Mattias Melander doesn’t consider himself to be a master at driving in slop.
“It doesn’t matter too much for me,” he said. “Of course everybody loves when it’s a good track. But it’s just another day.”
Well, that’s not necessarily true. At least it was not on May 5, when the 20-year-old gained his first two career victories on the rain-drenched track at Freehold Raceway.
After going 0-for-31 in starts over his first two seasons, the Swedish import drove 13-year-old trotter Captain Primeau to an easy win.
“I had post three, it was a rainy day, but he had a good post,” Melander said. “I wanted to get in the lead and try and get him there as good as possible. I got the lead and it could not have gone better. We just got the lead and never got interfered with from that point.”
For Mattias, it was the end of an aggravating drought.
“It got a little frustrating,” he said. “But I took my time and it finally came. It meant a lot. I’ve been here almost a year and a half and I’ve been waiting for that win. It felt great.”
And not just for himself. As an assistant trainer for Jimmy Takter, Melander is friends with Captain Primeau’s co-owner/trainer Conny Svensson, who is Takter’s blacksmith. Svensson owns the horse with his wife Anneli.
“I was mostly happy for Conny,” Melander said. “I know how happy he gets. But it was a little bit of relief for me.”
It was only the fourth time Mattias had driven Captain Primeau, but he was familiar with the horse from being around him and from talking to Svensson about him.
Later that day, Melander drove Wygant Princess to victory. The 6-year-old trotter is owned and trained by Mattias’ big brother, Marcus, and is the horse Marcus got his first Meadowlands victory with.
“That’s basically the only horse I’ve been racing besides the couple times I drove Captain Primeau,” Melander said. “To get her to win was great. I know how much she fights. I was happy for her to get her win too.”
Marcus, who came to America from Stockholm before his younger brother, works with his family at the old Stanley Dancer stables in New Egypt, now renamed Melander Stables. While Marcus would stay up all hours to watch live reports on American harness racing, Mattias was a bit more subdued.
But he still loved horses since the family always had them. When the Melanders moved to the U.S., Mattias stayed behind. He attended high school for one year before going to work at his uncle’s stable at age 16.
“I just felt that’s what I wanted to do my whole life,” Melander said.
Marcus initially worked for Takter and when Mattias came over for vacation he would visit the East Windsor, N.J. stables.
“Marcus always followed it more than I did, but when I went back home I obviously started following him and Jimmy more closely,” Melander said.
After a few trips to Takter’s farm, it was decided that Mattias would come over and work for the Hall of Fame trainer.
“My family had had been wanting me to go over and work with Marcus and work for Takter,” said Mattias, who does farm work for his family after completing his day. “It took me a while to eventually get here, and once I got here I started working the day after I came. Working for Takter has been a really great experience for me. It’s probably the best teacher you can have.”
In what ways?
“Just the way he trains his horses,” Melander said. “All his opinions, everything like that. You just learn a lot when you’re there.”
Since they work with most of the horses, Mattias has done some training of Dan Patch Award-winner Ariana G, among numerous others.
“We switch around a lot, so we get to know all the horses, and we pretty much drive all the horses in the stable,” he said.
Mattias would like to be both a driver and trainer and is hoping to get more drives. At the moment he is mostly driving qualifiers. He says he’s still developing his style.
One thing is certain, however. His current job has accelerated his progress.
“I moved to work here with Takter, so I think (my career) has been going much further than where I thought I would be at this time,” he said. “So, that’s good.”
by Rich Fisher