Day At The Track

Calabrese reflects on Big M victories

10:00 AM 11 Mar 2021 NZDT
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John Calabrese, harness racing
John Calabrese
Lisa Photo

When the Meadowlands Racetrack opened on Sept. 1, 1976, a 16-year-old John Calabrese was in attendance. The new facility was less than 10 minutes from his childhood home in North Jersey and gave Calabrese his first-ever look at harness racing.

"It was such a big thing when they built the (football) stadium and the racetrack," Calabrese said. "There were so many commercials on TV, so much fanfare about it, so we went to the track. It was fabulous. That was it.

"My father and I and my brother used to go there all the time. We'd have dinner, we'd look at each other, and my father would ask if we wanted to go to the races. We'd say, sure."

Forty-five years later, Calabrese is still going to The Meadowlands. Now, though, he is on the other side of the fence, competing as an amateur driver. He won last week's GSY Amateur Series event at The Big M with Preppy Art and is the 3-1 morning-line favorite with the same horse in Friday's fifth of six legs in the series.

"To win races there all these years later is incredible," said Calabrese, who got his first Meadowlands driving victory in 2016 and has totaled 12 of his 76 lifetime triumphs there. "It's great to win a race anywhere, but The Meadowlands is really special. There is nothing like it."

Calabrese worked at the racetrack while in college before shifting his attention to the backstretch. What he really wanted to do was work with the horses. So, during the summer between his junior and senior years at Upsala College, he went to the stables and got jobs with several trainers. After graduating, he never considered any other career.

"I never made out a resume, I never looked for a job," Calabrese said. "I went right back to the barn."

In the 1990s, Calabrese started his own training stable. He still conditions a handful of horses at his 30-acre farm in central New Jersey.

"I was driving at Freehold when I started out, but I was only driving once a week," Calabrese said. "I found that driving once a week, I just couldn't compete with those guys. I still drive some of my young trotters in the beginning until I get them set, but then I turn them over to catch drivers."

He added, with a laugh, "I stick to the amateurs for myself. I absolutely love driving. It's an absolute thrill, just that rush you get when you go behind the gate."

Calabrese's biggest thrill so far came in 2016 when he won a GSY Pro-Am race at The Meadowlands. The field included two Hall of Fame drivers, John Campbell and David Miller, as well as Tim Tetrick, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.

 

 

 

Making the victory even more special was that Hall of Fame trainer Ray Remmen, who won the first race at The Meadowlands in 1976 and captured multiple training titles at the track, presented the trophy in the winner's circle. Calabrese worked for Ray and his brother Larry after graduating from college and it was the Remmens who got Calabrese started in amateur driving thanks to a trotter named Keenan.

"I owe it all to them," Calabrese said.

And a trip to a new racetrack, all those decades ago.

by Ken Weingartner, for the U.S. Trotting Association

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