Saturday, 20 August 2016

An interview with...Aaron Merriman

Now before y'all go thinking I spent all last week running around asking 'famous' people for interviews, I didn't.  For a start, I refrain from running unless absolutely necessary (forest fire, bear, runaway driverless car).  The Double D interview came about as an idea to kill time during a long journey, plus it gave us a chance to find out quite a lot more about him; this interview came about because Dexter and Tom introduced me to Aaron on the Saturday after racing at Portmarnock and kinda jokingly-not-jokingly suggested I interview him as well.

I'm the kinda person who says 'yes'.  I like other people who say 'yes'.  Life is too short to turn down opportunities, and you never know where those opportunities may lead.  In fact, I say 'yes' to pretty much everything.  As my dad says, "you're a long time dead".

Anyway, I'm glad Aaron said 'yes' when I asked him if he wouldn't mind being interviewed.  Because, as it turned out, it was one of the funniest parts of my entire weekend in Ireland.  This guy is an absolute hoot!  Meet Aaron Merriman, from Ohio, who has driven in excess of 8,000 winners and in 2015 was crowned North America's leading driver.  I don't think I need to give him much more of an introduction than that!!


For anybody who doesn't know you, how long have you been involved in the sport and where did it all start?
I started driving when I was 21.  My dad (Lanny Merriman) is a driver, but despite that I never really wanted to be a driver growing up.  I wanted to be an athlete, or a basketball player.  Or a mail man!

So my dad still drives, and we've actually driven against each other.  I learnt from him, although I have more wins now.  He does more on the training side.  I trained for a few years and liked it, but I'm driving so many horses that I don't have the time to train right now.

Which is the best horse you've ever driven?
I drove Foiled Again (Dragon Again-In A Safe Place-Artsplace) once, that was probably what you'd class as the best horse career-wise.  But I've driven a lot of nice horses, every time I win is like the best horse I've driven at that moment because it's given me the win.  I just want to win, I'm a complete pyscho about winning!

I'm driving a horse called Tamarind (Angus Hall-Spicegirl Kosmos-S Js Photo) at the moment, he's little and really, really tough.  You can drive him bad and he'll still race good.  The horse likes me so I like him more!  Midnight Jewel (Keystone Raider-Anorexia-Dream Maker) kinda got my career going, she won 25 races in Open company in one year.

Which horse, past or present that you haven't driven, would you like to drive and why?
Greyhound (Guy Abbey-Elizabeth-Peter The Great), because of my love for trotters.  He was a freak.  Imagine how he would go now with all the improvements in equipment etc.  A horse like him would be awesome.  I'd just like to see him race today, with all that evolution in technology and everything else.

Greyhound was, and still is, a legend amongst many harness racing enthusiasts.  Born in 1932, the grey trotter won the Hambletonion in 1935 and in 1938 lowered the mile record for trotters to 1.55¼.  The record stood until 1969.

Do you prefer driving trotters or pacers?
I like both.  I like trotters better; I've grown to love driving them.  Pacers are faster and when you're younger they're easier to drive because they've hopples to help you but driving a good trotter is the best feeling, you can't beat it.  It's unsurpassed.

I really like driving horses for the first time.  You get to know each other.

Who did, or do, you admire as a driver?
Of course I admire my father as he taught me and brought me up the right way from the first stage.  He's always there with constructive criticism.  He's won a couple of thousand races, he's a good horseman and I've learnt a lot from him.

I also admire some of my peers, which has been great to have been able to race against them.  In particular Ronnie Wren Jr, David and Brett Miller, they're some of my favourites.  Also Dave Palone.  You can't argue with success, he's been a driving champion at his track for 20+ years.  He's real tough.  To be able to race with guys like that every day and call them your friends, it's an awesome experience.  I'm happy to race against them.

Which is your favourite track in the USA, and why?
Pocono [Downs], just because speed carries.  It's a very, very, very fast track.  I'm more on the aggressive side as a driver and you can be aggressive there, the horses can keep going.  The Meadows has made me a better driver over the years though.  You can't pull them early, you've gotta take care of the horse so it makes you more patient.  Pocono is a very nice track but the Meadows has made me a better driver for sure.

If you could change one thing about the sport in US, what would it be?
People who don't appreciate what they do for a living.  They take it for granted.  After coming here [Portmarnock], it's such a difference.  It's sad that people back home don't appreciate it.

I'd also like to be able to talk to the fans more, I think our governing body should be more open with the fans and the gamblers to tell them about things, about decisions that are made.  We don't educate our public enough.

In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between racing in the UK and Ireland and America?
Third row draws, that's new to me.  I've never seen that before in the US.  Even having more than two trailers [on the second line].  Being drawn nine on the third row, that doesn't happen.  It's a tight track here [Portmarnock], there's not much room compared to back home.

