Saturday, 20 August 2016

An interview with...Aaron Merriman

Now before y'all go thinking I spent all last week running around asking 'famous' people for interviews, I didn't.  For a start, I refrain from running unless absolutely necessary (forest fire, bear, runaway driverless car).  The Double D interview came about as an idea to kill time during a long journey, plus it gave us a chance to find out quite a lot more about him; this interview came about because Dexter and Tom introduced me to Aaron on the Saturday after racing at Portmarnock and kinda jokingly-not-jokingly suggested I interview him as well.

I'm the kinda person who says 'yes'.  I like other people who say 'yes'.  Life is too short to turn down opportunities, and you never know where those opportunities may lead.  In fact, I say 'yes' to pretty much everything.  As my dad says, "you're a long time dead".

Anyway, I'm glad Aaron said 'yes' when I asked him if he wouldn't mind being interviewed.  Because, as it turned out, it was one of the funniest parts of my entire weekend in Ireland.  This guy is an absolute hoot!  Meet Aaron Merriman, from Ohio, who has driven in excess of 8,000 winners and in 2015 was crowned North America's leading driver.  I don't think I need to give him much more of an introduction than that!!


For anybody who doesn't know you, how long have you been involved in the sport and where did it all start?
I started driving when I was 21.  My dad (Lanny Merriman) is a driver, but despite that I never really wanted to be a driver growing up.  I wanted to be an athlete, or a basketball player.  Or a mail man!

So my dad still drives, and we've actually driven against each other.  I learnt from him, although I have more wins now.  He does more on the training side.  I trained for a few years and liked it, but I'm driving so many horses that I don't have the time to train right now.

Which is the best horse you've ever driven?
I drove Foiled Again (Dragon Again-In A Safe Place-Artsplace) once, that was probably what you'd class as the best horse career-wise.  But I've driven a lot of nice horses, every time I win is like the best horse I've driven at that moment because it's given me the win.  I just want to win, I'm a complete pyscho about winning!

I'm driving a horse called Tamarind (Angus Hall-Spicegirl Kosmos-S Js Photo) at the moment, he's little and really, really tough.  You can drive him bad and he'll still race good.  The horse likes me so I like him more!  Midnight Jewel (Keystone Raider-Anorexia-Dream Maker) kinda got my career going, she won 25 races in Open company in one year.

Which horse, past or present that you haven't driven, would you like to drive and why?
Greyhound (Guy Abbey-Elizabeth-Peter The Great), because of my love for trotters.  He was a freak.  Imagine how he would go now with all the improvements in equipment etc.  A horse like him would be awesome.  I'd just like to see him race today, with all that evolution in technology and everything else.

Greyhound was, and still is, a legend amongst many harness racing enthusiasts.  Born in 1932, the grey trotter won the Hambletonion in 1935 and in 1938 lowered the mile record for trotters to 1.55¼.  The record stood until 1969.

Do you prefer driving trotters or pacers?
I like both.  I like trotters better; I've grown to love driving them.  Pacers are faster and when you're younger they're easier to drive because they've hopples to help you but driving a good trotter is the best feeling, you can't beat it.  It's unsurpassed.

I really like driving horses for the first time.  You get to know each other.

Who did, or do, you admire as a driver?
Of course I admire my father as he taught me and brought me up the right way from the first stage.  He's always there with constructive criticism.  He's won a couple of thousand races, he's a good horseman and I've learnt a lot from him.

I also admire some of my peers, which has been great to have been able to race against them.  In particular Ronnie Wren Jr, David and Brett Miller, they're some of my favourites.  Also Dave Palone.  You can't argue with success, he's been a driving champion at his track for 20+ years.  He's real tough.  To be able to race with guys like that every day and call them your friends, it's an awesome experience.  I'm happy to race against them.

Which is your favourite track in the USA, and why?
Pocono [Downs], just because speed carries.  It's a very, very, very fast track.  I'm more on the aggressive side as a driver and you can be aggressive there, the horses can keep going.  The Meadows has made me a better driver over the years though.  You can't pull them early, you've gotta take care of the horse so it makes you more patient.  Pocono is a very nice track but the Meadows has made me a better driver for sure.

If you could change one thing about the sport in US, what would it be?
People who don't appreciate what they do for a living.  They take it for granted.  After coming here [Portmarnock], it's such a difference.  It's sad that people back home don't appreciate it.

I'd also like to be able to talk to the fans more, I think our governing body should be more open with the fans and the gamblers to tell them about things, about decisions that are made.  We don't educate our public enough.

In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between racing in the UK and Ireland and America?
Third row draws, that's new to me.  I've never seen that before in the US.  Even having more than two trailers [on the second line].  Being drawn nine on the third row, that doesn't happen.  It's a tight track here [Portmarnock], there's not much room compared to back home.

