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Ron Pierce Retires From Driving

Published: October 10, 2016 9:29 am ET

Last Comment: October 12, 2016 9:58 am ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

After one of the most decorated careers in harness racing history, driver Ron Pierce has officially retired from active competition.

"I still like it, the money's great and I'm still in decent shape," Pierce told Trot Insider on Friday morning. "I always told myself, even when I first started driving because I'd be driving with the older guys, and I'd always say to myself 'he must be a fool to be out here...if he hits the track it won't be easy on him' so I'm going to hang it up when I'm 60. I'll drive and work hard until I'm 60, and then that's it. Unfortunately, I had to hang it up when I was 58."

In 2015, doctors operated on Pierce's neck and back in what would be the first of multiple surgeries. He had originally pegged a return for 2016.

"I could still come back if I want. [Jimmy] Takter called me up today (Friday) and asked me to come out to Lexington and race one in the [Kentucky] Futurity for him," confessed Pierce. "I could come back...what would happen, I'd just sore up again. I'd be like an old racehorse that was turned out for a while with injuries still plaguing him...it's just a matter of time before those injuries come back, you know. And then I'd be sidelined again."

Pierce also told Trot Insider that due to the nature of his surgery and how doctors didn't fuse together new vertebra in his neck, an accident could jar those "new parts" loose and become lodged in his spinal column, leaving him paralyzed.

"I really feel, to race at the level I'd be racing at, I really don't think guys that have as many miles as I've got on me should be out there."

Born in Livermore, California on June 21, 1956, Pierce was introduced to Standardbred racing by his father Don, who was a driver and trainer on the west coast. He started driving in the late 1970s, plying his trade at various tracks around the U.S. and even had a stint driving in Macao in Southeast Asia. He returned to Southern California in the mid '80s and became a fixture on the California circuit, winning his first driving title at Los Alamitos in 1985. The following year, he became the leading dash-winning driver at Fairplex Park in California and Canterbury Downs in Minnesota.

After shifting his base to New Jersey in the late '80s, Pierce consistently ranked among the leading drivers at Freehold, Garden State and The Meadowlands. His 1989 season could be viewed in retrospect as his coming-out party. He represented the U.S. in the World Driving Championship and emerged victorious from that competition. Of the Grand Circuit horses that he feels changed the trajectory of his career, both of them came that season.

"I lucked into a horse for Kelvin Harrison called Sam Francisco Ben. And then another nice colt named Casino Cowboy for Jeff Pocaro. Those two colts put me in the bigger races. They just kept the snowball going."

Casino Cowboy won 13 of 37 starts that year, capturing multiple early season stakes and an elimination of the Oliver Wendell Holmes. Later that same year, Pierce piloted Sam Francisco Ben home in the $907,000 Woodrow Wilson final, defeating In The Pocket by a neck in 1989's richest freshman pacing event of the year.

In Pierce's words, the snowball kept rolling from there. He began to pick up more high profile drives, eventually landing on a trotting colt in 1993 by the name of American Winner, leading him to harness racing's holy grail.

"I remember I was driving for Per Eriksson for a couple of years before American Winner came along...he was telling me about this trotting colt that he was training as a yearling and two-year-old that could go a hundred miles an hour but just wasn't quite right," recounted Pierce. "Per had a falling out with the owner, Bob Key, and gave the colt up.

"The following year when I was racing at Freehold and the Meadowlands and doing double duty, the Dexter Cup would come along in the spring. I was one of the leading drivers at the time, and I noticed I was down on this trotting colt called American Winner and I knew nothing about him...I didn't realize it was the same colt Per was talking to me about the year before, until I drove him."

After finishing third in the elim, Pierce guided American Winner to a dramatic come-from-behind score from post eight in the Dexter Cup Final. The colt then reeled off eight straight wins -- including a world record performance in the 1993 Yonkers Trot -- before being upended by Pine Chip in the Beacon Course Trot, the final major prep for the Hambletonian.

American Winner was victorious in the rematch against Pine Chip, winning the first Hambletonian heat in a stakes record 1:53.1 before taking the second heat and final in an almost identical 1:53.2.

Two weeks after the Hambletonian, American Winner captured his Zweig division at Syracuse in 1:52.3, at the time the second-fastest trotting mile in harness racing history.

After his success with American Winner, Pierce picked up more momentum as the go-to guy for trainer Brett Pelling, who came east after (like Pierce) plying his trade in California.

"Brett was a fantastic trainer, a very high-percentage trainer and a really great horseman. He was using me to drive and we were winning a lot of races. That put me in a really good spot. I always gave Brett first call, I was getting pretty popular there...so not too many of the other outfits used me as one of their drivers until Brett decided to go back home to Australia," stated Pierce. "When Brett announced he was leaving, I thought 'oh my God, I'm going to starve to death.'

