Mark Herschberger’s career is blossoming in the Garden State

by Debbie Little

On Saturday (June 1), Mark Herschberger won his fourth race at The Meadowlands, driving the Ron Burke-trained Canigetalouploup (49-1) to a nose win in a career-best 1:50.1.

Coming out on top at “The Mecca of Harness Racing” is always special, but the circumstances surrounding this particular victory made it more so.

Herschberger, who turned 29 in April, didn’t find out he was driving the 3-year-old filly until around 4 p.m. on the afternoon of the race in a text from Meadowlands associate judge Jim Grow.

Initially Patrick Ryder was listed on Canigetalouploup. However, Herschberger said since Ryder’s father, Chris, also had a horse in the race, the judges determined that someone else should sit behind Canigetalouploup.

According to Herschberger, Grow’s text said he needed to make a driver change on Canigetalouploup, and when Grow called Burke to find out who he wanted, Ronnie said: “Put the Herschberger kid up.”

This was a surreal moment for Herschberger, who is only in his second full year of driving horses.

“It made me feel very good, actually,” Herschberger said. “I don’t know, words can’t really describe it. I was floored when I found out [Burke] asked for me.”

When asked why he chose Herschberger, Burke said with a laugh, “I recognized his name.”

Burke went on to say that “[Herschberger] did a great job,” and he would consider using him again in similar circumstances.

There’s no question that the opportunity to drive Canigetalouploup, perhaps in large part, came about because several Meadowlands drivers were north of the border at Woodbine Mohawk Park for stakes races, including the Somebeachsomewhere.

For Herschberger, it wasn’t about how he got the drive as much as what he did with the opportunity.

This was only the second start of the year for the daughter of Sweet Lou—Continual Velocity, so Herschberger immediately watched the replay from her 2024 debut race at The Meadows on May 17.

“Ronnie Wrenn drove her and she made a nasty break behind the gate and it looked like he pretty much just put her up on the gate and ended up doubling her up,” Herschberger said.

The game plan for Canigetalouploup last week was for Herschberger to take her off the gate and have pace to the wire, but apparently the filly didn’t get the memo.

“She wasn’t having any part of that,” Herschberger said. “She was a little fussy in her mouth and didn’t really want me to get into her mouth so much at all. So, I just kind of let her do her thing out there.

“There were some good horses in there. I mean, [Jason] Bartlett felt like his horse [Bath Bomb] should have beat me. We talked about it after the race and he said his horse wasn’t exactly right. It was running in a touch down the lane there. And I got lucky to keep Andrew McCarthy [with Sweet Gal] locked in until late. He was coming on pretty late there and I think if we had one more foot of track, I think he would have got me. But, you know, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I guess that’s what they always say.”

Herschberger, McCarthy and Bartlett finished three across the track with less than a length separating them.

As a horseman just starting out, Herschberger takes every opportunity, when presented, to learn from the top drivers at The Meadowlands.

“Guys like Dexter Dunn, Andrew McCarthy, even my uncle, Andy Miller, I pay attention to all those guys, even just the way they hold their hands or hold their whip,” Herschberger said. “Just the smallest things I try to pay attention to and take something from them and I feel like that’s helped me because, to tell you the truth, I haven’t had a coach to teach me how to drive and how to read a race program.

“Saturday night, I got to sit with [Jason Bartlett] most of the night and just talk over every race we were in and after the race got to talk over what I could have done better.”

Bartlett said he remembers talking with Herschberger about Canigetalouploup.

“He was a little nervous driving that [filly] because her mouth was a little funny and he’s like ‘They’re trying to tell me to do one thing and I had to do the other thing but it worked out,’” Bartlett said. “Which was good that he adjusted on the fly with that particular horse. I know he had instructions to do one thing and he had to do the other and it did work out, which was good.

“To tell you the truth, I thought he had more experience than that by watching him drive. You know what I mean? It’s kind of surprising that he’s only been driving since [2022] for two years. He acts like he’s been out there a lot more than that.”

Herschberger hopes to get more opportunities this weekend and next as several top Meadowlands drivers will again head to Mohawk for the eliminations and finals of the North America Cup.

He’s got five drives tonight including one for Burke and eight on Saturday, including two morning line favorites, one of which is for Alagna.

Herschberger already has more wins (33) and money earned ($214,009) this year than in 2023 (27 and $187,151), which was his first full year driving. He had 12 starts with one win in 2022 on the Indiana Sired Fair Circuit when he worked for trainer Joe Putnam before moving to the East Coast at the end of August, 2023.

Despite the fact that he didn’t realize how much he loved harness racing until about seven years ago while working for his uncle, Erv Miller, he grew up around horses, just not always standardbreds.

Herschberger currently works for trainer Andrew Harris and helps out, when he can, trainers Paul Jessop and Laurie Molnar, dad and stepmom of his fiancé, Brittany Jessop.

Harris said Herschberger had good references when he hired him last year.

“He’s just got a real mild-mannered approach,” Harris said. “He shows up every day, he’s got a pretty good attitude and he’s just good on the horses. That’s a major part for me. If you’re going to ride, you gotta be good on the horses.”

Harris was aware that Herschberger wanted to be a driver when he hired him and works with him should he need to leave early to race.

“Mark’s starting off the bench and that’s a lot harder of an operation,” Harris said. “He’s got a much bigger hill to climb than a Brett Beckwith. Brett started out with a much, much better situation where he’s got Saratoga and he’s got Plainridge. Mark was doing great just doing Freehold, but now, he’s starting to go up against [the top guys at] The Meadowlands, and that’s a tough hill to climb.

“[Since Freehold closed for a few weeks], The Meadowlands has been writing a lot of Freehold classes and he’s gotten to a good reputation at Freehold now. So, a lot of those Freehold horses showed up in those Freehold classes at The Meadowlands and they were good horses in there for him.”

Only once in 33 starts at The Big M this year did Herschberger drive the favorite. In fact, 75 per cent of the time he drove a horse that was double digits, with most of them at odds of 30-1 or more with two that were even in triple digits. Even with driving all those bombs, he still managed to hit the board a respectable 27 per cent of the time.

Herschberger said he appreciates every trainer and owner that has taken a chance on him.

“I’m just trying to keep Andrew [Harris] happy and trying to pursue my career as well,” Herschberger said. “It’s a bit of a grind right now, which I think every driver had to kind of start this way unless you were born into it. Those guys kind of have a leg up on me because they don’t need the paycheck as much and they can get out of the barn to go drive.

“But I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything. I feel like I’ve earned it and built all the relationships on my own and not really taken any handouts.”