How much do you consider information from a trainer when you drive?
Depends who the trainer is.  I drive so many horses and I'm in races with a lot of horses as well, so I know them.  If it's a new horse then I usually ask two questions: are they good behind the gate, and are they good-gaited.  Sometimes people volunteer information.  I don't really ask if they're good behind the gate anymore actually because I just send them out the gate!!  You get to know the horses so that helps a lot.  You begin to know the drivers as well.  I usually read the race programme as well so there's some information in there, just before the race though not at home.  That's about it.

Out of all the races you have won, which has been the most memorable? 
My first win, it's where it started.  There's been a lot in between but when you first start driving, your anxiety or fear or nervousness is there because you haven't won a race.  When you win you know you're capable of actually winning races.  I like winning so I like all of my wins.  But the first...that's what made me think 'I can do this, let's keep doing this'. 

Which race that you haven't won would you like to win, and why?
Hmmmm. The Hambletonian, the biggest reason because it's been dominated by much of the same connections over the years. I would love to bring back a Hambletonian to the Midwest/Ohio. On the pacing side of course it would be the Little Brown Jug.

How would you describe your racing style?
Very, very aggressive!

Where do you see yourself in the sport 10 years from now?
Ideally I'll be driving, hopefully being as successful as I am now.  But possibly slowing down some, maybe not travelling as much.  Then I could train some.  If my golf game hit a miracle then I'll become a pro golfer!  But something within the sport, I just love the breed.

Have you ever competed in the WDC?
No, but I want to.  It would be an unbelievable honour.  It would be phenomenal.  It was in the USA back when I was a groom for my father; a French driver actually won it on a horse that I was a groom for. 

What are your hobbies/interests outside of racing?
Spending time with family and friends.  I race an awful lot so I don't have that opportunity much.  I really like to swim or play golf, shoot hoops with my son, go out and get dinner.

If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be and why?
Australia.  It looks beautiful there.  And New Zealand.  It would be a really long plane ride but I would love the opportunity to go to both of those places.

You're stranded on a desert island - what five things can't you live without?
(After we'd established that we were excluding people and just taking inanimate objects...)
Chinese food/sushi, cell phone, golf clubs, swimming trunks, Summer Shandy (it's a beer).

(We did also discuss the purpose of swimming trunks, seeing as it's a desert island and Aaron wasn't taking any people...).

You're holding a dinner party for five famous guests (alive or dead) - who would they be and why?
LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Johnny Manziel, Abraham Lincoln.

If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
I would go to the vaults of casinos and take all the money because they take everyone's money!! 

If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would spend your winnings on?
I’d give a lot away to my family.  I wouldn’t change a whole lot.  I would pay any bills I owe and make sure my family’s taken care of.

What would you name your autobiography?

Which actor would play you in a film about your life?
They couldn't make a film about my life first of all, they would have trouble!  But if I had to pick, Kevin Hart, he's comedic.

When was the last time you got into trouble?
My girlfriend Tessa shouts at me, she thinks I'm in trouble a lot.  I got arrested for the first time in my life last year.  I had a suspended licence because I'd gotten a lot of speeding tickets.  I didn't realise I had to reinstate it, I thought it did that automatically.  So I got cuffed and stuffed for it.  It was just a few hours though

Describe yourself in three words.
Friendly, fun, eccentric.

My number 1 fan!!
I defy any of you who have read this not to have laughed out loud at some point.  Not only did I laugh like a crazy person whilst holed up in the back of Porterstown Stud's lorry doing this interview, I've also sat here tonight in my living room and laughed out loud again like a crazy person.

THANK YOU Aaron for taking time out of your day on Sunday at the track to answer the questions.  I totally forgot to congratulate you on your win with Porterstown Road all of five minutes before the above happened as well!

Driving Porterstown Road to victory in the FFA at Portmarnock (Graham Rees photo)

Celebrating the win in Ireland with the family (Tessa Koran photo)
I don't know where I go from here.  The 'An interview with...' series is officially back in hibernation until I come up with my next epic idea.  It'll take a lot to top the last two in the series.

