Fresh faces driving The Meadowlands in December

by Brett Sturman

Winter in recent years has traditionally been a time at The Meadowlands that allows opportunities for newer and upcoming drivers. With some of the top horsepeople away or elsewhere, fresh faces have been able to fill the void and, in some cases, use the experience to continue in their career trajectory.

This year, the landscape looks more different than most. In both the driving and training colonies that have formed at The Meadowlands this December, a slew of new names has become key players since this same time last year.

Starting with the drivers, last year’s Driver of the Year Dexter Dunn led the way in December of 2022 with 21 Big M wins from 75 starts. He, along with top-level drivers Joe Bongiorno, Todd McCarthy and the freshly-named 2023 Driver of the Year Scott Zeron, who all raced last December at The Meadowlands, have not raced there at all this month. Yannick Gingras, who tied Dunn with 75 starts last December has raced at The Meadowlands this month, albeit at a lesser rate than last year.

Leading the drivers this year heading into the final weekend of the month is 26-year-old Jonathan Ahle. With 13 wins from 76 starts in December, Ahle sat three wins ahead of three other drivers tied with 10 wins. Ahle did drive at The Meadowlands last December, but during that month he was winless in 22 starts. The month he is having this year is emblematic of his entire 2023 year.

With 2022 being essentially Ahle’s first year driving on a wide-scale basis, he drove winners of over $550,000 with 45 wins in 612 starts. This year, he’s won over 300 races at tracks across Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, earning over $3 million in purses while starting close to 2,300 times. With five wins at The Meadowlands this year prior to December, he’s turned it on in a big way in recent weeks.

Currently tied for second in the month of December is Braxten Boyd. Even younger than Ahle at age 23, Boyd didn’t even race at The Meadowlands this time last year. Of his 21 Meadowlands wins this year, nearly half of them (10) have come this month alone. For the Michigan native, 2023 built on a strong 2022 of being able to drive routinely against some of the sport’s best and get his share of attempts in big races. Like last year, he’s going to finish this year with earnings in the high $3 million range with over 250 winners.

Another driver that’s made an impression who only had two races at The Meadowlands prior to this month is young Delaware-based Barton Dalious. He’s gone over $1 million in earnings this year for the first time while continuing a sharp trend upward in all major statistical categories for the fourth straight year. With five wins from 32 starts in December, Dalious joins other rising stars such as Tyler Miller and Brett Beckwith; both of whom did race at The Meadowlands last December but have seen their stock rise this year with far more drives and wins this time around.

For the trainers, the shift to the number of new faces isn’t as profound as on the drivers’ side, but it’s still a change from last year.

Travis Alexander led the way in December wins last year with six of those in 22 starts, and this year he’s been only seldom seen with five starters. The third-leading trainer last December was Jennifer Bongiorno. But she hasn’t been able to race at The Meadowlands as a result of being on track’s exclusion list — with many others — which went into effect on Dec. 1.

Jennifer has been replaced near the top by newcomer trainer Michael Meza. Not having a listed start as a trainer prior to this year, Meza is 31-for-95 overall. In December alone at The Meadowlands, Meza is seven-for-17. His trainees Snap Call and Saulsbrook Raptor, both December acquisitions, have paired up to combine for four of the seven wins. Meza trails only Ron Burke in the December win category at The Meadowlands. Trainer Izzy Estrada is also having a notable month. He has raced at The Meadowlands throughout the year and has been reliable, but didn’t race at all at the track this month last year.

In the latest example of a driving and training colony not being a predominant factor in track handle, wagering at The Meadowlands this December is nearly identical to that from the same period year-over-year. One would think there may be a drop in handle not necessarily due to the difference in perceived talent between the very best drivers and the very new ones, but simply because of the unknown, and also how those drivers will perform at The Meadowlands when paired with less familiar trainers.

Assuming Saturday’s (Dec. 30) card goes over $3 million — and by current industry and Meadowlands trends it will — it will mean every Saturday card during December, except one, reached that $3 million benchmark. Only the Dec. 23 card fell just short of that number, coming in at $2,919,478.

As the winter moves forward and the more well-established drivers return, The Meadowlands will look more like it does throughout the rest of the year. But that will only be after these younger faces have had a chance to make their winter mark, and with any luck may be seen again at the track on even bigger stages.