Latham, NY --- As Mel Brooks famously said while portraying Louis the XIV in Brooks’ comedy classic `History of the World,’ “It’s good to be the king.”
There is no denying Jim Morrill, Jr.’s title as the king of the New York Sire Stakes, not after he picked up yet another award as the New York Sire Stakes Driver of the Year in 2012.
And he agrees with Brooks.
“Oh, yeah,” he laughed. “They’ve called me that for the last three, four years, ever since Wally Hennessey left the throne. I kind of took it over.”
No lie there. Morrill won three of the eight $225,000 New York Sire Stakes Finals on the Night of Champions at Yonkers Raceway, Sept. 22, with 2-year-old trotting colt Fashion Blizzard, 2-year-old filly pacer Summertime Lea and 3-year-old filly trotter Cowgirl Hall.
“That’s the best I’ve ever done,” Morrill said. “I’m rolling right along. I’m where I want to be.”
That’s in New York. And if it means constant travel through the spring, summer and early fall to compete in the New York Sire Stakes at the state’s seven harness tracks, Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Monticello Raceway, Saratoga Harness, Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs and Yonkers Raceway, that’s okay with him. He is literally the New York Sire Stakes King of the Road.
To say New York-breds have been good for his career would be quite an understatement. He won the first leg of the Trotting Triple Crown when he drove Peter Arrigenna’s 3-year-old New York-bred Archangel to victory in the Yonkers Trot in world record time, then finished fourth with him in the second leg, the $1.5 million Hambletonian. Archangel also set a track record at Batavia Downs when he won an NYSS division in 1:54.3. Batavia Downs honored Archangel with a commemorative coffee mug giveaway Nov. 21.
He was just one of the New York-breds who gave Morrill a memorable season. Winning three $225,000 New York Sire Stakes Finals in a single evening is quite an accomplishment in itself.
Then, just three weeks after the Night of Champions, on his 48th birthday, Morrill delivered a perfect drive, rallying New York-bred Bettor B Lucky to win a three-horse blanket finish in the $229,440 Lady Maud Pace for 3-year-old fillies at Yonkers.
“I love that filly,” Morrill said. “That was her first start with Lasix. She’ll be real good next year.”
Morrill’s continued success in New York is a major reason why he stands 11th in North America in driver earnings with more than $7.71 million.
He began this year ranked 29th all-time in earnings ($70,795,406) and 77th in victories (5,042). What’s amazing is that he’s achieved that lofty status despite routinely taking every winter off, a concession to his incredibly busy travel regimen the rest of the year.
“I can only do so much,” he said.
So the New York Sire Stakes Night of Champions pretty much concludes his season, though, of course, he accepts any stakes drives including the Breeders Crown eliminations and finals.
“Once the Sire Stakes is over, I go to Pocono and drive a little bit there,” Morrill said in late November. “I drive a few here and there at Buffalo and Batavia, then I pretty much shut it down for the winter. Then I start up when Saratoga opens in March.”
In other words, he has a normal life for part of every year. What does he do?
“I bought myself a new 2-Iron,” he said. “I’m going out to play golf today in Buffalo. It’s going to be 55 this afternoon.”
Golf is not his primary passion.
“I play hockey every day,” he said. “Right here in Hamburg, there’s a little arena.”
Time off in the winter allows him to have time with his family, his wife, Molly, and their three children, 24-year-old Jessica, 22-year-old Jonathan and 15-year-old Karli.
Family is important to Morrill. It always has been. He was born in Methuian, Maine, and grew up near Rockingham Park in New Hampshire.
“My father raced most of his days at Rockingham, Foxboro, Green Mountain and Hinsdale,” Morrill said. “But when I was going through high school, I wasn’t into racing. I was doing my own things, playing hockey and other sports. The horses never really came on until my hockey career ended. After I graduated, I said, `Now what?’”
His dad had the answer.
“I put together a farm with my dad,” Morrill said. “He meant the world to me. He was a great guy. I can’t say enough about him. When I started driving, he was still driving, but he stepped down and gave me everything. I lost him five years ago.”
By then, Jim Morrill Sr. had seen the great horseman his son had become. Morrill began driving at Foxboro in 1984. He moved to Maryland in the late 1980s, and became the leading driver at Rosecroft, before moving on to Yonkers in 1991, then The Meadowlands. In August 2005, Morrill relocated in western New York, where he has dominated the driver standings. On Sept.24, 2005, he set a Batavia Downs record by winning seven races in one night. A week later, he won eight. That first year, he scored with 128 of his 307 drives at Batavia, a staggering win percentage of 41.7.
Morrill posted his first million dollar year in earnings in 1992, and has topped $2 million in earnings for 13 consecutive years. Among the great horses he’s driven are Riyadh, Holborn Hanover and Silver Almahurst, and, most recently, a whole lot of top New York Sire Stakes horses.
“For the last four or five years, the Sire Stakes is where I make 60 percent to 70 percent of my money,” Morrill said. “As soon as they start, I have to go full steam with them. I have a friend of mine, Glen Goller, that helps me out a lot planning my schedule. He’s probably as knowledgeable a person as there is in the sport today.”
Morrill is one of the best drivers in the sport today. Asked if he’s happy with where his career and his life are at now, he said, “A thousand percent. I just thank God every day that I didn’t get hurt.”
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