by Ken Weingartner
Aaron Merriman led all harness racing drivers in wins for the second consecutive year, setting career highs for victories and purses in the process, but his favorite sports-related moment of 2016 came away from the track.
It came when Merriman’s beloved Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA title and brought the city of Cleveland its first championship in 52 years.
“It’s not even a contest,” said the 38-year-old Merriman, a northern Ohio native and lifelong Cleveland sports fan. “It was phenomenal, for the city and our state and the franchise. Cleveland is actually on a big resurgence; it’s getting to be a place to go and to travel to.
“Everybody in my family likes sports,” he continued. “This is something I grew up with. It’s just like racing to me. Sports are something to bring people together. That’s one of the main reasons I think I like it. There’s some rivalry involved, and there are friendly arguments and friendly competition. It’s just enjoyable to be a part of it.”
Merriman is a Browns season-ticket holder and gets ticket packages for the Cavaliers. He also is a big fan of the Indians and manager Terry Francona (who spent his early childhood in Cleveland while his father Tito played for the Indians) and was proud of the team’s run to the World Series, even though it ended with a seven-game loss to the Chicago Cubs.
“One thing about me, I bleed my city,” Merriman said. “I love the Browns, as bad as we are, it doesn’t even bother me too much. I don’t give up on my teams. That’s for sure.”
He doesn’t give up on much. In 2016 Merriman led all drivers in starts for the third consecutive year — he was the only driver to surpass 4,000 in any of those seasons — and he joined Tony Morgan as the only other driver in history to win at least 800 races in three consecutive years.
Merriman won a career-best 891 races last year, on the heels of posting 874 victories in 2015 and 841 in 2014. Horses driven by Merriman earned $7.67 million in purses, topping his previous high of $7.42 million set in 2015.
Not that Merriman would know, unless told.
“I know it’s hard to believe, and no one wants to believe it, but I don’t look,” Merriman said. “If you start thinking you have to be at (a certain number) you start psyching yourself out for no reason. There becomes this imaginary pressure and sometimes it can get to you. I don’t care who you are, you begin to press.
“I try to take it, not even day by day, but card by card. Even race by race, if possible, but that’s sometimes tough when you have a bad day. I just try to maximize my performance by race card.”
Merriman drives regularly at Northfield Park, near Cleveland, and at The Meadows, near Pittsburgh. Three times a week, he drives at both tracks — The Meadows in the afternoon and Northfield in the evening.
“Physically it’s tough,” Merriman said. “But mentally, to me, it’s a lot easier to turn the page when I don’t have to wait three days for another race. If I have a couple days off, I’m happy, but a lot of times I’ve got 20 horses to drive. I’ve got the opportunity to put a bad day behind me and fix it immediately.”
On Jan. 21, Merriman will be honored by the Ohio chapter of the U.S. Harness Writers Association with the Winner’s Circle Award, given for outstanding accomplishments in the previous year. In February, Merriman will be honored in Las Vegas by the national USHWA organization for leading all drivers in North America in wins.
While Merriman can easily identify his favorite sports moments away from the racetrack, he has difficulty picking favorite accomplishments resulting from his work. Each day at the track produces its own moments.
“Just being able to stay healthy and race all year, to me, is an accomplishment,” said Merriman, who missed several months of action in 2010 after an accident in which he broke both wrists and an elbow. “To stay at a high level and stay as fresh as possible throughout the year.
“I don’t pride myself on what I’ve won. I’d rather just be known as a guy that works hard, stays focused, and is determined to do the best I can. I have more pride in showing up and giving maximum effort every day.”
Merriman got 2017 off to a fast start, winning eight races at Northfield Park on New Year’s Day. He leads North America in wins with 41.
“New Year’s Day, a few guys didn’t show up and I had the opportunity to drive some good horses,” said Merriman, who has won 8,771 races in his career, which is good for 21st place among all drivers in history. “When you have the opportunity to drive nice horses in good spots, you’re going to win races. It’s opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.”
And while Merriman focuses his energy on racing at The Meadows and Northfield, he also has picked up Grand Circuit stakes drives at tracks around the country. He would like to possibly expand his Grand Circuit schedule this year, but it’s not a priority.
“We’ll see what opportunities come along,” Merriman said. “Everybody wants to follow a great horse. But I’ve driven a lot of good horses. I’ve never had ‘The One,’ but I’m blessed to drive any horse in any race that has desire to do good. Hopefully I do, but if I don’t, I’ll take advantage of every other opportunity I get.
“It’s not necessary for me to be at any certain place at any certain time — except the winner’s circle, ideally.”