EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Some harness racing fans are not satisfied with just watching the races from rail, they want to be on the other side — and in the driver’s seat — and they can!
Many enthusiasts, both men and women are part of amateur harness racing clubs in the tri-state area. Most have day jobs but on weekends they trade business attire for racing colors.
According to the United States Trotting Association website: “An amateur driver is a driver who has not received valuable compensation for his or her services as a driver. To participate in amateur driving events, the person must hold a driver's license issued by the United States Trotting Association.". Most amateur drivers donate the percent of the purse money won that a driver would normally receive, to charity, raising money for a variety of good causes.
While there are races restricted to amateurs, the amateurs can and often do compete against the pros. For esample, Mal Burroughs, then of Flemington, N.J., won the harness racing’s most prestigious race for trotters — the Hambletonian with Malabar Man in 1997. Only one other amateur has won that race since it started in 1926. The other was Harrison Hoyt, who won it in 1948.
However, it doesn't have to be a world class stakes race to be fun. New Jerseyan, Matt Zuccarello, a Field Sales Representative for Herr Foods Inc. by day, fell in love with harness racing when he attended the races as a kid with his father, at the legendary Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island.
“I love so many things including the excitement, speed (even though it feels like slow motion at times), strategy, and camaraderie among all the amateurs. When you win a race and get your picture taken in the winner’s circle, especially surrounded by friends and family, it is awesome!”
Over Memorial Day weekend at the Meadowlands, Zuccarello just missed getting his picture taken in the winner’s circle, finishing second in a division of the GSY Amateur Driving Club series.
Zuccarello also competes with the North American Amateur Drivers Association and the CKG Billings series, and in a total of 16 starts this year he has two seconds and two thirds. Since 2012 he has raced 347 times, won 12, as second 34 times and was third 39 times.
Anthony Verruso, a Flight Attendant for Jetblue Airways also just missed winning the CKG Billings trot at the Meadowlands on May 25 — by a head. Just because they are amateurs, doesn’t mean they are any less competitive than the pros. In 2019 Verruso has won twice and finished second five times in 14 starts with his most recent win at Monticello Raceway in New York.
“It is an experience like no other. Racing at high speeds in such tight quarters and having to make split second decisions is as exhilarating as anything you could ever do. And there is no feeling like sweeping a field up the back side and opening lengths to win a race,” Verruso said.
He is also president of the Delvin Miller Amateur Drivers' Association which runs the Billings series which will conclude in November with the top point earners earning a start in the final.
Verruso was introduced to racing a t a young age. “My Dad was a workout clocker and went to Roosevelt and Yonkers every night for what was my entire life. He told me I could go with him if I got A's in school. So I did and he took me on a regular basis from when I was 10 years old. I learned to clock the workouts too but from those early days on I wanted to be Carmine Abbatiello,” he said referring to the professional driver who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
For Anthony Beltrami, a state trial judge for the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, Pa., driving in races is a welcome change of pace. He loves, “that I get to do something that is really fun and totally different from anything else I do.”
His father owned harness horses as long as he can remember. “Before I went to law school, I worked as a groom for Earl Beal, Jr. and David Rovine. Several years ago, I got my trainer's and driver's licenses.” This year he has two wins, a second and a third from eight starts.
Men and women compete on equal terms in harness racing. Hannah Miller, not only competes with the men, she often beats them. She was the first woman to earn National Amateur Driver of the Year honors in 2015. The next year she represented the United States in the amateur World Cup in Budapest, Hungary.
So how does one get started in amateur harness racing?
Zuccarello said, “I told my dad that one day I wanted to drive and own horses. Years later, I took a class in Delaware, Ohio, where the Little Brown Jug is raced at, was connected to a trainer, Dennis Laterza and his son, who I still have horses with, learned how to clean stalls, jog horses, train and equip them, and I was hooked.”
Zuccarello suggests attending the USTA driving school, although none are scheduled for 2019, check http://www.ustrotting.com/standardbred-driving-school/ for 2020 opportunities.
Next, Zuccarello said, “get connected with a local trainer near where you live to learn everything about the industry. Once you get this experience under your belt, I would suggest purchasing an inexpensive horse to use for qualifiers while also networking with other trainers and try to secure as many qualifying drives as you can and this will help you work your way towards getting your amateur license.”
“You need to start from the ground up. Find an old time guy who likes to impart knowledge and listen to what he says. Don't just go and jump in the seat and think you can drive. First learn to muck a stall. Then understand how to put on the equipment. Jogging would be the next progression and finally going training miles. From there try to get drives in qualifiers to obtain a license. In my opinion, that is the best road to success,” Verruso said.
“Find a trainer/stable that you can work for and start out as a groom — hopefully one that can eventually jog and train the horses you care for. Be willing to put in long hours and to learn as much as you can along the way, said Beltrami.
See www.ustrotting.com/trackside/amateur-driving-clubs/ for more information on local clubs.
For the younger set, the Harness Horse Youth Foundation offers summer camps at area tracks and training centers. At the camps kids learn to care for and drive Trottingbred ponies, miniature versions of Standardbreds.Several former campers have gone on to become professionals.
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