Winning the U.S. Pacing Championship with Shamballa and becoming the youngest reinsman to win a Triple Crown with trotter Marion Marauder changed Scott Zeron’s perspective in 2016.
“When you first start out, you don’t even really think about the money,” said the 27-year-old driver. “Before getting into those major stakes, I did well enough in overnight races to be financially sound. But heading into those races I just thought, ‘This would be a big deal if I won this race.’
“One year later, when I drive some more, it’s ‘My 5 percent of this [purse] is $20,000—this is a big race!’ Advance one more year and you think, ‘This trainer needs me to win this, so the owners can buy some more horses.’”
Narrow-win margin specialist Marion Marauder reminded Zeron about the high stakes on the line throughout their dream season.
“The more you learn, the worse it is!” he said.
Many factors contribute to a driver’s success, but naïveté isn’t often mentioned as one of them. Zeron nonetheless attributes a good measure of his early success to not knowing the value of what he was doing, like winning the Gold Cup and Saucer at Red Shores Charlottetown on his first attempt.
“I was actually ignorant to the magnitude of it!,” Zeron said with a laugh, remembering Part Shark’s 2010 victory when he was just 21. “I didn’t know going into it; when I was going to Prince Edward Island, I was going for the experience; I knew it got a big crowd and was a fan-favorite race. But it only went for $60,000, so I never was nervous for that race. If I were to go back, I’d probably be nervous—it’s a big deal, and I kind of only realized it when they hit me with the spotlight.”
It was the same year he drove Peter Pan in the Prix des Rencontres Internationales du Trotteur Français at Vincennes Racecourse in Paris, finishing second.
“That was one of my most memorable experiences, driving in Paris—that was really cool,” he said.
Then there was the 2012 Little Brown Jug, which he captured with Michael’s Power.
“I’m happy to have won it the first time, because the weight wasn’t that hard for me to deal with, not knowing the magnitude of it,” he said. “When you win your elimination and you draw the rail, it is your race to win. So I really dealt with the nerves great that day. Heading into that elimination, I thought, ‘I just want him to race well and get into the final.’”
Looking back, he considered the race a major turning point.
“I think if I didn’t win that, honestly, nobody would know who I was,” he said. “If I was the leading driver at Woodbine and Mohawk, they still wouldn’t know who I am [in the U.S.]. The Jug was monumental. It was the most global thing that I’ve done until winning the Hambletonian this year, and the Triple Crown altogether.”
The son of longtime Woodbine circuit trainer-driver Rick Zeron, Scott wasn’t born with a silver whip in his hand, or even the expectation that he would follow his father’s career path.
“My family, I don’t want to say they didn’t want me to be in this business, but they never forced me into it,” said the New Jersey-based driver. Born in Montreal, his family relocated to Toronto when Scott was 5 years old. It meant losing early fluency in French, but gaining opportunities in his sport.
From around age 12, he paid attention to his father’s drives at the Toronto-area tracks.
“I liked the thrill of it, cheering for my Dad,” he said. “I always went in the winner’s circle and he followed up doing the ‘Z’,” said Scott, referencing the Zorro-style signature move that Rick “The Whip” Zeron used to make in the air with his driving whip after a victory.
The Meadowlands’ winningest driver last season–93 victories in 588 starts–did not consider himself a “natural” starting out.
“I would jog a couple horses, but I still wasn’t very comfortable sitting behind them, because I was so small and they were so big,” he said. “It was intimidating at 14. I only trained my very first horse at 16 years old, when I got my trainer’s license.”
Another turning point came that year at Mohawk Racetrack.
“When I was 16, after training a couple of times, my dad let me school a horse,” he said. “You don’t need a driver’s license to school, so it was the first time I went behind the gate.”
Facing drivers he considered his “idols” on the Woodbine circuit, Zeron remembered winning that schooling race.
“It was definitely spur of the moment,” he said. “My dad always would qualify five or six horses every day out of his stable. I think this was just one where he wanted to go with somebody else’s and said ‘You’ve got your suit on, you can go with him!’”
Zeron didn’t rely upon his father’s stable, however.
“When I turned 16, I just thought that the only way I could be prepared to drive horses and build relationships with trainers who don’t know me, and I don’t know them, is go to the races every night and warm up horses,” he said. “No one likes warming up their horses—it’s only two laps around, it’s not exciting. So I just figured I could make a few bucks and build relationships with all these people, so when I turn 18, that will be the way I can get drives right away.”
Enjoying the best season of his career makes it easier to reflect on formative years in Ontario. “The truth of the matter is, no one wants to use you until you’re good, and I don’t blame them,” Zeron said. “I was so bad when I was 18-19 years old. I was terrible—I was a smaller guy, I wasn’t as strong to hold horses, you know—all these things take time.”
Scott said his father’s patience and insights as a trainer-driver helped him develop the attribute that matters most in their chosen occupation.
“Confidence is probably 90 percent of being a driver—if you don’t think you can go out there and perform your best and give your horse your best, it’s just not going to work out,” he said. “When I break it down into smaller things, I needed to go to the gym, to be confident in myself, so that I could control the horse, instead of the horse controlling me.”
In March 2013, 23-year-old Zeron made history as the youngest driver to reach 2,000 driving wins. The three-time place finisher for Driver of the Year honors at Canada’s O’Brien Awards (2010, 2011, 2012) admitted he had to “start from scratch” when he decided to move south late that year, primarily to become the regular driver for the powerful Tony Alagna stable.
“The only people that I knew in the States were top trainers who would use me on their stake horses when they ventured up to Canada, so I didn’t know any overnight guys,” he said. “It’s humbling to go from up high, right back to down low, and then try to climb again. The move was so critical to pushing me to go hard again.”
Go hard he did—reining winners of more than $5.6 million and 254 races in his inaugural American-based season. His schedule, like that of girlfriend Megan Scran, usually revolves around a racetrack.
“Right now, it’s obviously the five days a week at Yonkers, but throughout the summer, it’s really wherever the stakes take you and I’ll follow both the New York and Pennsylvania Sire Stakes circuits, so there’s really no ‘central’ place to live.”
Nor is there much time for summer activities like golf or attending friends’ weddings, which invariably fall on stakes dates. Winter allows Scott and Megan the chance to enjoy NHL and NBA games, but they are never too far from racing.
“It’s funny, some of our vacations consist of going to Florida to jog and train babies,” he said.
A graduate of the Humber College (Ontario) two-year accounting program, the 2016 Dan Patch Driver of the Year nominee joked the education comes in handy in his less-standard occupation.
“When I’m crossing the wire, I can already add up in my head what I’ve made,” he said with a laugh.
Zeron calculated his way to lifetime victory number 3,000 in September at Yonkers, where he plans to remain until the George Morton Levy Memorial Pacing Series concludes. Then it’s back on the road for stakes season and the return of Marion Marauder.
“I’ve dreamt about so many things,” he said. “I still haven’t knocked off my No. 1 thing on the bucket list, the North America Cup—that’s my hometown race.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Hoof Beats Magazine.