Matty Athearn is a natural on and off the track

by Debbie Little

During the winter months, young drivers have been heating things up at The Meadowlands, and many of them have been featured on the track’s “In The Sulky” segment.

Last month Matty Athearn, 25, took his turn on set next to Meadowlands’ TV host Dave Little, and was a big hit.

Little was impressed with how comfortable Athearn was on camera (seen here).

Having spoken with Athearn by phone prior to doing the show, Little said the young reinsman was quiet and reserved but, on the set, “he blossomed and was very personable.”

According to Little, you never know how someone, even a seasoned vet of the game, will do once that red light comes on, but he was pleasantly surprised with Athearn.

“You assume that someone his age, racing on the circuits he’s been racing on, hasn’t had the kind of exposure and experience to sound as good as he did,” Little said. “There’s a lot to remember on set. You have to hold the microphone the right way, you have to look at the host but you also have to remember to look at the camera. Most people don’t remember to do all of that, but Matty was different. You’d have thought he’d been doing it for years. I understand why people call him ‘Matty Ice.’ He’s a natural.”

While Athearn is not currently looking to trade his bike for a mic, he appreciates how well his on-air appearance went and would certainly be open to possibilities in the future.

“I guess it kind of just came naturally, which is kind of weird because I am a really quiet person socially,” Athearn said. “I’m really good friends with [driver] Brett Beckwith and he’s an outgoing person and he was talking to me about how he was nervous for his “In The Sulky” because when the cameras show up he gets quiet. And I was like, ‘It’s so weird you say that, because I’m quiet and when the cameras get there, there’s no anxiety or nothing. I just kind of have a conversation.’”

Athearn grew up in harness racing in Cumberland, ME, the son of trainers Gretchen and Mark Athearn and grandson of Ed “Bamps” Rohr III.

“I was at the fairs every single day when I wasn’t in school,” Matty said. “I would be at the fairs and I was usually with my grandfather. He got my mom into the business and my aunt, Heidi Rohr, now Nickerson [married to trainer Jimmy Nickerson].

“[My grandfather] got them started in the business and that’s where my mom met my dad. As soon as I could walk, I was at the barn.”

Matty credits his parents and grandfather for giving him a great foundation.

He also wants to thank his uncle, Jimmy Nickerson, the top trainer at Plainridge Park, and every other trainer that contributed to his career year in 2023 where he proved himself to be ultra-consistent when it came to hitting the board, going 256-275-263 for 1,855 starts, good for earnings of $3,264,384.

In 2023, the Maine native recorded his 1,000th-career win. All 25 of his victories for $25,000 or more came at Plainridge Park where he banked over $2 million and finished second in wins to Bruce Ranger (152-148). Matty and Ranger are the only two drivers to earn $2 million or more in a single year in the history of Plainridge. They both passed that plateau last year, while Ranger also did it in 2021.

“[Matty’s] a great kid, from a solid family, who will go far in this business,” said Communicators Hall of Famer and standardbred owner Tim Bojarski. “He’s been driving for me for two years now and although I could have had Dexter [Dunn] on Spirit Day last year, I never even thought of making that change because I feel Matty is that good of a driver. He’s driving for me at Saratoga right now and we just won our last three starts.”

After making four winner’s circle visits at The Big M in December of 2023, Matty finally notched his first win at the East Rutherford oval in 2024 last Friday (Feb. 9) with the Per Engblom-trainee Chake.

“It was unbelievable,” Matty said. “I mean, I feel like there’s been a monkey on my back for the last couple of weeks and it feels like it didn’t matter how I drove, whether it was good or bad, so it felt good to get that one off my back.

“I had a lot of good seconds, thirds, even fourths, just getting beat by a length… And sometimes you wonder, ‘Could I have done this better to win the race?’”

According to Matty, his success in 2023 has taught him to be patient, present and appreciative.

“Last year, I really struggled with letting races go and flipping the page and then these last probably six months or so, I’ve kind of gotten a lot better at learning that if I stay in the past and dwell on it, it’s just going to keep bothering me and keep hindering my performance later on,” he said. “The first couple of weekends I was [at The Big M in December], I was driving in every race and it wasn’t the greatest of power, but it was just great to be in every race. And now these last two Fridays, I’ve gotten to drive a lot for Per and it’s been unbelievable to sit behind those horses. They are just a different caliber and it definitely helps having a trainer like Per or, a Nifty Norman or just a bigger trainer, get behind you and help you out.”

Matty recognizes that success at The Meadowlands can open doors in the future and he hopes his driving will make that happen.

“I’m not really somebody that calls the trainers every day and tries to almost bully myself into getting drives,” said Matty, adding with a laugh. “I kind of let my driving do more of the talking than my actual mouth.

“I’d like the trainers to pick me for being a good driver, not for just being a chatty person that works their way into drives by talking. It’s easier if you drive and make yourself look good and then you talk instead of talking and you don’t drive good and look bad.”

Driver Jason Bartlett, who is first call for Engblom at The Meadowlands, is also from Maine and is proud of how Matty is representing their home state.

“Matty Athearn is putting his time in,” Bartlett said. “He’s another Mainer. I’m really, really happy to see that he came down here [to The Meadowlands] and is having the success that he’s having. He’s putting the work in so he’s going to get his opportunities to make it.”