Northfield Park plays as fast as its top driver Aaron Merriman

by Brett Sturman

Aaron Merriman may be sad to see December come to a close. It’s been a period of milestones and streaks for the top driver, with special regard to his performances at Northfield Park.

For the nation’s perennial dash-winning driver, this year will be no exception. Aaron Merriman currently sits with 832 wins on the year, nearly 200 wins better than his closest fellow and routine competitor, Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. Of Merriman’s wins, 18 came from two separate racing nights one week apart.

Beginning first on Dec. 6, Merriman won nine of 15 races on that Wednesday evening card at Northfield. Exactly one week later, on Dec. 13, he accomplished the same feat. Merriman kicked off that card with four wins in the first four races, won the eighth, the 10th, and then ran off wins in the last three races of the night to get to nine. Both nights were one shy of his Northfield record of 10 wins on a single card, set in 2019 the year following his win as USHWA Driver of the Year in 2018.

While many of Merriman’s wins at Northfield come when racing on the front-end as is customary with half-mile racing, there’s been plenty of more adventurous ones that you’d expect coming from the track dubbed as ‘Home of the Flying Turns.’

From that Dec.13 card, Merriman won with three different horses that were racing three-wide prior to the three-quarters point in the race. One of those horses was parked in eighth by the opening quarter and still won; it’s something you just don’t see often at any other track of that size. Days earlier from Dec. 10, even a small six-horse field (which quickly became five following the early break of one) didn’t stop the race action from being fast and furious. In race three that night, Merriman was already second-over into the flow before the half-mile with a relative longshot in the field of odds at 9-2. He swept three-wide to clear off to the lead by many lengths past three-quarters, only to then break stride and come back to the field, gather himself back again before yet another break at the top of the stretch, only to then rally for about a fourth time and still win.

Whether the style of racing at Northfield is a function of the track itself or the mentality of the Ohio-based driving colony, Merriman said, “It may be a combination of both, but the track was redone in August and it’s much different than it was before, it’s not exactly what it used to be.”

He said he is still figuring out the newer version of the track.

“I’m going to be aggressive for the most part and you have to on a half-mile track, but especially lately with the track being redone, it’s not as run-and-gun as it was, so you have to finesse it sometimes, too.”

Another unique aspect of the track is Northfield’s willingness to race in wintry conditions when safety allows for it; something most other tracks have long forsaken. Such was the case this past Monday when Northfield gave it a go following some delays for track maintenance in blizzard-like conditions for eight races; three of which were won by Merriman.

“Seeing through the snow can be more difficult,” said Merriman, when asked about what it’s like to drive in those conditions.

“If you’re wearing screens they can get bogged up, and if you’re wearing goggles it would look the same way as if you were driving down the road without windshield wipers. The snow itself doesn’t bother me and it doesn’t really bother the horses. We live in Northeast Ohio so it’s something that we’re used to and it’s to be expected.”

Separately, Merriman noted that Monday’s cancellation may have had more to do with standing time considerations to the horses more so than racing conditions.

Towards the end of last month, Merriman surpassed the legendary Herve Filion for third place in all-time driver wins. As Merriman continues his climb and isn’t too far away from Tony Morgan who sits in second, he isn’t particularly motivated by longer-term goals.

“My goal is the next race. I want to try to get the best I can in every single race. And I feel like I still have work to do, so the accolades are nice and one day I’ll reflect.

“Now, the Driver of the Year award from 2018, that was just phenomenal. I think mostly, just because of my area, and I felt like I won that for all the overnight horses and the guys that race them day in and day out. I don’t think it was just a ‘me’ award.”

In that award-winning year, Merriman won over $10 million in purses to go with his dash title. This year, Merriman will post over $9 million in purses earned. It is his second best purse year ever.