"But then no sooner did Brett leave and I became available to everybody and Jimmy Takter picked me up, and we became really good friends....we both kind of thought the same way about how a horse should be raced and he gave me one top horse after another, and kept me really busy for many years. Those two trainers did the most for me over my career."


Ron Pierce and Jimmy Takter celebrate their win in the 2010 Hambletonian with Muscle Massive (Iron Horse Photo)

The number of major stakes captured by and superstar horses driven by Ron Pierce over the last 20 years could easily fill this page. Three Hambletonians, four Little Brown Jugs, two North America Cups, a Triple Crown and 30 Breeders Crown trophies. He was also the primary driver for Horse of the Year winners Blissfull Hall (1999, Canada), Rainbow Blue (2004, Canada and U.S.) and Donato Hanover (2007, U.S.).

Pierce retires with more than 9,560 wins and earnings exceeding $215 million (USD), placing him second all-time in the money category. And with a career nearly unparalleled in success, he doesn't think back to some of the major wins when asked to reflect. Rather, he most recalls the races he felt he should have won but didn't.

"When I think back, I think of the races I should have won when I got beat. It's funny, but I'm not the only harness horse driver that thinks like that."

Pierce prided himself on his work ethic, but found his Achilles heel to be managing his own success and popularity.

"I was a hard worker and I always made myself available, for everybody. It's extremely difficult for a driver when he's in demand to race one horse over another horse, or race for one stable over another stable when both those stables are really good to you," he admitted. "That's the part I really wasn't good at in my career: juggling these stables around and keeping everybody happy. I just wasn't very good at it."

With five decades of harness racing involvement, Pierce was quick to respond to the aspect of the industry he'll miss the most.

"The nice, beautiful trotters. Ever since I started training horses or I was old enough to train a horse I always loved trotters. I just love a nice, world-class trotter. I get off on it...There's nothing like that feeling of getting on a nice trotter and having them get you around there. It's one of the nicest feelings I know.

"To tell you the truth, the only time I really felt like getting on a horse since I got hurt ... I stopped by Jimmy Campbell's barn one morning at White Birch, and he was hooking up this beautiful trotting filly, this yearling. That was the only time I felt like grabbing a helmet and gloves and getting on," continued Pierce. "I actually stayed away from the training centres and the tracks the last 18 or 20 months just because that feeling is so strong of wanting to get out there and race trotters. For me, I would much rather race a good trotter any day over a good pacer for some reason."

When asked to recall the trotters that gave him such a rush, Pierce offered Mr Muscleman, Donato Hanover, Passionate Glide and Lifelong Victory among a host of others. "I could just go on and on...all those nice trotters I raced for Jimmy [Takter]. There's a long list. I could walk around my house and look at the pictures on the wall."

The name Passionate Glide brings up memories of this time of year a decade ago when he guided that filly to victory in the 2006 Kentucky Filly Futurity in a race-off over Queen Serene. That event featured one of harness racing's most memorable mid-race celebrations when Pierce famously waved goodbye to Trond Smedhammer in the stretch.

Pierce admits that, in reflection, he might reconsider such a celebration if he was in a similar position.

"It seemed like the thing to do at the time but really it set a bad example for younger drivers in the sport. The top guys can't be doing things like that because the younger guys, they watch us close. And they're going to want to be like us. And they'll be driving these cheaper horses that will be hitting their knees and trying to make breaks, and they're liable to reach up with one hand and wave like that.

"At the same time, that horse could pop a knee or take a bad step ... and because they didn't have their hands in the handholds they wouldn't be able to pick them up and they could fall down. The seasoned drivers, of course they're not going to do that if they've got a horse that's a little iffy but the younger guys wouldn't know the difference. So that was the only bad part, I think."

While Pierce has come to grips with his retirement, he's by no means living a sedentary lifestyle. He made the most of time away required to allow his body to recuperate by enjoying some of his favourite recreational activities: going deep-sea fishing in Florida earlier this year before spending the last four months on the outer rim of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

"When I decided to go to Alaska for the summer, and try to get my legs and hips back in better shape to support my lower back, I was interested in nugget hunting with a metal detector," admitted Pierce. "I picked out a spot where most of the bigger nuggets in Alaska have been found over the years. It was up in the Arctic Circle, way, way up there. So I went up there and I'm learning how to metal detect with this metal detector I have and I didn't do very well at all...I was up there, geez, three and a half months...from the middle of May to the middle of August. And I only found like nine nuggets. But I still had a ball being up in that country. I had a really good time being up there but I still had to be careful ... I'd sore up if I did too much.

"I left that area August 16th I think it was, and I went to another area in Alaska and there was just so much more gold in this other area. I found like over 100 nuggets. I don't think I worked maybe 35-40 hours and I found over 100 nuggets in this other area. And I was hunting caribou at the same time. I spent about five, six weeks in that other area and I was really impressed with how much gold there was up there."

