by Rich Fisher
In four days Scott Zeron will attempt to become the youngest driver to win a harness racing Triple Crown, for either trotters or pacers. Throw in the fact his horse’s owners are paying a hefty supplemental fee of around $50,000, and that could make for a lot of pressure as Zeron gets set to drive Marion Marauder in the Kentucky Futurity at Lexington’s Red Mile on Sunday (Oct. 9).
But a laidback, understanding group — consisting of trainers Paula Wellwood and Mike Keeling and owners Marion Jean Wellwood and Devin Keeling — have made things easy for the 27-year-old Canadian since this journey started at the Hambletonian and continued with the Yonkers Trot.
“They’re not hanging over me going, ‘This is the end all, be all, we want this,’” Zeron said. “Heading into the Hambo they told me, ‘It’s a long year, we’ve got a lot of races to race,’ and not saying, ‘Listen, this Hambletonian is all we want, it’s all we care about.’ That would make it pressure filled. They just want the horse to race well.
“(Pressure) varies for every horse and every trainer. The connections I’m driving for are just the nicest, greatest, most appreciative people you could ever drive for. I know that they’re confident in me, without a doubt, and I’m confident in my horse. I really think it hasn’t been a pressure filled year.”
It has been nothing but an enjoyable year. Having a horse as talented as Marion Marauder also helps calm the nerves.
“This is the kind of horse that both the connections and myself have never been able to be a part of, so it’s all taken in stride,” Zeron continued. “The nerves would be different if I had a horse that broke every other week, things like that. But this horse is a true gentleman and the connections are just a pleasure to drive for.”
The last Trotting Triple Crown winner was Glidemaster in 2006. He became the eighth horse to sweep the Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot, and Kentucky Futurity.
Marion Marauder won the Hambletonian in August and Yonkers Trot in September. Since then, his connections hedged on attending the Kentucky Futurity, with the original plan to skip the event. Ironically, it was after Marion Marauder was beaten by Bar Hopping at the Canadian Trotting Classic in his most recent start that thoughts began to differ.
Mike Keeling had wanted to hit the Red Mile all along, and he finally convinced the rest of the group it was the right thing.
“As far as I know, right after the Canadian Trotting Classic, they didn’t want to have a five-week break until the Breeders Crown elimination; it was just a little too long,” Zeron said. “We went over the list of who we felt could be going to the Futurity, and the rule is that if there’s 12 they go straight to the finals.”
The draw is not until Thursday, so it will not be known until then whether there is just one race. If not, the eliminations and final will both be contested Sunday.
“I think for them it was a matter of praying we don’t go two heats, only in the best interest of the horse not having to go two heats twice in the year,” Zeron said. “And I think, if you ask them, it was a case of Marion feeling really well the last two weeks, and they just wanted to race him.”
Zeron admitted he would have been disappointed, but understanding, about losing his shot at history.
“For sure, but I would have supported whatever decision they made,” he said. “The Breeders Crown is another one I haven’t won. If we go straight to the final, the plan will work out brilliantly.”
Marion Marauder has won nine of 12 races this year and earned $1.25 million. His victories include the Hambletonian, which also contested eliminations and the final on the same day, Yonkers Trot, Goodtimes Stakes and a division of the Stanley Dancer Memorial. He finished second in the Canadian Trotting Classic and Colonial.
The driver admitted he could never script a season like this.
“When things are going right, they’re just going right,” said Zeron, who has been the horse’s lone driver since the middle of his 2-year-old season. “If you really break it down, Marion has been a phenomenal animal for me.
“Those two major critical (Triple Crown) stakes we had coming into the Futurity, we won by a nose and a head. The roles could have been reversed either way. I’m grateful to just have a horse like him to take me on this kind of trip. He’s a pleasure to drive. He makes me confident when I’m out there with him. I just have to put him in a spot to have a chance to win the race. That’s really my only job, he does the rest.”
Marion Marauder is coming off a three-week layoff since losing the Canadian Trotting Classic and Zeron feels it was a necessary respite after an extremely busy schedule.
“He was coming off a stretch of (racing) five consecutive weeks,” Scott noted. “All the races prior to that, he had layoffs. He had three weeks between the Stanley Dancer and the Hambo. He’s always had nice comfortable breaks except for those five weeks straight. By the end of it they just wanted to assess the way he came out of the Trotting Classic, and I think he’s been more than feeling well which is why they made the decision to come to Kentucky.”
Zeron, who has finished second in the Futurity twice, would supplant Trond Smedshammer as the youngest driver of a Trotting Triple Crown winner. Smedshammer was 37 when he trained and drove Windsong’s Legacy to the Triple Crown in 2004.
On the pacing side, George Sholty was 33 when he guided Romeo Hanover to complete the Pacing Triple Crown in 1966. William Myer drove Romeo Hanover in the Cane Pace with Sholty winning the Little Brown Jug and Messenger.
Although seeking his first Futurity win, Zeron has won the Tattersalls so he has had some success in big 3-year-old races at the Red Mile. He is already the youngest driver to win the Little Brown Jug (with Michael’s Power in 2012) and the second youngest to win the Hambletonian. As a Canadian, he still yearns to win the Canadian Trotting Classic, but a win on Sunday would take away the sting of that setback.
“It would take ALL of the pain away from that, no doubt,” Zeron said. “I would forget about the Trotting Classic by winning the Futurity and getting that Triple Crown.”
The list of drivers to be part of a Trotting Triple Crown-winning campaign includes Hall of Famers Joe O’Brien, Ralph Baldwin, John Simpson Sr., Stanley Dancer (twice), Howard Beissinger, and Campbell. To join that list at all would be impressive. To be the youngest man on it makes it even more notable.
“It’s a big deal for me,” Zeron said. “I’m here for the whole Grand Circuit two weeks. It all leads up to that last day. I’m excited about it, I’m confident my horse can do it.
“It’s a lot for a horse to do. But hopefully we draw well, hopefully I drive well and the horse is on his game.”
One thing that’s not on is the pressure.