. “When I stopped, I had to have three surgeries in 2014 on my back and neck. Right now, I feel great. I’m better physically than when I was in my 30s. But I found that I enjoy doing other things, and having my time alone.”
After recovering from his surgeries, the outdoorsman spent the winter scuba diving and cycling in Florida. In March, he returned to his home base in New Jersey and by May he was off on his next adventure — first to visit his mother in Montana and then on Fairbanks, Alaska.
“My first goal was to get my legs and hips and back in shape. It took me a while. There were times I’d need a day or two or three to recuperate. But it kept getting better,” Pierce said. “I did lots of mountain climbing. I was 273 miles north of Fairbanks in Addigans Pass. No cell phones, no Internet. They had something called ‘End Reach’ for texting if you needed it. But I was there to be away from everything — racing included. I’ve been out of the loop for some time now concerning the sport.”
While in Alaska, Pierce started prospecting for gold.
“I was metal detecting — looking for gold. I have pictures on Facebook about my finds. The first two-three months it wasn’t so good. Then I changed areas and drove 350 miles southwest. I found some gold nugget pockets that had not been hit before. Sometimes I got a little, sometimes a lot. One nugget was over four ounces. I think when I left I had 130 ounces of gold in all. Next year I plan on going back, with machinery this time.”
Pierce grew up in the wilds of northern California and before he was in school he was already hunting with his brother, Keith, to help feed his family. Pierce’s father Don — who died in 2005 — was a horseman and outdoorsman, but Ron didn’t take to horse racing right away.
“I didn’t fully concentrate on racing early on. I was more interested in girls, traveling, hunting snorkeling, mountain climbing, you name it,” Pierce said. “There were other things I wanted to do, too. When I married Melody in 1986, she was very helpful in getting me to take things real, to pay bills, to concentrate on racing. She helped me so much.”
Pierce got his start in racing working for Vernon and Donny Dancer and Art Unger.
“I knew I needed some seasoning,” Pierce said. “I wasn’t ready to drive at the Meadowlands in those days against Mickey McNichol, Eddie Davis, Bill O’Donnell, John Campbell and Ted Wing. I wanted to try California, and Macau, and Canterbury. I figured my best experience would be in California. They had some bigger tracks and I could win a few driving titles there, several hundred races — maybe even a thousand. I raced at Pomona, Sacramento, Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos. I did exactly what I set out to do.”
Pierce said he started to take racing seriously around the time he turned 30. By that age he had yet to crack the top 150 drivers in career earnings.
He made up for lost time in a hurry (see fact boxes for career highlights) and ended up winning more than 9,500 races — some clearly more memorable than others.
Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the race known at The Red Mile ever since as The Wave.
Pierce, driving Passionate Glide, turned and waved goodbye to Trond Smedshammer, driving Queen Serene, while sailing past at the top of the stretch in the raceoff for the Kentucky Filly Futurity.
“The only regret I have for this race was my own drive the race before when I let Queen Serene get too far in front of me,” Pierce said. “I was mad at myself. I knew in the raceoff that I was going to beat her, whether Trond was 1:10 to the half or 1:04. I was going to sit on her back and win. I was also reluctant at this point to be racing a third heat. The Breeders Crown and the Matron were still coming up and you hate to race horses of this caliber three times in a day. As the raceoff unfolded, (:28.4, :57, 1:25.3 and 1:53) I knew I was going by and I just looked over and waved goodbye to Trond. It wasn’t planned. I just did it. It caused a lot of reaction, good and bad. But it did get a lot of publicity for the sport. NBC, CBS and ESPN all carried it.”
That same day on the other side of Lexington, a colt named Somebeachsomewhere sold early in the yearling sale at Fasig-Tipton. Two years later, Pierce became the only man to beat The Beach when he orchestrated the upset by a neck in the 2008 Meadowlands Pace with Art Official in a 1:47 world and stakes record.
“I liked (Art Official) a lot. I knew he had some issues, but he was tough and fast. The connections told me he couldn’t leave much, so when I scored him down that night, I shook him up pretty good. I pretty much decided then and there I was leaving,” Pierce said. “The only chance I had to beat Somebeachsomewhere was to be up with him. Realistically, I was hoping to be right close by and maybe be second best.
“Art Official hit his knees really hard, harder than you normally see in top horses. I got him up on the bit and left 100 miles per hour, :26 flat. When I saw challenges coming to the half, (Art Official) still felt good so I left Yannick (Gingras driving Bullville Powerful) out there to a :51.4 half. Dave Miller (Mucho Sleazy) was breathing down my neck pretty good at this point. Paul MacDonell swung wide to get the top at the five-eighths, and I sat right there behind him, and all of a sudden I could feel Art Official getting right up on the bit. I told myself, ‘Wow, this is a good situation.’ We hit the three-quarters in 1:19.1, and I felt I had him. My colt swelled up and I was able to get up by a neck. All the credit goes to (trainer) Joe Seekman and his staff for getting his colt into peak condition.”
As Pierce retires three prominent drivers reflected on the Hall of Famer’s career.