As for my usual posts, they will resume shortly.  There was a whole weekend of fun in Portmarnock that I need to put into words...if that is even possible.  But for now, I'm heading to Tir Prince, north Wales, to cheer on Stoneriggs Mystery in the Crock of Gold Final tonight.  I'll be trying to get a slice of Pinno's 2/1 about the old horse before the draw.  Then I'm hitting up Bells Field on Sunday for the first time with the dog and horse in tow.  Busy weekend ahead!!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 18 August 2016

An interview with...Dexter Dunn

For those of you who follow my blog religiously (and for my own distorted sense of self-purpose, I have to believe that there at least some of you who do, otherwise I'm just talking to thin air), you will recognise the format of the following post from the series entitled 'An interview with...' which I posted on a weekly basis during the winter

To any newcomers (particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, which is a 'market' I'm hoping to branch out into) - WELCOME!  You've just stumbled upon the ramblings of a slightly crazy person who is totally passionate about harness racing, not just involving my own horses and at my local track, but across the rest of the UK and Ireland and indeed the wider world.  If you find yourself forcibly bedbound for a long period of time, or imprisoned by the state/your overbearing parents/in somebody's basement (but with access to the internet), feel free to go back to the beginning and read all about my adventures with the Moose, Big Ears, Smarty and the gang.  If not, don't worry about it.  I know the curiosity will get you eventually.

In this particular post, I took the opportunity during a four and a half hour car journey from Edinburgh to Tir Prince to interview the man who currently holds the title of 'World Driving Champion': Dexter Dunn.  The 26-year-old is New Zealand's leading driver, having driven 200+ winners in a season on five separate occasions, including the last three consecutive seasons.  His cousin, friend, and 'favourite' trainer to drive for, Tom Bagrie, assured me that Dexter is a solid 80 winning drives clear of his nearest rival.  Something to brag about you'd think, but in the time we spent with Dexter it became apparent that although confident and competitive, he's also pretty modest about his achievements.  That in itself is a good enough reason for me to like the guy. 

Dexter & IB Coyote winning the VDM Fillies Final at Portmarnock (Graham Rees photo)

For anybody who doesn't know you, how long have you been involved in the sport and where did it all start?
I've been involved in the sport my whole life, I was brought up with my father [Robert Dunn] training horses.  He still trains, with my older brother Johnny the driver for his stable.  I'm basically his second choice driver

We had horses when I was a child, and then for a spell we didn't and that didn't bother me.  But then my dad got back into it and one day when I was about 11 or 12 he needed to take two horses to the beach to work out so he asked me to come along and help.  It was a day off school, but from that moment I was hooked.  That was the point at which I gave up my hopes of becoming an All Black and decided I wanted to be a driver.

I started driving when I was 17 so I've been racing for the last 10 years.  I was second in my first race but managed to win on my tenth drive.

Which is the best horse you've ever driven?
Christen Me [Christian Cullen (NZ)-Splendid Dreams (NZ)-Dreamaway (USA)].  Just for his ability.  He's won over NZ $2 million.  He raced twice at 2, then raced late at 3 and won six from six.  At 4 he won six Group 1 races.  Two seasons ago he won NZ $1 million in a season.  He holds 3 New Zealand records, went 1.50.4 at 4 and his record is 1.49.1.  He's just unbelieveably quick.

Which horse, past or present that you haven't driven, would you like to drive and why?
Adore Me [Bettors Delight (USA)-Scuse Me (NZ)-B Gs Bunny (USA)] – because she was a freak.  I drove against her and she smashed me all the time.

Adore Me is the fastest pacer outside of North America; as the Australasian mile record holder in 1.47.7, she amassed earnings of over NZ $1.6 million with 12 Group 1 wins to her name.

Do you prefer driving trotters or pacers?
I like driving pacers but to sit behind a really nice going trotter is a really nice feeling.  You just can't beat the feeling of driving a beautifully-gaited trotter.  That said, pacers go faster and are more reliable.

Who did, or do, you admire as a driver?
New Zealand driver Tony Herlihy – aka the Iceman, because he is!  I watched him when I first started out, he sits so still in the cart.  He's based on the North Island whereas I'm based on the South Island, but I've driven against him lots now.

Tony Herlihy has driven over 2000 winners and won almost every major harness racing event.

Which is your favourite track in New Zealand, and why?
Addington Raceway, Christchurch.  It's close to home and it's actually a really good track.  It's 1200m so approximately three quarters of a mile.  It's one of the fairest tracks and it stages the New Zealand Cup Day, which is huge.  It attracts around 20,000 people for that event.

If you could change one thing about the sport in New Zealand, what would it be?
More prize money!

No seriously, I'd like to see better handicapping.  Quite often at home horses win 1/2/3/4 races and then they can't win anymore because our handicapper doesn’t really allow for them to continue being competitive, so we sell them to Australia.  In Australia they have so much racing and so many different places to race that they can always find horses to suit a class.  They also have a better system.

In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between racing in the UK and Ireland and New Zealand?
Field sizes – in New Zealand it's a maximum of 14 on all-weather track and 16 on grass.  It might actually be 18 on the grass... (at which point Dexter and Tom descended into a debate about the maximum number, and then Tom wapped his phone out and showed me a video of his first training win with D D Trotter, driven by Dexter, in a field of what looked like 200 trotters racing on a bowling green.  Grass track promoters in the UK, take note.  Some of our fields aren't good enough!)