How much do you consider information from a trainer when you drive?
Depends who the trainer is.  I drive so many horses and I'm in races with a lot of horses as well, so I know them.  If it's a new horse then I usually ask two questions: are they good behind the gate, and are they good-gaited.  Sometimes people volunteer information.  I don't really ask if they're good behind the gate anymore actually because I just send them out the gate!!  You get to know the horses so that helps a lot.  You begin to know the drivers as well.  I usually read the race programme as well so there's some information in there, just before the race though not at home.  That's about it.

Out of all the races you have won, which has been the most memorable? 
My first win, it's where it started.  There's been a lot in between but when you first start driving, your anxiety or fear or nervousness is there because you haven't won a race.  When you win you know you're capable of actually winning races.  I like winning so I like all of my wins.  But the first...that's what made me think 'I can do this, let's keep doing this'. 

Which race that you haven't won would you like to win, and why?
Hmmmm. The Hambletonian, the biggest reason because it's been dominated by much of the same connections over the years. I would love to bring back a Hambletonian to the Midwest/Ohio. On the pacing side of course it would be the Little Brown Jug.

How would you describe your racing style?
Very, very aggressive!

Where do you see yourself in the sport 10 years from now?
Ideally I'll be driving, hopefully being as successful as I am now.  But possibly slowing down some, maybe not travelling as much.  Then I could train some.  If my golf game hit a miracle then I'll become a pro golfer!  But something within the sport, I just love the breed.

Have you ever competed in the WDC?
No, but I want to.  It would be an unbelievable honour.  It would be phenomenal.  It was in the USA back when I was a groom for my father; a French driver actually won it on a horse that I was a groom for. 

What are your hobbies/interests outside of racing?
Spending time with family and friends.  I race an awful lot so I don't have that opportunity much.  I really like to swim or play golf, shoot hoops with my son, go out and get dinner.

If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be and why?
Australia.  It looks beautiful there.  And New Zealand.  It would be a really long plane ride but I would love the opportunity to go to both of those places.

You're stranded on a desert island - what five things can't you live without?
(After we'd established that we were excluding people and just taking inanimate objects...)
Chinese food/sushi, cell phone, golf clubs, swimming trunks, Summer Shandy (it's a beer).

(We did also discuss the purpose of swimming trunks, seeing as it's a desert island and Aaron wasn't taking any people...).

You're holding a dinner party for five famous guests (alive or dead) - who would they be and why?
LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Johnny Manziel, Abraham Lincoln.

If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
I would go to the vaults of casinos and take all the money because they take everyone's money!! 

If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would spend your winnings on?
I’d give a lot away to my family.  I wouldn’t change a whole lot.  I would pay any bills I owe and make sure my family’s taken care of.

What would you name your autobiography?

Which actor would play you in a film about your life?
They couldn't make a film about my life first of all, they would have trouble!  But if I had to pick, Kevin Hart, he's comedic.

When was the last time you got into trouble?
My girlfriend Tessa shouts at me, she thinks I'm in trouble a lot.  I got arrested for the first time in my life last year.  I had a suspended licence because I'd gotten a lot of speeding tickets.  I didn't realise I had to reinstate it, I thought it did that automatically.  So I got cuffed and stuffed for it.  It was just a few hours though

Describe yourself in three words.
Friendly, fun, eccentric.

My number 1 fan!!
I defy any of you who have read this not to have laughed out loud at some point.  Not only did I laugh like a crazy person whilst holed up in the back of Porterstown Stud's lorry doing this interview, I've also sat here tonight in my living room and laughed out loud again like a crazy person.

THANK YOU Aaron for taking time out of your day on Sunday at the track to answer the questions.  I totally forgot to congratulate you on your win with Porterstown Road all of five minutes before the above happened as well!

Driving Porterstown Road to victory in the FFA at Portmarnock (Graham Rees photo)

Celebrating the win in Ireland with the family (Tessa Koran photo)
I don't know where I go from here.  The 'An interview with...' series is officially back in hibernation until I come up with my next epic idea.  It'll take a lot to top the last two in the series.

As for my usual posts, they will resume shortly.  There was a whole weekend of fun in Portmarnock that I need to put into words...if that is even possible.  But for now, I'm heading to Tir Prince, north Wales, to cheer on Stoneriggs Mystery in the Crock of Gold Final tonight.  I'll be trying to get a slice of Pinno's 2/1 about the old horse before the draw.  Then I'm hitting up Bells Field on Sunday for the first time with the dog and horse in tow.  Busy weekend ahead!!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

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