Owner/trainer/driver John Calabrese continues to prove it all night

by Debbie Little

As a teenager growin’ up in the ’70s in New Jersey, three things were important to John Calabrese: harness racing, Bruce Springsteen, and the New York Football Giants.

Calabrese, the Dan Patch Amateur Driver of the Year for 2023, had never seen a harness race before they built The Meadowlands a few towns away from where he grew up in Bergen County.

“It was a big thing,” Calabrese said of the construction of The Big M. “I watched them build it all through high school. You could sit in the back of the history department and watch them put the steel up.”

Calabrese admits that at that time he was more interested in the football stadium that was being built across the parking lot from the racetrack, because he was a Giants fan.

“We all went to Opening Night at The Meadowlands [in 1976], and then I started working there maybe a year later,” he said.

Calabrese, who was born 10 years and one day after his hero, Bruce Springsteen, also saw the Giants christen their stadium a month after The Meadowlands opened.

“I may have been a senior in high school, but I started working there on Opening Day at Giants Stadium,” he said.

Calabrese sold hot dogs at Giants Stadium so that he could get into the games for free.

He eventually did a similar job at The Meadowlands.

“I worked there when they built [Paddock] Park because when the track first opened, there was no park,” he said.

Calabrese, who will be the guest on The Meadowlands’ pregame show’s “In The Sulky” segment on Saturday night (March 30), is proud of his accomplishments at the mile oval. One in particular that stands out is when a 20-year-old Calabrese saw Niatross compete.

“In the summer of 1980, [Niatross] was in the Oliver Wendell Holmes,” Calabrese said. “They gave out posters and I think there were 42,000 people there that night. They actually opened up the gates early that night for some reason and it was packed.”

Calabrese was manning his hot dog cart on the macadam near the building, not far from the winner’s circle.

“I had a line of 20 people from the time I walked out there to the time I was done,” he said.

At the end of the night, Calabrese had sold 1,042 hot dogs, a record that still stands.

“So, for everybody that has a track record at The Meadowlands, I have one, too,” he said with a laugh.

Even though he was exceptionally busy that night, Calabrese still got to watch Niatross — his favorite horse — race and win.

“I could sell and look at the same time,” he said with a laugh. “The people [on line] would want to watch the race, too, so it was almost like you took a minute break from working when he got past the half and watched him come down the lane.

“I had the greatest seat in the house for three or four years, you know.”

Niatross is still Calabrese’s favorite horse.

“I think he’s still the greatest horse ever,” he said. “It’s not like today. He went everywhere. Half miles, two heats.”

Unlike many amateur drivers who also have full-time jobs as doctors or lawyers, Calabrese is all about harness racing.

He owns a couple of horses that he also trains and has a farm where residents of nearby Magical Acres (Chesterfield, NJ) turn out horses in his paddocks.

He was started in the business by his dad.

“My father talked about getting a horse,” he said. “So, that’s why I went onto the backstretch to learn what’s going on and then we started buying.”

“I’m pretty sure [our first horse] was Triple Coup from Larry Remmen.”

When he was starting out, in addition to taking care of a couple of his own, Calabrese helped train horses in the morning for the Remmens, Noel Daley, Jim Campbell and Chris Ryder.

“I worked for Chucky [Sylvester] for three years,” Calabrese said. “I never had a trotter until I worked for Chucky. When I started with him, I had those things on the run all over the place and now that’s all I buy.

“You want to learn about trotters, go work for Chucky for a couple of years. He was amazing. He would just answer anything you wanted. And then when I started buying trotters, he gave me a lot of help.”

As the reigning Amateur Driver of the Year, Calabrese is afforded the honor to represent the United States at the World Championship for Amateur Drivers (World Cup), which will be held in August in Finland.

When Calabrese was chosen, Joe Faraldo, president of the North American Amateur Drivers Association (NAADA), explained why he thought Calabrese was a good selection.

“His UDRS, driving horses he never sat behind before, driving on the lead and from behind, all around good horseman, and very good all-around driver, period,” Faraldo said. “He will make a good rep at the upcoming World Cup.”

Calabrese was ultra-consistent in 2023, hitting the board in 48 per cent of his drives. That consistency has carried over to 2024, where he’s now hitting the board 56 per cent of the time and has four wins in five starts at The Meadowlands.

In the 30-year history of the Amateur Driver of the Year award, only Hannah Miller and Dein Spriggs have won it in back-to-back years. Calabrese would like to make that number three.

“The last few years, I’ve worked harder than ever,” Calabrese said. “I put more miles on my truck in the last three years doing this amateur driving.”

Calabrese’s hard work has paid off, culminating in a career year in 2023.

At 64, he said he wants to start slowing down a little but the thought of winning the title again is on his mind.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be this year or next year, but I’m going to start cutting back and enjoying life a little bit because it’s been more than I’ve done in my whole career of horses.

“But I do want to repeat.”