Is there anything about racing in the UK and Ireland that you would take back into Southern Hemisphere racing?
The culture!  The sport in New Zealand is very professional, the general culture of the sport is also quite good but it’s divided into smaller groups rather than one big group.

How much do you consider information from a trainer when you drive?
1% (Tom says 0%).
No seriously, if I haven’t driven a horse before then quite a lot; but if I drive a horse all the time, if the trainer says it’s working good than that’s all I need to know.  If you’re driving it all the time you know yourself how the horse is going.

Out of all the races you have won, which has been the most memorable?  Which race would you like to win that you haven't already?
The most memorable would be The Miracle Mile in Australia.  I won it in 2014 with Christen Me.  It's worth A$750,000.
The race I would love to win would be The New Zealand Cup.  I reckon I’ve drive in it 7 times and the best I've been is second.  I was beaten by 1/2L, I got knocked on the was worth a million dollars that year as well!

How would you describe your racing style?
Depends really, probably quite aggressive (at which point Tom added that he'd call it erratic).
Where do you see yourself in the sport 10 years from now?
Just keeping driving, I'm not so fussed on training at the moment.

How many times have you competed in the World Driver Championship?
Twice.  I won it in Australia in 2015 which makes me the reigning Champion; I also drove in America in 2011 as well.  I'm heading to Canada in 2017 to defend my title.

What are your hobbies/interests outside of racing?
I play rugby, just socially.  I'm a fan of the All Blacks and the Canterbury Crusaders.  My favourite player has to be Dan Carter.  I also like skiing.  I'm pretty good, like I don’t fall over!  But both of those are just hobbies.  I'm really competitive and I hate losing, so that shows in my hobbies as well.

If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be and why?
Switzerland, because the girls I’ve seen so far from Swizterland are pretty good.
Actually, Sweden, for the Elitloppet AND the girls!

You're stranded on a desert island - what five things can't you live without?
Rum, coffee, smokes, a TV and Scarlett Johansson.

You're holding a dinner party for five famous guests (alive or dead) - who would they be?
Scarlett Johansson (obviously), George Clooney, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
I'd sneak into the All Blacks changing room to hear the behind-the-scenes team talk. (Or see them naked.  Whatever, Smarty and me won't judge.  And we both thought you protested a little too much at that suggestion even in light of the Scarlett Johansson obsession...).

If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would spend your winnings on?
A year long holiday with my friends and a yacht to travel around on during that year long holiday.

What would you name your autobiography?
Double D.  It's my nickname; everyone just started calling me it.

Which actor would play you in a film about your life?
Leonardo DiCaprio.

When was the last time you got into trouble?
Last Tuesday at Tir Prince (August 2nd, Breeders Crown night), using my whip too much or something (our whip rules are as confusing for the rulebook-studying Smarty as they are for you pal).

Describe yourself in three words.
Competitive, friendly, nightowl.

Thank you, Double D, for the charming and enlightening interview.  At times during the journey it was easy to forget that Dexter is a superstar, not only in his home country and the Southern Hemisphere, but across the globe.  He's exceptionally laid back and takes an interest in what others have to say, even when it's potentially total rubbish (a lot of what I say is).  When we arrived at our destination, I would have forgiven him for taking his bags and heading for the hills, never to be seen again by Smarty and I.  Instead, we spent time with both Dexter and Tom in Ireland last weekend for the VDM, and I'd like to think that we'll see them again in the future, once I convince Smarty that a trip to New Zealand for Cup week was in fact his ingenious idea.
Steering Johnny Camden to victory in the Breeders Crown 2YO Colts & Geldings (Graham Rees photo)

Driving Meldoon to win for trainer Michael O'Mahony at Tir Prince (Graham Rees photo)

A double on August 9th, winning with Lyons Eryl Hall (Graham Rees photo)

Before I sign off, I appreciate that Dexter is the focal point of this post and indeed the main celebrity to visit the UK and Irish racing scene from NZ, but I would just like to take a minute to expand further on this character 'Tom', whose input in the above interview was actually far greater than I have been able to portray.  Tom is a celebrity in his own right; my new publicist (he was lucky if he read half a post on my blog before telling Heather Vitale I was an amazing blogger - I could have actually pushed you off your bar stool) and advocate of my now world-famous sandwiches!
So for the benefit of anyone reading this who doesn't know who Tom is, he's a young trainer who, at the time of notching up his first winner (D D Trotter, driven by Dexter), has trained one winner, one second and one third from nine training starts.  He's also as mad as a box of frogs which is why I thought he was an absolute delight to spend time with!

Tom and D D Trotter
Thank you both, again, for being such sports and for making the time fly on our journey.  I sincerely hope this won't be the last time we meet.

Over and out,

#1 Groom