John Stark Jr. and Greg Merton have almost 9,500 career driving wins between them. They’ve each had massive success in the sulky for decades and they both continue to get the job done. That’s about where the similarities end for a pair of drivers whose names have been synonymous with winning for their roughly seventy combined years of driving. John Stark Jr. is a name familiar to any fan of Saratoga harness racing in the last thirty years.
The Western New York native has been a stalwart pretty much wherever he has raced over the course of his almost 45 year career. Stark had been a regular at times at Buffalo Raceway, Vernon Downs and even Fairmount Park in Illinois before settling in at Saratoga a couple decades ago. Stark has focused mostly on training younger horses to compete in the New York Sire Stakes for the last twenty or twenty five years. All the while, he catch-drives here and there at Saratoga in between stakes trips in NY.
While the primary focus for the Stark stable is still with the young horses and Sire Stakes action, the 62 year old still can be found in the sulky at the Spa from time-to-time. Though he hasn’t driven nearly as much in the last ten or fifteen years, Stark still gets the job done when he does pilot locally. Driving mostly his own horses while still catch-driving for a few local trainers, Stark has started out strong in his minimal starts in 2021. The Saratoga Hall of Famer had a big day last Monday when he went back-to-back early in the matinee while piloting trotters Lifetime Credit and Sister Meg.
Stark was the regular reinsman for the Maureen Salino-trained Lifetime Credit throughout her time in the Sire Stakes and for much of last year. The talented but somewhat inconsistent mare has had times she’s looked like a monster, like when she earned over $100,000 in her first two racing seasons in 2018 and 2019, and other times when she’s seemed like just another trotter. On Monday, Lifetime Credit’s effort was more like one of the ones she put in en route to amassing the six figures in stakes competition. The trotting hopples were taken off Lifetime Credit and she looked like a different horse. In the mare’s second start of the year, she put in a monster effort overcoming a six-length deficit at the half to win by seven lengths behind a backstretch power surge for Stark. Young filly Sister Meg, whom Stark won with the previous week in her seasonal debut, repeated on Monday in career-best fashion.
After a pair of catch-driving victories, Stark had his own horse in to go on Monday. Xcuseme has been with Stark from the start of the trotter’s career. Xcuseme excelled in New York Sire Stakes Excelsior A’s competition and in the John Mongeon Memorial Trotting Series contested at Saratoga in 2019 en route to more than $60,000 in earnings. Now at the age of five, Xcuseme finished second in two of his first three starts in ’21 before drawing post eight for Monday’s try.
Stark was aggressive at the start with Xcuseme who made the front end and never looked back, springing the upset at odds of 14-1. It was the third win for Stark in the sulky on the day and wouldn’t be his last on the week. Stark trainee You Got It Dude is another whom he’s had from the start. The three year old qualified very impressively and his first start of the season on Tuesday was even better. The sophomore swooped the group for Stark, tracking down the race’s 1-5 favorite in the final stride en route to breaking his maiden.
While Stark hasn’t done as much work as a catch-driver in recent years, another reinsman who has competed at Saratoga on Tuesdays this season continues to spend an awful lot of time in the sulky. Greg Merton is a regular at Monticello Raceway but also travels quite a bit to other tracks in the northeast. The 47 year old reached a milestone this winter when he recorded his 5,000th career victory in January. Merton has raced locally from time to time but has certainly never had Saratoga be one of his home tracks. This season, the talented pilot has been coming to town to drive primarily for trainer Amanda Kelley. Kelley has used Merton in starts at Yonkers and has put him up on several horses on Tuesdays. With a driver of his stature getting added to the mix at the Spa, Merton has picked up some more catch-drives in addition to the assignments behind Kelley trainees.
Greg Merton earned over a million dollars in purses for 12 out of the 16 years that preceded the pandemic shortened 2020 campaign. The million number is made even more impressive because he spends so many of his days driving at Monticello whose purses aren’t as high as most other tracks in the northeast. Last Tuesday afternoon, Merton had four drives at the Spa including one with a big favorite. Nagle was the 1-9 betting favorite on Tuesday as he looked to go back-to-back for Merton and Kelley. He did so with relative ease. While Nagle has a pair of victories to his credit on the young season already, he isn’t the Kelley stable star. That role belongs to Some Waratah A.
An Open Pacer who is owned by the Kelley stable’s primary owner, the Scheigert Racing Stable of Saratoga Springs, NY, Some Waratah A won his first two races in the U.S. after coming over from Australia during the offseason. The seven year old scored a mild upset in a $20,000 Winners Over race at Yonkers, coming off the pace to prevail in his American debut. The following week it was up into the Open for the Kelley stable’s budding standout and that was another test passed by Some Waratah A who went coast-to-coast to score in the $30,000 Open at Yonkers while piloted by driver Tyler Buter.
Merton assumed the controls for the first time in early March for a qualifier at Saratoga in which Some Waratah A cruised in a tightener for another Open try at Yonkers in which he had post eight and didn’t factor. On March 16th, Some Waratah A made his official Spa debut and did so in the $12,000 Open. Merton was in town to pilot the speedy pacer and pointed the public’s 4-5 out to the early lead. Some Waratah A never looked back and scored a 1:53 victory which at the time was the fastest clocking of the young meet. Following a week off, Some Waratah A will be back at it this Tuesday when he looks to continue his hot streak for Kelley and Merton.
He has been installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite in the feature and will account for one of a handful of drives that Merton will have with Kelley trainees. We may not be seeing a ton of Stark or Merton in the sulky locally in this first month of the racing season at the Spa but when we have, we’ve often seen them journey to the winner’s circle.
Live racing takes place every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon starting at 12 Noon. The Super High 5 Jackpot was hit last week for the first time since the implementation of that wager though a new jackpot has started and is back up to $1,033. The Jackpot Pick 6 has yet to be hit this season and currently sits at $5,474 heading into this week’s action. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!