Normally, some Big M regulars take some time off beginning in December, but 2020 is a different story.
by Debbie Little
Many drivers consider this time of year to be “The Grind.”
After a long season, the combination of no stakes races, cold weather and fatigue – both mental and physical – has often led several members of the Meadowlands’ driver colony to take time off.
But 2020 is not like any other year, so at least for December many of the Big M regulars are flipping the script and staying in town to race.
“I’m planning on racing right up to New Year’s this year at the Meadowlands,” said David Miller. “The older I’ve gotten, when the last stakes race is over, I was ready to pull my shoes and turn myself out, but [this year] I’m feeling really good still. I don’t feel burned out.
“I raced in the cold weather for 30-something years and I really just don’t like it anymore, that’s the bottom line.”
In previous years, Miller has taken some horses down to Florida and trained all winter, but in January 2021 he’ll be taking his talents to Pompano Park to race instead.
Another draw for Miller is that his two daughters and grandson will be in Florida.
“I’m going to get to hang out with them,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be a great winter.”
Even though this may be known as the most wonderful time of the year, Yannick Gingras would beg to differ.
For him, it’s the baby races and working with the babies in the spring just before they qualify and, of course, stakes season.
“Racing December to April is the less fun part of it, but it’s part of the job as well,” said Gingras. “Maybe 10 years down the road, once my kids are in college or are out of the house, maybe I’ll do like some of the other guys. David [Miller], the first of January is going to Florida for a few months. That’s something I would like to do at some point but my kids are too young. They’re still in school and I’m not taking them out of school to go to Florida.”
Gingras normally spends some of December in Maine near his wife’s family, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed that, at least for now.
“We have a place we bought there five or six years ago,” said Gingras. “It’s right next door to her sister. This year we need to be careful and big gatherings in Maine are prohibited so we’ll stay put and stay home and hopefully we’ll get to see them next summer.
“I’d hate to be responsible for somebody else getting really sick. You’ve got to be respectful of others.”
In recent years, Tim Tetrick has raced primarily at Dover Downs and Harrah’s Philadelphia in December and 2020 will be no different.
“I’m going to take the weekends off and spend time with my family,” said Tetrick. “I don’t feel like racing when it’s too-awful cold out and it’s a two-hour drive for me to get up there [to The Meadowlands] one way.
“Even with the shortened season, it still seemed like we did a lot of traveling and a lot of work and I’m not 25 anymore. I’ve driven a lot of horses. I just had my 39th birthday and I looked it up and I saw I have 60,000 drives in 20 years.”
Winter is usually the time when Andy McCarthy heads down under to see his family in Australia, but it’s not just the pandemic stopping him from going this year.
His two sons, Finn and Olly, are in 1st grade and Pre-K, respectively, so trips back home may be planned for every other year at best.
Because of traveling restrictions imposed on anyone crossing the Canadian border, McCarthy had to remain North of the Border for three weeks while racing Ramona Hill.
“Even though it’s a shorter year, it feels much longer for me,” said McCarthy. “The Canada deal for me was very stressful. I did very good up there but I think it took its toll on me mentally, that’s for sure. It felt like an eternity being up there away from the family.”
Corey Callahan didn’t travel as much this year and perhaps feels the better for not having done so.
“Normally everybody’s kind of worn out by the time the Fall Final Four finishes up,” said Callahan. “Everybody’s kind of ready to check out mentally and physically. But this year’s a little bit different. We didn’t race quite as much so mentally a lot of us are ready to keep going.
“The thing about the Meadowlands is you don’t have to have the best horse in the race to win. That’s what I like about it so much. The other night I won with a horse that was 75-1 from last.”
Dexter Dunn plans to take some time off but not until sometime in the new year.
Like Callahan, Dunn didn’t make the trip to the Great White North and still has some spring in his step.
“I feel like I got through the year pretty good,” said Dunn. “I’m still only 31, so I’ve still got a bit of youngness sort of kicking through me, so that helps a lot.”
At the start of the Big M Fall Meeting, George Napolitano and Simon Allard picked up drives vacated by those who chose to travel, but they made the most of those opportunities and are currently third and fourth, respectively, in the standings.
“I think I went harder [this year] than I ever have,” said Allard, who at one point drove at 11 tracks in seven days. “I am tired a little bit, but two days a week at the Meadowlands is not going to hurt me. They have the best surface. The track is so nice that horses never put a bed step in there.”
For Napolitano, racing at the Meadowlands is special and he’s very grateful to all the trainers that have used him, especially Jeff Cullipher and Andrew Harris.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for a long time and it’s happening,” said Napolitano.
“If it keeps on looking positive, I’m going to stay even though it’s cold and I don’t want to,” he added with a laugh.