And he couldn’t be happier.
“My stats aren’t fantastic there,” said Merriman, who will drive Il Sogno Dream in his first Hambletonian appearance Saturday. “It’s probably one of the only tracks where I’ve driven more than five times and haven’t won a race.
|Aaron Merriman leads all drivers in North America with 452 victories this year.|
“But really, it’s like they say, it’s all about being there. Even when it’s not Hambo Day. Jeff Gural has done a great job revitalizing it and rejuvenating it. The industry should be very proud of that.”
Merriman is the nation’s leading dash-winning driver and will have his work cut out for him, as Il Sogno Dream is listed at 50-1 on the morning line. But he will take it. Happily.
“It means a lot,” Merriman said. “It doesn’t matter what my odds are or what I’m driving. It’s an unbelievable opportunity and I’m just really excited for the opportunity. People live for this, especially this race.
“I’ve never been part of Hambo Day. I’m just happy to be part of the day. It’s just such an honor. A lot of people are happy and excited for me. For me, it’s either the Little Brown Jug or the Hambletonian, I think those are the two signature events for pacers and trotters. The Hambletonian is like the Kentucky Derby. It’s a big deal.”
Considering where Merriman was four years ago, just the fact he is racing is a big deal. The Ohio native suffered a horrific accident in 2010, in which he broke his neck, both wrists and his left elbow.
He returned within that same season with a different attitude. He worries more about his young son Kristopher than he does about the statistics he puts up. But those stats are pretty darn good, as Merriman leads North America in wins this year with 452 victories.
He hopes to inflate that total by getting his first win in East Rutherford. Merriman is winless in 22 starts at the Meadowlands, where he last competed in 2011.
“It was just different than how I’m used to driving,” said Merriman, who picked up his top purse win in 2009 when he won a $300,000 Kentucky Sire Stakes final with Palazzo Princess. “I’m used to being aggressive and I drove some horses where I couldn’t drive my style of a race. This year I was much more confident in myself and said I was going to go out there sometime. I will be out there one of these Saturdays to secure my win there.
“I sure would like to get off the schneid. Nothing would be better than getting off the schneid in the Hambletonian. It is a horserace. That’s why they race it, anything can happen. My horse has ability. They wouldn’t have entered him if they thought it was just going to waste their entry fee.”
|New Image Media photo|
|Il Sogno Dream enters the Hambletonian with $211,262 in career earnings.|
Il Sogno Dream has won six of 19 career starts and $211,262. This year he has won three of eight starts with three seconds, and was second in the Goodtimes Stakes to Trixton, one of three Jimmy Takter horses in the race.
“That's been his best race,” trainer Chris Beaver said. “He raced three times since then and he won twice by open lengths so he raced real well those times, too.
“He had a bit of a rough start to the season. He made some breaks and I threw trotting hobbles on him and he's been solid since then. He hasn't been worse than second in his last five starts.”
And it was his effort in the Goodtimes that clinched the decision to enter the Hambletonian.
“That’s what got us thinking we'd go ahead and try,” Beaver said. “To be honest, the owners (Bill Manes, Dan Manes, Leonard Christopher and Randy Christopher) have been wanting to go since he raced in that (Goodtimes) and in the end, it was their decision to go ahead and give it a try.
“If you take away the top three, he's not really that much different than the other horses in there. I feel that he's legit but, as most of them are in there, he's an outsider.”
Beaver feels the perfect trip for Il Sogno Dream would be if he followed a horse along the rail and snuck up from the inside.
“That would work out best for us,” he said. “He's raced good following cover. He was second to Trixton in the Goodtimes trotting 1:52.4 in Mohawk following Trixton. That's a really fast mile up there. It’s probably comparable to a mile in 1:51.2, 1:51.3 at the Meadowlands.”
However it turns out, Merriman will always remember the day itself.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “You take advantage of the opportunities that you get. I feel blessed I’m even involved in the race day. Even if I was a presenter of a trophy I’d be happy.”
Just think how happy he would be if it was the other way around.
$1,006,125 Hambletonian, Race 13, Post time 5:11 p.m.
1-Resolve-Corey Callahan-Nancy Johansson-20-1
2-JJ Alex-Francisco Del Cid-Francisco Del Cid-50-1
3-Doncango-Ake Svanstedt-Ake Svanstedt-20-1
4-Datsyuk-Charlie Norris-Charlie Norris-12-1
5-Nuncio-John Campbell-Jimmy Takter-9-2
6-Royal Ice-Ron Pierce-Trond Smedshammer-20-1
7-Trixton-Jimmy Takter-Jimmy Takter-7-2
8-Il Sogno Dream-Aaron Merriman-Chris Beaver-50-1
9-Harper Blue Chip-Sylvain Filion-Mark Steacy-12-1
10-Father Patrick-Yannick Gingras-Jimmy Takter-4-5
11-Don Dorado-Tim Tetrick-Robert Baggitt Jr.-20-1
*Don Dorado will start from second tier