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PROFILE: Ron Pierce: a man with many purses

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Ron Pierce after one of the races on April 20 at the Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack. Photo by Dylan Vaughn.
Ron Pierce after one of the races on April 20 at the Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack. Photo by Dylan Vaughan.

A field of nine horses and all the pacers are at the post. It is the 2008 Meadowlands Pace. The audience is about to witness a world-record upset. Off they go. Mucho Sleezy, Somebeachsomewhere, World-Record then, and Art Official fight for the lead. After a quarter Art Official goes to the front on the outside. With a half mile to go Somebeachsomewhere takes the lead. Art Official is right on his tail coming into the third quarter. Art Official and Somebeachsomewhere are neck and neck. At the wire, Art Official upsets the Meadowlands Pace field in a world record time of 1:47.

This was one of the greatest upsets in the history of harness racing. Art Official’s driver that day was a man named Ron Pierce.

Pierce, a 56 year old harness driver, Milltown Township, NJ resident, has won all the major races including The Meadowlands Pace, Hambletonian, The Little Brown Jug, The North American Cup and The Canadian Trotting Classic.

“These are all races that go for over a million dollars and I’ve won them all several times,” said Pierce. He receives five percent of the total prize.

One of Pierce’s biggest accomplishments is to be the only harness racer in history to win a million dollar race six consecutive years.

According to the United States Trotting Association, Ron Pierce is number 4 in number of wins as of May 2nd, 2013, with over $2 million dollars earned. The number one is Brian J Sears with over $3 million dollars.

Pierce told the VOICE that he was born in a horse’s stall in Bay Meadows, California. “My mom was cleaning a stall and all of a sudden her water broke and boosh, there I came out right on some straw,” said Pierce.

He grew up on that same farm and recalls his childhood, watching the jockeys and drivers during training hours. “I would spend time in the jocks’ room and I’d see what those drivers would go through to make weight. They would literally starve themselves,” said Pierce.

Drivers are heavier than jockeys, averaging 130 to 160 pounds versus a 110 pound jockey. Another difference between drivers and jockeys is that harness drivers ride a race bike located behind the horse and the jockeys ride the horse.

Seeing the struggle of jockeys to maintain the weight turned Pierce off from becoming a jockey and inspired him to become a driver.

According to Pierce, as a little boy he already knew what he wanted to do with his life. “It dawned on me that I was going to be a harness racer, when I was seven years old,” said Pierce.

He pursued his dream of becoming a driver throughout his childhood. In 1976, at the age of 16, Pierce received his qualifying license and shortly after, at 18, he had turned pro.

Harness race at the Harra’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack on April 20, 2013. Photo by Dylan Vaughn.
Harness race at the Harra’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack on April 20, 2013. Photo by Dylan Vaughan.

Pierce explains that he would win a couple races, travel the world and only return to the racing scene when he was out of money. “I’ve seen the world and more than a couple times,” said Pierce.

After traveling around the world, Pierce says he felt ready to get experience as a harness driver and moved to California in the early 1980s, where he became the leading driver at the local tracks. Soon after, Pierce wanted to start a family and also allow his career to take off.

In 1987, Pierce moved to New Jersey because of its reputation. “Central Jersey is the harness racing capital of the United States,” said Pierce.

Here he made his career and wrote his name is harness race history.

Rocky Bivona, a groomer for John Cabot in Dover, Delaware, said Pierce is “one of the best drivers out there. If I have a horse racing for big money, that’s who I want on my horse.”

Bivona is not the only one in the business with praise for Pierce. Brian Magie, a trainer for Winners International Farm in Chesterfield, New Jersey, has worked with Pierce several times throughout his career.

Magie describes him as a, “country boy” who is a, ”tremendous driver.” Magie also said, “he’ll be remembered long after this business is over.”

Ron Pierce’s oldest son, 18 year-old Jesse Pierce, is a professional motocross racer. Jesse says he is inspired by his dad’s success and focus.

Jesse told the VOICE, “[My dad] being one of the best drivers in the world definitely helps me out with being mentally prepared. He knows what it takes to be on top.”

Pierce’s elite status ensures that he will be remembered for a years to come. He has been in the California Horse Racing Hall of Fame and the National Hall of Fame since 2004.

“They put me in there because of my accomplishments and because I was lucky,” said Pierce.

The possibility of greater reward was matched by greater risk. The harness race horses reach speeds of forty miles an hour and crashes can be fatal.

“One thing that I got going for me is that I land good, but sometimes you don’t. Some guys land so bad that they get killed. I’ve been in a couple races that someone’s been killed,” said Pierce.

Ron Pierce and the drivers are lined up to start the race at Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack on April 20, 2013. Photo by Dylan Vaughan.

Pierce remembers one of the accidents he’s been involved in during a race. “The horse ran me over from behind and that really rung my bell.”

He also said that he has had a lot of broken bones throughout his career because of accidents. “Almost every bone in the right side of my body has been broken at one time or another,” said Pierce. But there is one in particular incident he says he can’t forget. “The one that bugs me the most is probably when I broke my neck,” said Pierce.

All the accidents and injuries haven’t stopped Pierce from racing and he explained how he’s been able to recover from those moments. “Stay flexible and tuck and roll you’ll be in better shape when you fall, and if you don’t get ran over by the horse behind you that always helps,” said Pierce.

Now in his fifties, Pierce is one of the few competitive racers in his age group. Although thinking about retirement Pierce says he still has business to take care of. “I want to win all of the big ones again. The money comes in really handy,” said Pierce with a smile.

Pierce said that he doesn’t know exactly how long he will race but he knows exactly when he is going to end his career. “I don’t know how many more years I can stay on the top level, but as soon as I’m not at the top level, or I’m not racing the top horses to drive, then I’m going to retire,” said Pierce.

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