As the son of trainer/driver Ron Wrenn, Sr., nephew of driver Peter Wrenn (who has more than 9,100 wins) and nephew of driver/trainer Gary Wrenn, young Ronnie didn’t live around the stables all during childhood and adolescence.
He did so as a very young boy but when his dad took a break from the sport Ronnie did too. He discovered baseball and football and was a standout in both. He played junior college baseball and also played fall ball for one year at a four-year program before the family bug came back to bite him.
|USTA/Ed Keys photo|
|Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. is currently leading all drivers in North America with 499 wins.|
After working for his aunt and uncle in his late teens, Ronnie decided he wanted to drive, much to the surprise of his dad. In just five short years he has more than 1,000 wins, getting the 1,000th on Aug. 13 with Muckmuck Woodchuck at Northfield Park near Cleveland.
Last year, Wrenn won 437 races, which he has easily surpassed this season. A Michigan native, Wrenn decided to base himself in Ohio. This year, he leads all of North America with a career-high 499 wins, which has him 22 ahead of Dave Palone. He has earned a career-best $2 million in purses. He is the leading driver at Northfield Park and was among the leaders at Scioto Downs and Raceway Park.
Wrenn is also approaching a degree in criminal law. He is one semester and one internship short of achieving that, but has put it on hold due to a busy racing schedule.
Ronnie took time out from his busy schedule to chat with ustrotting.com about his breakout season, his influences and what he hopes for in the future.
USTA: So let’s talk about the year you’re having so far. You’ve already got a career high in victories and you have a shot at winning the driver’s title this year. What’s been the key?
RW: I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot better throughout the year. I haven’t really been driving that long, I’ve driven for a few years and you learn something new every day, every race.
I’ve been fortunate to drive with some good trainers and good horses, but just getting acclimated to the different tracks that I race at. Like Northfield’s a half-mile, then you have (Scioto) at five-eighths, you’ll have a strategy for each track. They’re all different. On a half it usually works to be a little more aggressive, on a bigger track you don’t really have to be, you just sit back more. Those are a few things that help now.
USTA: Those are pretty much things you can’t be taught I guess. You just have to get the experience.
USTA: What would it mean to you to win that driver’s title? Do you think about it much or are you too in the moment to worry about it?
RW: Throughout the year I wasn’t really thinking about it. Now that I’m leading the nation in wins by whatever it is, 20 wins or whatever, I’ll definitely give it a shot now. If it happens it happens if it doesn’t it doesn’t.
At this point of the year I might as well go for it. You never know next year, whatever, I might want to focus more on money. My far right column is only two million. I’d like to get that up the next year or two. Some of the guys in the top 10, I have more wins than them but they’ve got a helluva lot more money.
It should help too with Northfield’s casino opening up in December. The money should increase in the state. But right now I’m really just worried about winning. I’m young and there’s no better way to showcase yourself than to win. That’s what the top trainers look for.
I mean, two million is not bad. Definitely coming from Michigan, that would be a huge year because the purses have been down in that state for so long.
I’m not going to lose sleep if I don’t win the driver’s title. I’m a pretty competitive person like everyone is in this business, but at this point I’m definitely going to give it a shot. I might as well. Last weekend I went down to Colonial because Northfield doesn’t race for the weekend, Scioto is done for the year. I’m just trying to find a place to race.
I might consider going over to The Meadows in the next month or so, try and give that a shot. I was over there earlier, before Scioto opened, driving a few, just trying to get my feet in the door. I wouldn’t mind driving over there again.
USTA: You’ve already had more drives this year than last year. Has that changed your approach with anything?
RW: I think it just comes with just racing. Last year I don’t think I raced as many days, this year my schedule just picked up. It just kind of worked out that way because I decided to move to Ohio. I was racing at Northfield three days a week and Scioto another three. I would go back to Michigan Sundays and race Toledo Sunday night.
USTA: You came on pretty strong at the end of last season. Did the confidence you gained carry over into this year?
RW: Yeah, I was really lucky when I came down to Northfield last September, the first night I was there I think I had a pretty good night. I won three and drove like, six. Any time you go to a new track, it’s really important, I think, to start off on the right foot. It’s one thing if you’re well known and you go to Northfield and have a bad night the first night I don’t think it’s really going to hurt you. But with someone you don’t really know, it’s important to start off good, better trainers give you a shot. If you don’t start off good, sometimes you get stuck with the long shots.
I think that kind of helped me out a little bit. I had a really good run at Northfield last fall and winter and that transitioned into this year.
USTA: Included this year was your 1,000th win in August. Have you had time to digest that number yet?
RW: As long as I’ve been driving, I guess I did it pretty quick. I jogged my first horse when I was 20 years old. So with how inexperienced I was to now and how much more experienced I am, it’s pretty crazy.
I can still remember my first win like it’s yesterday. It’s crazy as time goes by and the wins add up. I don’t know how many I have now but it feels like if I continue to stay healthy and put horses in the right position I might get to 2,000 faster than I got to 1,000, which would be cool.
Stats are definitely important in this business, a lot of people look at them, whether it’s the horse, the driver, the trainer, whatever. But the most important thing is to just try to win. But it’s something I like to do. I think everyone in this business, driver-wise, if you don’t want to win you wouldn’t do it. We’re all competitive. Every time I go out there I think I’m going to give the horse a shot to win.
