by Chris Lomon
Matthew Athearn has never been one to shy away from a good challenge in the race bike.
It’s a skill the son of veteran horseman Mark Athearn, and trainer Gretchen Athearn, acquired early on in his harness racing life, the ability to work with and succeed with difficult horses.
“I started out working with those horses, wondering, ‘How am I ever going to do well?’” said the 23-year-old driver/trainer from Maine. “As it turns out, learning to drive that way was a huge help for me. When they would win, it was really gratifying because it took a lot of hours and dedication to help them move forward. But it was really satisfying to see the end results of all that work. I think that’s the biggest thing, is how much you can learn from a horse that isn’t necessarily easy to drive. I give a lot of credit to my parents. They started me out with horses that were tough to drive. I had to learn to drive them first. When you start out driving the easy ones, it doesn’t always help you to learn as quickly.”
Those lessons would eventually pay off handsomely for Athearn.
Launching his driving career in 2014, a year in which he won three races from 25 starts, the reinsman honed his craft to the point where he reached an impressive milestone four years ago.
For Athearn, the 2018 season was a pivotal moment in his standardbred life.
“I would say the first year I had 100 wins was the moment things really began to take off for me. I had won two Sires Stakes finals in Maine, and things really started to come together for me. I do set goals myself. Every year, I try to do better than the previous one. For the past few years, I’ve set a goal of 200 wins on the season and a new high in yearly earnings. I was able to set a new high in earnings in 2021, but I haven’t reached 200 wins yet.”
Not for lack of effort.
Athearn rolls into 2022 having posted four consecutive campaigns of 117 wins or higher. Last year, he went over the $1 million plateau in earnings for the second time.
He gives credit to a trio of horses for his memorable 2021 season, including a pair of trainees sent out by his mother.
“We have a couple of my mom’s horses who really impressed me last year, Jack Roger and The Wayfaring Man. Both of them were really nice to sit behind and I’m looking forward to driving them again this year.”
An 8-year-old son of Rock N Roll Heaven, Jack Roger, owned by Katie Flaherty, provided Athearn with one of his most treasured victories to date.
The win, which came at Plainridge, was the exact opposite of a dream trip for both pacer and driver.
Thankfully, the end result was a picture-perfect finish.
“Jack Roger, he tries really hard. He went some pretty insane miles last year. The second start we had him, he was parked the whole mile, and he came back to win out of the seven-hole. It was unbelievable. He was so good, so calm and so full of heart.”
Athearn has similar praise for another pacer, a son of Artistic Fella, who is closing in on 200 career starts and 70 lifetime wins.
“I drove a horse by the name of Artful Way last year at Plainridge. It was unbelievable to drive him and see how classy he is. He’s just a really nice horse to sit behind. He was a blast to drive.”
That said, Athearn isn’t averse to continuing his association with the horses who present more of a challenge when he’s holding the reins.
He’s hoping his efforts pay off with more opportunities on the racetrack.
“I try to work at getting better drives and more drives. But I think my biggest skill is bringing the best out in horses that are tough to drive. I seem to get along with those kind of horses. I’m not sure exactly why that it is, it’s just something that seems to be a fit for me.”
Athearn will also continue to look to his parents for guidance.
Watching his mother and father go about their respective daily routines is a regular source of inspiration for the young horseman.
“My mom is an extremely hard worker. She works hard from sun up until sun down. It wasn’t so much words of advice from my parents that I recall, but more about how they led by example and how they still do. That continues to be a big thing for me. When you see how much effort they put in and how dedicated they are to the horses, it motivates me every day.”
As does Athearn’s willingness to work on what he perceives to be the biggest challenge he faces when he lines up behind the starter car.
“You have to keep very level-headed in racing. You can’t get too high or too low or it will affect how you race. It’s about staying right in the middle. I’m by far – and people around me all know it – the hardest person on myself. That’s why I try do my best to keep a level head. But when I do win a couple, it does make me feel really good. I think that’s been the biggest challenge for me, being able to understand there are things out of my control. I always seem to blame myself, even if it’s not my fault. I’m trying to teach myself to not do that.”
When he isn’t at the barn or in the sulky, Athearn, an avid fisherman, can often be found on the water.
As far as fishing stories go, the one he shares has nothing to do with the one that got away.
“I really enjoy fishing a lot. This one time, it was myself, my dad and his dad, and my brother. We all went canoeing in a little back lake. I was in the canoe with my grandfather, and we heard a big splash. We turn around and my dad and brother had fallen in the lake when they tried to wash their hands in the water. It was pretty funny. They still complain about having to swim back to shore, soaking wet, but it was funny.”
Fishing, like racing, also delivers Athearn with something he thrives on.
“It can be challenging when you are trying to catch fish. You have to remain patient and there are no guarantees that you will end up catching something. And if you do, you have to work hard to reel them in. But that’s what is so great about it.”
Just as it is to work with a hard-to-handle horse.
If a trainer does happen to have a difficult sort on his hands, Athearn is open for business.
“I would tell them, ‘I got it,’” he said with a grin.