03/02/2017 10:44AM

Bergman: Pierce at peace with retirement decision

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Derick Giwner
Ron Pierce decided to retire to protect his health.

Ron Pierce wasn’t hurrying to make the first post at Harrah’s Philadelphia. He wasn’t on his way to the airport to catch a flight out of town for a major race. He wasn’t in between shifts going from his daytime job to his nighttime job. No, Ron Pierce was cutting down some branches when the phone rang and he seemed rather content.

“I’m doing some yard work,” Pierce said when asked if there was going to be an end to his retirement and a return to the sulky.

I saw Pierce in November at the Breeders Crown and the Hall of Fame driver looked as fit and sharp as I’ve ever seen him. Despite his so-called advancing age Pierce looked good enough to intercept a passing sulky and return to the track for the biggest event.

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On the track Pierce always appeared fearless in two senses of the word. Not only was he unafraid to challenge with abandon, he was also not intimidated by the size of the purse or the pressure of the moment. So many of Pierce’s biggest drives and biggest wins came when he asserted a “sixth sense” and made a power move that surprised his seasoned opponents.

You have to be mentally tough and physically tough to play in any sport for a length of time and Pierce seemed to exemplify those characteristics throughout his more than 30-year career as a driver of standardbreds.

“It’s a dangerous sport,” Pierce said of his former career. “People can’t tell from watching from the grandstand but when you get thrown and hit the ground it hurts.”

Pierce wasn’t often on the ground throughout his career unless you count his dismounts in the winner’s circle. Yet like almost every driver that has ever competed he’s been involved in accidents that can impact your body.

For years Pierce had neck and back issues that he simply dealt with. The mark of manhood for many is the ability to shake off pain or realistically play with it. Whether Pierce was in discomfort or not on the racetrack there were few in the grandstand that would know. His level of performance never seemed to slip.

Today, Pierce has a mindset that thinks of life away from the track, but more importantly he is aware of his current health and wants to maintain it.

“The doctor that did the operation on my neck didn’t know what I did for a living,” Pierce said. “When he found out he told me what the risks of continuing would be.”

Those risks were something Pierce had to take seriously, even if he had somehow ignored them and competed before.

“They put pieces in my neck and pieces in my back that are holding me together,” Pierce said. “If I would hit the track now I’d break into a thousand pieces. I don’t want to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”

So Pierce will stay away from the sulky in the future but he’s not short of recollecting the past that saw him drive some of the sport’s biggest stars and win some of its biggest races numerous times.

In going through his top five trotters of all time Pierce started off with the 2007 Hambletonian winner Donato Hanover.

“He has to be right up there,” said Pierce of the near flawless Donato Hanover, a winner of nearly $3 million with a 1:50 1/5 career mark.

“You know I think if he had raced Muscle Hill on a regular basis the two of them would have split the wins,” Pierce said. “He had that kind of speed.”

Muscle Hill was born a few years later and Pierce was often right behind him with Explosive Matter, another star performer that finished second in the Hambletonian.

“Explosive Matter was a very good horse with a very good mouth that gave you his best every time he raced,” said Pierce.

Perhaps one of Pierce’s best drives came in the 2010 Hambletonian where he sat behind elimination runner-up Muscle Massive in the final and engineered a 6-1 upset. With Muscle Massive Pierce was the only one in the field unafraid to test the inside speed of Cassis, the second choice in the $1.5 million contest. That move would put Muscle Massive in the pocket and would allow him to sprint to victory ahead of Lucky Chucky.

“Muscle Massive was a very talented colt,” said Pierce.

 “Tom Ridge was one of the fastest trotters I ever drove,” said Pierce of the underrated son of Muscles Yankee that took a 1:50 2/5 record winning the World Trotting Derby at DuQuoin in 2004, defeating Cantab Hall in the process.

American Winner’s Hambletonian victory in 1993 was the first of Pierce’s three successes in the sport’s biggest race and it helped him gain the recognition required to gain entry into the elite club. Pierce’s coolness in the sulky driving American Winner no doubt improved his standing among the training colony and led him to a career that saw him guide the winners of more than $215 million.

In a couple of weeks it will be a full two years since Pierce last drove in a race.

“I always knew there would come a time,” said Pierce, now 60, “That I wouldn’t have the same reflexes to go out there.”

Pierce recognizes that others still do but he believes he’s put his body through enough physically and would like to enjoy the rest of his life upright and with limited pain.

Our society rewards those who show the theoretical toughness to play in pain and risk their lives for our entertainment. It takes a different kind of person to recognize when their time has arrived and whether taking one more step on the racetrack could be their last.

Ron Pierce made an enormous amount of right moves on the racetrack. His decision to leave it at this time may have been his best move yet.

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