By his own admission, Pierce was an absolute rookie in terms of this form of hunting but noted the local inhabitants were extremely helpful and shared crucial information to him. He raved about the kindness of those individuals, a commodity as scarce as the elusive gold he was tracking.

"The country is very isolated, it's very remote. You could go, a whole month, from the time you have to come out of the mountains to get supplies from the time you go back in...from the time you go in the mountain back from getting your supplies in town, I spent like five to six weeks between resupplying myself with food and things that I would need.

"You have no internet, no phone. If you want you can bring in DVDs and watch movies at your camp, but you'd need a generator -- you're off the grid. It's very remote up there...it's right up my alley, to tell you the truth. It was just me and my dog, up in the Arctic Circle for three months or so. My brother came up from California for a while, and I had another brother come up from Washington state...but they have families, they have to get back home. But they had a great time."

The closest "town" to Pierce was 25 miles away: Coldfoot, Alaska. Population: 23. Amenities: gas station and restaurant.

"I had to go 273 miles down the road to Fairbanks to go to the grocery store...that was the closest grocery store. But I got pretty good, after being there for a couple of months, at knowing exactly what I would need to get me through the next four, five weeks. So I went to Fairbanks I'd resupply and then I'd be good for another few weeks.

"The towns up there, they're perfectly happy being off the grid. There are no roads going to these towns. There are winter trails when the ground freezes, and travel for those people is way easier in the winter. In the summer, all the rivers, lakes, creeks thaw out and it's harder for them to get around than when everythnig is frozen solid. A lot of those towns, the only way you can get machinery or something to them is in the winter when the rivers and lakes are frozen. Right now, that one area I was in, the rivers are already frozen solid. And you could drive a 18-wheeler or tractor trailer on them right now. The last couple of weeks I was up there with a pair of longjohns, a pair of pants, winter boots, thick shirts, a sweater, a vest and jacket and big ol' wool hat. It was getting cold."

Staying longer than he originally planned, Pierce returned to his New Jersey homebase this past week but plans on returning to Alaska at some point in 2017.

"There's no sense of me going until May of next year because the ground's still frozen solid until early May. When I first got up there in the middle of May in the Arctic Circle, there were sheets of ice that looked like miniature glaciers and they were still covering the rivers and creeks at the bottoms of these canyons. I'm talking ice like 10, 12, 15 feet thick, from one side of the canyon to the next. As the summer came on, it started melting."

Because of the remote location of his base, Pierce was unable to keep constant tabs on the harness racing industry but checked in from time to time when back within communications range to find out who won the major races.

As for the immediate future, Pierce plans on studying more about gold mining before keeping his options open for the winter.

"You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to keep myself busy for like December through March. I was planning on going down to Argentina and hanging out down there, but your plans can change and things can change. So I was thinking of maybe just going down to Florida and riding all winter. Not managing, I don't want to manage a stable or start my own. But I have a lot of good friends that break babies and train babies down there, and I was thinking of maybe just going down there, saying 'this is what I want to do', ride for them in the mornings, nothing else for a few months...because from March on I'll have plenty to do, but we'll see."

Please join Standardbred Canada in wishing Ron Pierce all the best in his retirement from active competition.

October 12, 2016 - 9:58 amDefinitely a sad day for

Joe Riga SAID...

Definitely a sad day for racing when a driver like Ron Pierce leaves the game. Without a doubt one of the best drivers to ever sit behind a horse. Always gave you a drive for your money. Will certainly miss his presence on the racetrack and will definitely miss his post-race interviews. Was one of the most colorful and honest commentators and always told you what he thought.
Sad to see that he couldn't leave the game on his own terms but definitely leaves us fans with a ton of memories of some great races. I can write a book on them but one that definitively stands out for me was his great drive on Art Official when he beat the Beach (sorry Beach lovers)in the Meadowlands pace. Ronny gave his horse a masterful drive.
And there are many many more too numerous to mention. I hope he stays involved in the game to some degree because he only makes it better.
Mr. Pierce, if you read these posts know that you are a true champion. Enjoy your retirement and thanks for some great memories.

October 11, 2016 - 10:05 pmRon, I'm in Vallarta ! It's

Mike Scott SAID...

Ron, I'm in Vallarta ! It's awesome , great pig hunting here !!!

October 10, 2016 - 12:36 pmSure going to miss you on the

Sure going to miss you on the track, the best of health to you in your retirement also the best of luck in your new venture and if you need a person to keep you company up north (to Alaska) feel free to get in touch with me. would really like to spend 3 or 4 months in Alaska. Ron

October 10, 2016 - 10:45 amLikely the most hard ball

Mike Scott SAID...

Likely the most hard ball driver of all times .... when he drove any horse, he was always a factor ...


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