01/30/2017 10:19AM

Gisser: The hardest working horse and driver in harness racing

Conrad Photo
Bourbon St Hanover won the second most races in 2016.

The late James Brown earned the title of “hardest working man in show business,” and he earned it. But the late soul singer couldn’t hold a candle to driver Aaron Merriman.  

The 2016 dash-winning champion, Merriman has posted over 800 wins in each of the past three seasons. But for me the truly amazing thing about Merriman is that in the past 10 years (2007-2016), he has driven in 36,955 races – an average of more than 10 races per day every day, seven days a week. That is just ridiculous.

In a typical year, Merriman drives in more races than either Northfield Park or The Meadows offer in total. Last year, he drove in 4,268 dashes. According to track announcer Roger Huston, The Meadows offered 2,608 races, while Northfield Park, which prides itself on one of the most comprehensive schedules in the sport, carded about 3,300. I know we don’t give out participation trophies, but in a sport where a major injury is just one step away (and Aaron has had his share), Merriman’s numbers truly stand out.

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Meanwhile, a somewhat unheralded horse can stake his claim toward James Brown’s title and it is no coincidence that Merriman has driven him several times, including posting a track record at the Canfield (OH) Fair in 2015. In fact, he has won the top race at that fair in each of the past five years. That horse is Bourbon St Hanover. He has averaged over 40 starts a year for the last four and a half years.

“He’s a brute,” said Merriman about the gelding with over $250,000 in career earnings. “He’s relentless. And once he gets to the front, you are not going to get by him. At Canfield we were parked past the quarter and we got to the half in like 55 seconds. He was pacing so fast my bike was on its side through the turns. He’s not Wiggle It Jiggleit, but he has beaten some pretty good horses.”

Jamie Coffy purchased the now 9-year-old son of Western Hanover-Bijou Hall from Bill Zendt in July of 2012 for $5,500. Since then he has won 67 races, an average of 15 races a year.

“Eddie McNeight found him for me. I think for the Zendts, he was just another horse in a full barn, and he wasn’t producing,” said Coffy. “And to be honest, I hated him at first. He was like a spoiled, rich frat boy. He had ability, but didn’t want to do his work. And he goes wide behind, he hits the bike. You have to be careful with him. He likes to put on a show.”

“The first few starts, he wasn’t very good,” she continued. “We took him to Lewisburg (The West Virginia State Fair) and I told Jeff (Lieberman, a friend who was the horse’s regular driver early on) he’s gonna make it or he is going to the buggy. A switch went off and he became a racehorse.”

In that trip to West Virginia, Bourbon St Hanover set what may have been the first of his obscure world records. He lost races on four consecutive days. But he did pick up three second-place checks and a third-place finish. In fact, he went on to race back-to-back the following week. He has not lost at Lewisburg since, winning the top pace (he has won his way out of the conditioned races, so he only races once a year down there these days) each year from 2011-2016. He also raced at Delaware Ohio three times in one week during 2012, and posted two other-back-to-back efforts.

“He wants a lot of work. He thrives on it. He trains on the gallop, that was Jeff’s idea, and we train him a mile two days before he races. We even turn him a mile before he races,” says Coffy. “You put him at a fair track and he thinks those people are there to see him. He doesn’t like being in the paddock.”

There have been many highlights for Coffy and Bourbon St Hanover, and while she knows anything can happen, she looks at the 100 career win mark as a distinct possibility if he stays sound. The gelding has posted double-digit wins the past four years and visited the winner’s circle 18 times last year, missing the dash title by one win. And every time he visits the winner’s circle, it’s an adventure.

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“He’s a handful in the winner’s circle. The photographers, the blanket people, they have to know he is a moving picture. He will not stop,” Coffy explains. ”You know, it’s kind of a shame. We lost a week at The Meadows, or I think he would have gotten to 19 . . . that would be cool, to win more than any other horse.”

“He’s 9 now. He might go on for five more years. But he doesn’t owe me anything. He gave me my fastest win as a driver. And he has turned into a real race horse- not just a county fair horse. He bought me a house. When he retires, I will ride him. And he is in my will. He is never going anywhere,” Coffy added.

And let’s give the hardest working man in harness racing the last word. “It’s all that girl,” Aaron Merriman concluded. “Jamie made that horse. He’s fit and she keeps him happy. And that’s why he wins those races.”

Bourbon St Hanover has won once in three starts in 2017. He was a $5.40 winner with Aaron Merriman driving at The Meadows on January 16. It was my first winning ticket of the year. Now you can go cash, too. See you next month.