Jason Bartlett and Per Engblom are heating up the winter on both sides of the Hudson

The driver-trainer combo is topping the standings at both The Meadowlands and Yonkers Raceway.

by Debbie Little

As The Meadowlands winter meet continues to heat up, nothing has been hotter than the combination of driver Jason Bartlett and trainer Per Engblom.

The pair is coming off a successful 2023 Yonkers campaign that saw them take home year-end honors as top driver (Bartlett’s 12th title) and trainer (Engblom’s first), respectively. Bartlett had 500 wins at the New York half-mile oval, almost 200 more than George Brennan, while Engblom finished with 231 victories, almost 100 more than Ron Burke. At The Meadowlands in 2023, Bartlett finished 11th with 30 wins and Engblom finished third with 38.

It may be a new year, but the story is mostly the same, as the prosperous pair again sits atop the standings at the Hilltop Oval. However, this year there’s an added bonus — they’re also leading at The Meadowlands.

Bartlett, 42, who typically only drives at The Big M on Saturday nights — since Yonkers races a Monday-Friday schedule at this time of year — was surprised to hear he’s leading the way at the winter meet.

“No, I didn’t realize that,” Bartlett said. “I’ve only been there one day a week. I thought I might be near the top of the list, but I didn’t think I was No. 1. Anytime you can race at The Meadowlands, it’s always a good time. If you win one race or two races during the weekend, every win just seems special under the lights. So, you know, I really enjoy going over there.

“It’s a little bit of a change of pace for me, you know, going from a half [at Yonkers] to a mile [at The Meadowlands] and it’s just good to do something a little different on the weekends.”

No matter the track size, Engblom is confident in Bartlett’s abilities.

“Jason is a good enough driver to get around any track,” Engblom said. “You know, obviously, Yonkers has been his home track for a long, long time now, but I’ve got no doubt in my mind he can drive with the best at any track on this continent.”

Engblom, 43, has been training his own stable since 2019, after his mentor and former boss, Hall of Fame conditioner Jimmy Takter, retired at the end of 2018.

Engblom hooked up with Bartlett a few years ago at Yonkers when the trainer was racing a couple of young stakes-caliber trotters.

“I wanted Jason to drive them because I think he’s the best driver over there and he’s a good fit for my horses and he did well with them,” Engblom said. “And then, obviously, when I brought more horses over, I tried to get him as often as I could.

“It takes an aggressive driver to put them in position [at Yonkers] and, well, anywhere you race, basically. Nowadays, you have to put them in position and that’s his game and I think he’s just great at it. Plus, he’s very, very knowledgeable about the horses in the races. He knows them all and tries to get them all in position to race as good as they can. And he knows the competition and I know he does his homework before he gets to the races and that’s half the battle sometimes.”

Bartlett said everyone is aware of his style of driving, and he owns it.

“You know what, I am who I am,” Bartlett said. “I’m known to be a very aggressive driver, but I know the horses. I’ve driven around these horses enough and for me, I think, knowing the horses is probably the most important thing. Driving against them all the time and whether it’s a half or a mile, you still got to know your competition and I believe that I’m very, very good at that.

“So, going over [to The Meadowlands], I’m aggressive, so I’m always going to try to put my horses in play.”

Bartlett remembers meeting Engblom during his aforementioned Takter time and thinks the two trainers share the same kind of work ethic.

“At times, I’ve got to tell him to slow down; I’m like ‘Per, do you ever sleep?’” Bartlett said with a laugh. “He’s so hard working. He’s at the barn all day and then he’s coming to the races to warm up… He’s a hard worker and he deserves all the success that he’s having right now because he does put his time in, that’s for sure. And you know what, it’s a great family thing, too. His brother [Petter] is there and his wife [Helene], which is great.”

Spending over a decade on top at Yonkers has taught Bartlett a lot.

“At first when I heard George [Brennan] and Brian [Sears] were coming over [to race at Yonkers regularly], I was like, ‘Ugh.’ But I’ll tell you what, the best thing that could ever happen to me was getting knocked down. I thought I could drive a horse until I drove against those two. I learned so much driving with those guys. It really changed my career for the better, for sure.

“You know, I thought I was a pretty good driver but I wasn’t even close. Those guys were beating me every which way. It didn’t matter if they were on the front, first over, they were just beating me every single night. And I’m like, ‘Oh my Lord, I better start studying and watching those guys.’ I learned just so much going against those guys and, you know, to this day, I still learn from driving against George and Brian.”

Prior to Yonkers opening up for the season on Jan. 22, Bartlett drove both Friday and Saturday night (Jan. 19-20) at The Meadowlands and it turned out to be his most productive weekend there ever. The Maine native scored nine wins — five on Friday, four on Saturday — in 21 attempts, for an incredible win percentage of 43, while hitting the board 76 per cent of the time. Five of those nine wins were for Engblom.

Despite how well Bartlett’s done recently, and over the years, he continues to hone his craft.

“I don’t think you can ever master this,” he said. “You always have to be pivoting… I’m always trying to learn and critiquing myself every single night, every single race, trying to get myself better and not be complacent with winning five races a night because the next night you could get shut out.”

To keep his mind and his body in proper shape, Bartlett and his wife, Kristen, do CrossFit every day. And as if his schedule wasn’t packed enough with driving six nights a week, on Saturday mornings, he and his wife both coach youth basketball in their hometown of Goshen, NY.

Engblom, who currently has about 100 horses in his barn, hopes to strike a good balance this year between stakes and overnight races.

“The last two years, I haven’t had much stakes power, but my overnight horses have been racing so good, so, I’m just hoping that we build off of that,” Engblom said. “We bought in on a couple of really nice 4-year-olds and we’ve got a few more 3-year-olds. The dream is, of course, that we’re going to be competitive way more on the Grand Circuit than what we’ve been the last couple of years and I sure hope that Jason is going to be a part of it.

“I feel very confident when Jason drives my horses. So that’s really part of the game, too, that I feel confident with him and that he feels confident when he goes out with my horses on the track. If you go out there and you don’t feel confident and you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m chasing a check here,’ well, then you’re chasing a check and it’s going to be hard to win the race.”