by Debbie Little
The clock is ticking for young drivers to make a mark at The Meadowlands.
Winter is usually the time when most of the top drivers take a break, opening the door for newer faces to be seen.
For example, on New Year’s Eve 2021, Scott Zeron was the only Big M fall meet top-10 driver competing.
Meadowlands race secretary Scott Warren has noticed more young drivers than usual racing this winter.
“Opportunities open up in the winter time when a lot of the regular guys are not around,” said Warren. “That’s how the possible next superstar of the business is created. If they get the right drive, it can lead to a stakes drive for one of them. You never know.”
Of the six fresh faces currently competing, Luke Hanners, 21, is the senior member of the group even though Jack Pelling, 26, is older. Hanners has more on-track experience since Pelling only started racing in 2020.
“Right now, with a couple of the drivers gone, it makes it a little easier, but it’s not easy,” said Hanners, who already has three wins at The Big M this year.
Hanners drives semi-regularly for both Jennifer Bongiorno and Edwin Quevedo.
“I liked the way he drove at Freehold, so I gave him the opportunity to drive my horses [at The Meadowlands],” said Quevedo of Hanners. “He’s good with a lazy horse.”
Quevedo also uses Tyler Miller, 24, and in 2021, 16 of Miller’s 19 Big M wins were for Quevedo.
“[Tyler’s] done good for me,” said Quevedo. “He’s young and young guys need a chance to drive horses.
“Everybody needs a chance and when I see these guys are available, why not give them a chance to drive a horse? If people see them drive more horses, they will get more chances.”
In addition to Hanners, Miller and Pelling, Brett Beckwith, 19, Jacob Cutting, 21, and Trae Porter, 20, are also trying to pick up drives and get noticed.
“Usually, the winter months help a lot of young guys get experience,” said Beckwith. “It’s definitely an appreciated opportunity during the winter months to go there and race because it is the mecca of harness racing per se.”
Beckwith’s first Big M win came on Dec. 2, 2021, and he already has one in 2022.
“I’m hoping to just get my name out there and keep grinding,” said Beckwith. “I remember Aaron Merriman saying that his biggest thing is if someone puts him down, they know he’s going to be there. And I’ve never called off a drive in my life and I don’t plan on it unless I’m on my deathbed sick and can’t move. But if someone lists me down and it’s one drive three or four hours away, I’m going to be there.”
Pelling got his first Big M win last week and values the experience of racing at such a revered place.
“I feel like The Meadowlands is already the most competitive place probably to get drives just because of the place that it is, but for a young driver, it must be the hardest place at any time,” said Pelling.
Cutting only started competing at The Big M on Jan. 22, 2022 and with just 16 starts doesn’t have a win. Porter also has not found the winner’s circle yet this year in 17 starts. However, in 2021, he had 12 starts with one win, two seconds and two thirds and that win came on New Year’s Eve.
There is perhaps more of a sense of urgency this year to make a mark, since drivers are now required to race at The Meadowlands consistently starting on March 4 in order to drive during the Championship Meet. With all the top drivers coming back, in some cases, at least a month earlier than usual, there is less time this year for young drivers to be seen on the world’s biggest stage.
Since The Meadowlands is looking to get their product on TV more often this year, they want consistency when it comes to who is driving.
However, it should be noted that on the aforementioned Dec. 31 card, The Meadowlands handled over $2.9 million, the highest of the fall meet for a non-stakes night. On that night, in addition to Porter, Beckwith and Hanners also made a trip to the winner’s circle.
Even though they did not get a win, Miller and Pelling also drove on New Year’s Eve.
“I guess it kind of makes you realize, in a way, that the opportunity is there,” said Pelling. “It’s not an unreachable task of being that driver at The Meadowlands. So, it gives everyone a taste of that.
“I feel like sometimes at Freehold, you can ride the rail and use the track to your advantage, but at The Meadowlands, it’s a different game that you’ve got to learn. And I feel like it’s more just about the horse power and having to be in the right spot. It’s something to wrap my head around for sure.”
Hanners, who had his first and second Big M wins on the same night in June 2021, has some advice for his fellow young guns.
“Be patient and enjoy it and don’t stress about it because it’s a pleasure just to be able to drive there,” said Hanners.
Beckwith said he feels like he is 19 going on 40 and wants everything to happen at lightning speed, but understands what Hanners is saying.
“Eventually, I would like to make it there to race consistently and know that when I pull up the entries that I’m going to see my name there, but it takes time to build up the credibility and clientele of trainers,” said Beckwith.