“He does things that none of the rest of us can do,” said Mark MacDonald. “He is one of the best of all time. In the 2006 North America Cup, I had a longshot in there — 90-1 maybe — and was getting a trip and thought I might be able to steal it. But here comes Ronny, measuring from eighth or ninth with Total Truth.
“No one’s taught me more about driving a good horse than Ronny — and he did it the hard way. In 2005, when I set the world record with American Ideal of 1:47.4 at the Red Mile, it was more Ronny’s doing than mine. I had only driven there a time or two and Ronny reminded me that the second quarter was slightly downhill. I was caught out early and reached the quarter in :25.4. It was Ronny, during the race (driving Village Jolt), who told me to go on. I did, and past the five-eighths he was sitting behind me and sensed my colt taking a breather so he yelled so loud he roused my colt as well as his and American Ideal took off. 1:47.4.”
Tim Tetrick said Piece is, “one of the best ever, a natural. He’s part horse. He’s also in very good shape — fit as a fiddle. He would do things in a race you wouldn’t do and it worked for him. He’s one of my idols. I try to do what he does sometimes, but he’s the one and only.”
Hall of Famer Bill O’Donnell said Pierce is a great driver. “I could tell 30 years ago by the way he sat in the bike he was going to be really good. He had a way with a horse — never in trouble, relaxed. He was always coming the right way at the wire. He didn’t do any boasting. His horses did that on the track for him. He’s a hard worker and a loyal guy. Years ago, he wasn’t getting the call on some of the better horses, but his patience worked for him.”
As for the future, Pierce said he is putting that on hold for awhile. “When I got back to Jersey in early October, I had three feet worth of mail and bills, which is not my favorite thing to attend to. But I’m thinking about possibly going to South America this winter. It’s summer there. As for not driving horses anymore, why should I? I am healthier than I’ve been in years and I like doing different things. At some point I’ll go to the barns and see some faces and friends, but for now I’m doing my thing and enjoying life.”
Ron Pierce – Career Highlights
In case someone is not familiar with the long and distinguished career of Ron Pierce, here are some of the highlights:
• He didn’t win his first Breeders Crown until after his 35th birthday (1991, Giant Victory).
• He is the richest driver of all time to have a Triple Crown winner (1999, Blissful Hall).
• He was the first driver to win a race in 1:50 flat with a two-year-old (Badlands Hanover in the 1998 Breeders Crown).
• He’s the only driver to six times win the freshman pacing Breeders Crown.
• No other driver in history has won a million-dollar race six straight Years (2006-2011).
• No other driver has won either the Meadowlands Pace or the Hambletonian five straight seasons — 2007 Donato Hanover, 2008 Art Official, 2009 Well Said, 2010 Muscle Massive and 2011 Roll With Joe.
• Only three drivers in the last quarter century have driven the Pacer and Trotter of the Year in the same year — John Campbell (1994 with Cams Card Shark and Pine Chip); Tim Tetrick (2012 with Captaintreacherous and Chapter Seven) and Pierce (2014 with Sweet Lou and Shake It Cerry).
• Pierce is the second driver to reach $200 million career behind John Campbell.
• Drove his first winner at Freehold in October 1975 (Clans Amber).
• Drove his first Meadowlands winner at age 21, in 1977, back to back weeks with SEP.
• At the turn of the century, Pierce was over $48 million and #11 all-time among drivers
• Pierce is the only driver to ever win six straight races with a single horse in sub-1:48 each time (2014-Sweet Lou).
• Pierce was the first driver to ever win a race with a three-year-old in 1:47 (2008 Meadowlands Pace, Art Official).
• His first major money win came in the 1989 Wilson for $907,000 when the Kelvin Harrison trained freshman Sam Francisco Ben won it.
• His first million-dollar win came in the 1993 Hambletonian with American Winner. “Winning the Hambletonian was beyond my wildest dreams. I never thought I’d win it. I had dreamed of it enough. I must have floated around for two, three weeks after that win in 1993 with American Winner.”
10 great Ron Pierce horses
“I loved this colt. People think I’m crazy when I talk about he being able to go with, and defeat, at times, Muscle Hill. Hey, I knew with Explosive Matter in 2009 that when I stepped onto the track with Muscle Hill I probably couldn’t beat him. But Donato was a stronger horse than Muscle Hill and had Muscle Hill been extended a few times it would have made him vulnerable to a colt like Donato Hanover. When Donato set his lifetime mark in the 2007 Kentucky Futurity, I was stung some by John Campbell’s colt after a :54 and change half. At that point, I just let him roll. he was super, but I think I might have hit the bottom of the tank. So when the Breeders Crown came around, he showed the effects and was passed by Arch Madness in the elimination and final. But at least it was a good horse doing it.”
“I first drove him at Freehold in the Dexter eliminations and final. My first impression was that he didn’t look like much — a streamlined colt; scrawny actually; not a lot of flesh. But he could trot. By the third time I drove him, he was up in the irons and right on the bit. He tried real hard and got the best of Pine Chip the first part of that season, up until around Lexington. I still think that American Winner should have been voted Trotter Of The Year over Pine Chip. That one always bothered me.”
