The veteran trainer/driver said he’s gratified and grateful to be in the running for three O’Brien Awards — including the award for Horsemanship — in a year in which he hit $100 million in driver earnings, scored his 8,000th career win and his son, Scott, had a banner year in the U.S. driving trotting Triple Crown winner Marion Marauder.
by Chris Lomon
Rick Zeron hadn’t had much time to sit back and reflect on an outstanding 2016 racing campaign. When he finally did, the veteran horseman got a little emotional.
“Tears of joy,” said Zeron with a somewhat self-deprecating laugh. “It’s sunk in now. It’s been about a month or so since I got the call from (Standardbred Canada’s) Kathy Wade-Vlaar letting me know. It’s very gratifying and I’m completely grateful.”
The phone call of note was a quick conversation to let Zeron know two of his star horses, Shamballa and Mass Production, were finalists in the Older Pacing Horse and 2-year-old Trotting Colt categories, respectively, for Saturday’s O’Brien Awards honoring the best in Canadian harness racing in 2016.
While he was hopeful and somewhat expecting Mass Production would be on the final ballot, Zeron was surprised, albeit pleasantly, at Shamballa’s inclusion on the shortlist that features multiple stakes-winning superstar Wiggle It Jiggleit, as well as discovering he was up for the Horsemanship Award, an honor he received in 2010.
“I’m shocked at Shamballa getting nominated and myself for the Horseman award,” admitted the Ottawa native, who eclipsed both 8,000 career wins and $100 million in driver purse earnings in 2016. “I was really hoping that Mass Production would be nominated because he had such a great year. To have Shamballa and myself nominated, it’s a bonus.”
Mass Production, a son of Muscle Mass and All Time Favourite, certainly lived up to his name in 2016. The colt won five of nine starts and banked in excess of $285,000 in his rookie season. Highlights included four Ontario Sires Stakes scores, accompanied by a 1:54.4 stakes record performance in the OSS Super Final.
Zeron, who drives and co-owns the $32,000 purchase at the 2015 Canadian Yearling Sale, knew early on that he had a promising youngster in the fold.
“He had a really nice gait,” said Zeron. “He went through a few bumps and issues mid-winter of last winter. When spring and the good weather hit, he just kind of took off. He started to excel and training faster than others in the group that we had. I thought we had a pretty good one when it all came together.”
Zeron said he is hoping for even more primetime production from Mass Production in his sophomore season.
“I had him turned out at Olive Branch Farm in North Carolina – Shamballa and Mass Production were both turned out there – and boy, he’s really grown,” he said. “He’s stretched out, grown up high and filled out. He’s a great horse to be around. He loves when you pet him and loves to get his carrots. I’m thinking some really big things for him this year.”
Shamballa, a now seven-year-old son of Somebeachsomewhere and Bolero Takara, pulled off one of the biggest upsets on the 2016 North American racing calendar.
The 1:47.1 victory, on Hambletonian Day, saw Shamballa upset both 2015 Horse of the Year Wiggle It Jiggleit and eventual 2016 Horse of the Year and 1:46 world record-setter Always B Miki in the $225,000 U.S. Pacing Championship.
Even better? Zeron’s son, Scott, who would win the Hambletonian with O’Brien three-year-old trotting colt finalist and potential Canadian Horse of the Year, Marion Marauder, happened to be in Shamballa’s driver’s seat.
For the elder Zeron, who co-owns, trains and is the lead driver of Shamballa, it was one of the greatest moments of his career, even if he was about 450 miles north of East Rutherford.
“I couldn’t get down to the Meadowlands for the race because I had lot of horses going that night (at Mohawk),” he said. “I was actually racing a really good three-year-old trotting filly and I was hoping to get into her some bigger races in 2016. I was lying down in bed and watching the races on my iPad and when Scott hit the head of the lane with Shamballa, I said, ‘He’s a winner.’ And he was. I was pretty pumped and I know I’ll never forget it.”
The bay gelding is closing in on the $1 million mark in purse money, recorded 11 top-three finishes in 19 starts for $439,091 in purse earnings in 2016.
As for his own O’Brien recognition, Zeron is understandably thrilled by the Horsemanship nomination.
“It’s wonderful to be acknowledged,” he said. “I’m very honored by it. It’s a really big boost for me to know that the hard work, day in and day out, night racing, traveling, flying, lack of sleep – it’s all recognized. That’s how you get nominated for this award.
“As a driver/trainer, it’s more difficult. I’m really realizing not too many people drive and train anymore. You get the trainers and you get the drivers, but I’ve always done both and I always will be.”
Retirement isn’t on the radar for the 60-year-old who calls Oakville, ON home. There are, he says happily, still plenty of miles left in the bike.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Zeron, who recently surpassed 1,400 training victories. “My wife Joyce is sitting beside me. There have been conversations as to when I was going to retire. I told her that I’m not ready to retire yet because I’m still having fun. The day that I look out and realize I’m not having fun with it, that’s the day I won’t be doing it anymore.”
How does Freedom 75 sound?
“That would be fine with me. I remember telling Joyce that the day that I turned 55, that will be my Freedom 55 – I won’t be driving anymore. And that’s here and gone.”
What hasn’t gone, however, is Zeron’s enduring affinity and appreciation for the standardbred world.
It’s something he’ll no doubt be reminded of Saturday night when the O’Brien hardware is handed out in Mississauga, ON.
Expect Zeron to make sure his tuxedo has a few extra tissues in the pockets.
“You get a little bit more emotional as the years go on,” he said. “I’ll probably be a little teary-eyed at the awards, too.”