USTA: Do you think being Peter and Gary Wrenn’s nephew and Ron Wrenn’s son has helped advance your career, or can that work against you at times?
RW: It’s definitely not hurt. I think it’s helped, especially when I was younger. I don’t know for sure, but maybe some people gave me a shot to drive their horse when I was really inexperienced because I was Pete and Gary’s nephew and Ron was my dad, since he was a well known driver back in the ’70s and did really well back in Michigan. I’m sure that was the case in some situations, but now, the last year or two, I think I’ve kind of earned it myself, really.
USTA: Yeah, you’ve definitely made a name for yourself, but it was nice to have a little help at the start.
RW: For sure. I still talk to my dad every day and talk to my uncles a few times a week, whether it’s horses or whatever. They still kind of mentor me. You can never learn enough in this business especially driver-wise. You can learn something every single race, especially just racing at different tracks, racing against a lot of different drivers, different styles. Learn the horses and the drivers. If I have questions they usually have the answer. They’ve been there, done that.
Even my mom (Mary), I guess they have the racing network where they can watch any track and I guess she sits at home and watches it. They pretty much know what I’ve done before I can come home and tell them how I did.
USTA: So they’re already correcting you before you can even ask for help.
RW: (laughing) Right. I would hear “Why’d you do that last night?” or “You had a pretty good night last night.” I’m all ready to tell them how I did and there goes that whole thing. That’s cool. I guess my mom’s still my biggest fan. Even though she doesn’t get down to Ohio much from Michigan she sees the races.
USTA: A lot of guys like you, who come from a harness racing background, say that they were immersed in racing and horses from the start because of their family. But you didn’t get going until you were around 20. I know you played other sports, but did you ever spend much time around the horses as a kid?
RW: When I was little, like real young, I ran around with the horses, I was in the barn, my parents were involved and I think my dad got out of it for a little bit. I started getting into sports so the last thing I wanted to do was go to the barn, I just wanted to play sports.
I remember when I was 19 I went to a fair up north in Michigan. I think I was delivering pizzas at the time and I wanted to take out a second job. I talked to my Aunt Melanie (Peter Wrenn’s wife) and said “Hey can I come clean stalls, help out, maybe learn to jog the horses?” That’s when I had like, no idea. But she said yeah.
Within a month I started working for them, just started jogging, went to the track paddocks and started to really get kind of a passion for the sport. I wanted to learn a lot more. But I didn’t want to just clean stalls and jog horses. I wanted to start training or start racing. Before long I got my license, I raced my first race, I won my first three races at fairs.
Then I went to Hazel Park, and it just went from there. I started off real fast and real good, then it got rough for a while. Any time you’re a young driver and start driving it’s definitely going to be rough before it gets good. You’re not going to get much respect on the track and you’re not going to get a lot of power. But it changed pretty quick.
USTA: All you’ve got to do is win, right?
RW: (laughing) Yeah, really. That’s the bottom line. But it’s definitely easier said than done.
USTA: So you were a running back and safety in football, and a center fielder in baseball. What were your chances of playing either one in college?
RW: I could have probably played Division II for football and baseball but I chose to stay with baseball after high school. Just like most drivers, I’m only 5-11, 160. I was probably better off to go into baseball, because I didn’t have a build for football.
I liked football more, I was aggressive. But when you’re tough and aggressive in high school you can be a good ball player. But in college you’re going against 6-2 and 240 guys, so you have to be a little bigger too. So I went the baseball route. I was pretty good, but it’s crazy now. I used to play sports every day, now I’m in a new sport, I guess all I have time to play is co-ed softball.
I played baseball in junior college. It’s not that I didn’t want to play those other sports but I just developed a new passion. It’s worked out so I’m not really regretting it.
USTA: A story in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer says you were sitting at a computer doing school work when all of a sudden you told your dad you wanted to drive. What clicked in your mind?
RW: That was during the time I was working for my aunt and uncle and living at home. I don’t know, I think we were talking about horses, my dad came down to my room, I was on the computer doing school work. I just looked at him, I don’t really remember what we were talking about, I know it had something to do with horses, and I said “I want to start driving.”
He looked at me like I was crazy, like “Yeah right. You don’t have the slightest clue how to race a horse or train one.” I said “I’m serious, I want to do it.” He said stay in school, work for your uncle, work on getting a fair license. He probably thought I was just going to go do that, race Michigan fairs and go get a degree. But it kind of seemed to work out.
USTA: (laughing) Yeah, I would say so. You’re hardly a one dimensional guy. Is driving in your long-range plans, or what do you foresee for yourself?
RW: I don’t intend to slow down at all. I like what I do, I have a pretty busy schedule. I hope to just be able to stay in Ohio, unless I have the opportunity to go East, I’d for sure go. But I don’t feel like driving all over the place if I don’t have to. I’d like to just base myself in Ohio and just race at the different tracks here.
If the opportunity presented itself and I could go East and drive with a top trainer I’d probably for sure do it. I’m pretty happy where I am. I live in Columbus, that’s the central location where all the tracks are; I don’t think I’m gonna change any of my plans any time soon.
USTA: That’s about it Ronnie, unless you have anything else to add.
RW: I think we covered it all. Thanks for interviewing me.