Hot Dog! Calabrese Relishes Amateur Driving Award

John Calabrese at the Dan Patch Awards
Published: February 29, 2024 03:20 pm EST

Long before he began competing in harness racing and winning races as a trainer and driver, John Calabrese set a track record at The Meadowlands... for selling hot dogs.

Calabrese, who grew up 10 minutes from the Big M, spent three summers while home from college working a hot dog cart on the track’s apron. One night in 1980, with the great pacer Niatross as the star attraction, Calabrese sold 1,042.

“When I went to check out that night, the boss was stunned and said it was double the amount anybody ever sold,” said Calabrese. “After I started in the horse business, I would visit my old bosses and joke with them and ask if anybody got close [to that number]. They would just shake their heads and say that record would never be broken.”

He added, with a laugh, “So, for everybody that has a track record at The Meadowlands, I have one too.”

Calabrese, who never saw a harness race prior to heading to The Meadowlands for its opening night in 1976, has come a long way since those days with the hot dog cart. After getting out of school, he began working with the horses, first as a groom for future Hall of Famer Ron Waples, and later opened his own stable.

Eight years ago, Hall of Famer Ray Remmen got Calabrese started as an amateur driver with a trotter named Keenan. This past December, Calabrese was named the Amateur Driver of the Year by the United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA). The 64-year-old Calabrese picked up his trophy on Sunday, Feb. 25 at USHWA’s Dan Patch Awards banquet in Orlando, Florida.

“It’s quite an honour,” said Calabrese. “It was a great year. I appreciate all the people that let me drive their horses.”

Calabrese won 26 races and $244,940 in purses, both career highs, in 2023. Among the highlights was winning the NAADA Amateur Spring Series final on May 18 at MGM Yonkers Raceway and capturing the AHDC Spring championship nine days later at Freehold Raceway. He won both races with Shoemaker Hanover, a horse he trained.

“That was pretty cool,” said Calabrese.

He also won the Italian-American drivers race at Freehold in October, and notched a victory at Flamboro Downs later that month.

“A lot of things went well,” said Calabrese. “The first guy I ever worked for was Ronnie Waples. I was in Canada for six months the one year and I got to know a lot of people up there. So, it was really cool to go back to Flamboro and see people.”

Calabrese, who has won 138 career races as a driver and 185 as a trainer, knew he was having a good season, but wasn’t focused on winning the Amateur Driver of the Year trophy.

“For a while I thought about it, but by the end of the year, I was just driving,” he said. “I just train my horses, drive, and whatever happens, happens. I had some nice horses that I train myself that I was jockeying around and then I picked up some really nice catch drives. It was a lot of travelling around, but I got it done.”

As for this year, Calabrese will represent the U.S. at the World Championship for amateurs in August in Finland, and he will try to repeat as Amateur Driver of the Year here at home. Hannah Miller (2015 and 2016) and Dein Spriggs (2004 and 2005) are the only drivers to accomplish the feat this century.

“I cut back on my training this year. I trained five horses last year and it got to be a lot, and I don’t know if that’s going to affect me driving in the amateurs,” said Calabrese, who has won 64 races as a driver the past three years. “But I would like to repeat, so if that’s a goal, I’m ready.”

Calabrese got his first win of 2024 earlier this month at Freehold. On Friday, he will try for his second with Allindotime, trained by Bill MacKenzie, in a Meadowlands Amateur Drivers Club event at The Meadowlands. Allindotime is 5-1 on the morning line.

“I like that horse; he’s a nice horse,” said Calabrese. “Every time I’ve driven him, Bill has had him ready to roll. He’ll be OK in there.”

Racing begins at 6:20 p.m. (EST) at The Meadowlands. For a free TrackMaster program for the Big M, click here.

Friday will be Calabrese’s first start at the Big M as the reigning Amateur Driver of the Year.

“The first harness race I ever saw was opening night there,” said Calabrese. “That’s what makes it special for me — being there from the beginning. I would have never dreamed of being Amateur Driver of the Year all these years later.”


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