“Loved that horse. Steve Elliott and Toni Rose — what a job they did with him. He had allergy issues. He was a push button horse, but you needed to trip him a little bit, and he was racing against a tough bunch. Classy. I felt confident going to the gate every time I drove him.”
Shake It Cerry
“Loved that filly. I went to The Meadows one day to drive three of Jimmy Takter’s trotting fillies —they all won — and he asked me which one I’d like to stick with. I told him no doubt — Shake It Cerry. We never ran her down or abused her. She finished up the year with the bit in her mouth. My dream with her (which didn’t happen due to his inactivity) was to race her conservatively at four and then with the Prix D’Amerique at five. I watched her race some last year and I don’t think she was as happy. She was overdriven some and not within herself.”
“I’m still mad thinking about the 2004 Hambletonian. He jogged in his elim, but in the final Danny Dale (the starter) had slowed the car down so much waiting on a horse my horse got all bothered and he might have choked. He wasn’t himself at all there. He showed the next month when he set the world record what kind of potential he had.”
“That was a case of Jimmy Takter priming a horse for that one particular race. What a job he did. I got a little fortunate in that John (Campbell) and Lucky Chucky gave me some cover late… I don’t John had any choice but to go on with him when he did.”
“I got lucky with her. Mike Lachance had driven her and beaten Miss Easy, but in her next start he had a commitment to a Brittany Farm horse, so I wound up with (Shady Daisy). The first time I raced her, I brushed her on the backstretch and felt something I had never felt before — she could really go, wicked fast. It was somewhat unfortunate that she had to race against Staying Together and Artsplace, but she held her own there. The only regret I have with Daisy is the 1993 Breeders Crown when I let Kelly Sheppard and his filly go at the three-eighths. By the time I got back out, it was too late and I ran out of track (and Swing Back won).”
“I would have to say that she was probably the best female I ever raced. A big, heavy mare with a huge tank. She could go fast a long, long way. Head and shoulders the best of her class. When she was named Horse Of The Year, she did it over a horse who won the Triple Crown — Windsongs Legacy — so that was special. The only race I lost with her, she saw a cameraman halfway on the infield at the Meadowlands on Hambletonian Day and it spooked her and she jumped (in the Mistletoe Shalee).”
“I wish I had started racing him sooner. Rick Zeron taught him well at two. Danny Dube had him for the Meadowlands Pace and a few other races early at three. I got him and he was already seasoned. He knew exactly what he had to do. If you gave him a trip of any kind, he took it from there. He had the speed to do just about anything. But you had to be a little bit careful with him. He could get hot at times, just like Cambest, his sire, could.”
“What a pleasure it was to race him. He was a beast, but one you could rate in behind if you wanted. Pretty much anything at all was okay with him. A big long tall horse who covered a lot of ground. I hate to mention it but I still get mad at the Elitlopp that he lost by a nose. We should have, and would have, had the horse challenging not made a break top of the stretch allowing the horse on my back to get me a nose. What’s even worse is that I got fined $12,800 for a one-handed whip, which I didn’t even realize I did. I just didn’t like the whole thing. I swore I’d never go back to Sweden to race after that.”
Early and Important Influences
It’s impossible to properly credit all of the important, influential people in Ron Pierce’s life — Stanley Dancer was one, for sure — but Pierce spoke about four key people.
“Peter and I were good friends. He was only a couple of years older than me. It was really sad when he died (in a car accident at age 25). He was impressive as a horseman. I worked for Ernie Spruce some back then and (Peter and I) got a chance to talk a lot. We’d be working out horses side by side in the morning, and he’d be telling me about the family — four-five generations back of the horse he was working. I was lucky if I knew the sire or the dam. Peter was a prince of a guy. Being Billy’s son, he had occasions where he’s be talking to multi-millionaires, but he never changed when he was talking to or hanging out with the caretakers. The same guy.”
“I didn’t get to know Shelly all that well. But I was talking to him the race before he had the accident that killed him (in 1982). I was there that night. Shelly got a lot of respect and was a total all around horseman.”
“I was raised on the fair circuit. I was watching Joe from diapers. Gentleman Joe. He had this set of hands you couldn’t believe. Horses loved him. And he had this soothing voice. He could get horses to go in a kindly way. I learned a lot by watching Joe. So many people wanted Joe to time trial their horses because of the easy way he had with them.”
“He was a very important man in my career. He gave me a lot of powerful horses to drive. Timesareachanging was two fingers to drive — my kind of horse. He liked it, he wanted it, first over. That’s how he won the Jug. Dream Away, I Am A Fool, Reinvent, Like A Prayer. The Hambletonian with Like A Prayer might be the most frustrating race I was ever in. I got sideswiped on the final turn and lost about six, seven lengths and got beat a neck by Chip Chip Hooray. We should have won by three lengths or more. Brett could get in to a horses head. Nobody I could remember could aim for a big race like Brett could. His father Brian was a top horseman and that helped.”