The 41-year-old driver, based at The Meadows, is second in the 2014 win standings at the western Pennsylvania track and tied for fifth in North America. He has 38 victories as January comes to an end.
“It’s been good trainers, good horses and putting them in the right spot,” Wilder said. “It all happened so fast this year. I try not to dwell on it.
“I want it to continue but I try not to get too psycho about it. I’m just doing my thing. Every race is another race; I try to do the best I can.”
|Mike Wilder is off to a great start in 2014.|
Mike is coming off a strong finish last year when he averaged around 33 wins per month from September through the end of the season (after averaging 25 the first eight months). The surge started after he won his 6,000th race on Sept. 4. That helped him to one of his best years in wins (331) and third best for money ($3.76 million).
“I had a great finish last year,” he said. “I said to myself at the end of the year ‘I wish this was the beginning of the year.’ I was getting 10, 11 wins a week. Now I’ve started over and kept it up.
“This is probably my best start since I left Ohio (in 2000). I’ve got a lot of nice horses to drive and I got off to a great start. Everybody goes back to zero when the season starts. I couldn’t be happier right now. If I could do this every month I’d be happy.”
It should be no surprise that he is second at The Meadows, considering that is where Dave Palone calls home. Palone is North American harness racing’s winningest all-time driver and the perennial leader at The Meadows.
But there is no bad blood or jealousy between him and Wilder. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The two own nearby farms an hour south of Pittsburgh in Washington, Pa., and Mike can see Dave’s barn from his own. Their kids cut through the woods to play together, and the two drivers and their wives car pool them to school each day.
“We have a great relationship,” Wilder said. “He’s a class act, a Hall of Famer, you could just go on and on about Dave.
“He’s such a great guy to race with. He’s a very strong competitor. His will to win is unbelievable. He shows up to work every day with the same demeanor, and when you’re going to the gate you’ve got to beat him, no matter what horse he’s driving.
“If you don’t step up your level against him to compete, he’s going to beat you every time. We have a great group of drivers here anyway. You look across the gate, we’re eight, nine deep with great drivers. And there are some real good guys here.”
Wilder leaves nothing to chance when it comes to driving. He will check out the program at home, come to the track an hour before the races and continue looking at the program with a cup of coffee or tea.
“You’ve got to do your homework,” he said. “Then you kind of focus on one card at a time. I don’t look ahead to the next day. Just one day at a time.”
|Chris Gooden photo|
|Mike Wilder was congratulated in the winner's circle following his 6,000th career victory last September.|
Mike grew up in Northfield, Ohio, and drove his first matinee card at age 14. He continued with the matinees for two years before starting fairs at age 16. He began professionally at age 18, moved to Florida in the winter of 1999 and got a place in Pennsylvania in 2000.
He became a regular at The Meadows when Brian Sears was making his move to the Meadowlands.
“Randy Bendis wanted drivers to commit to all his horses,” Wilder said. “He asked me and I said sure I would, if he wanted to go that route. That’s how things fell for me; I was at the right place at the right time.
“You’ve got to have good backing and I proved I could do it. But you still have to go to work each day and keep proving it.”
Wilder is actually half of a husband-wife harness racing team as his wife Heather serves as the director of public relations and marketing for the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association at The Meadows and is receiving the Lew Barasch Breakthrough Award at the U.S. Harness Writers Association’s Dan Patch Awards banquet in February.
“I can’t say enough about Heather and what she does,” Wilder said. “She comes from very strong bloodlines in the horse business, she’s very enthusiastic about the business and she does some great things at the racetrack. She’s trying to get the young crowd out and get as much publicity as she can for harness racing.”
Heather has actually gotten Mike and the other drivers to help. During big event nights at the track, she brings them in when they don’t have a race to sign autographed caps for fans.
“We go over and shake hands with people, that kind of stuff,” Wilder said. “She brings in a dunk tank in the summer, all kinds of stuff.”
And despite his friendship with Palone, Mike wouldn’t mind if his wife had to publicize him as The Meadows' leading driver one year. But he doesn’t obsess about it.
“It’d be nice; that would be unbelievable to be able to do,” he said. “But at this stage of the game, what I’m doing now, where I’m at, I couldn’t be any happier. The relationship I have with all these guys, it makes it real easy to go to work.”
And there’s no sense analyzing it beyond that.