11/24/2017 10:04AM

Gisser: Plenty to be thankful for in the Midwest


A sweet potato dish. My mom asked if I could bring a sweet potato dish to Thanksgiving dinner. I have never cooked sweet potatoes (or yams, either) in my life. What the heck was she thinking? And as I became more and more upset that I would not be bringing my award-winning cheesy garlic mashed potatoes, I stopped. “Just be thankful that mom and dad, now in their 80s, still have the health and energy to host whichever of their kids, kid-in-laws and grandkids can make the trek to suburban Cleveland for the celebration,” I thought.

This Thanksgiving, I have lots to be thankful for and while relatively good health (for a guy who drinks too much bourbon and smokes too many CAO MX2s, as my Doctor always tells me after our semi-annual visits) and a roof that only leaks a little over my head are a huge part of that, I am thankful for a lot of what is happening in harness racing, too.

It’s a great time to be a Midwesterner in harness racing and I am thankful for the resurgence of Midwest (and especially Buckeye State) racing. That rebirth was really brought to light with the remarkably professional work done by Hoosier Park in hosting the Breeders Crown races this fall. But that grand event was the culmination of a great year in the Midwest. I am thankful the sport’s establishment realizes there is more than New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in Harness Racing.

I am thankful to see Aaron Merriman, the hardest working man in harness racing, again destroying the standings as winningest driver. He should go over 1,000 wins this year, for the first time in his career. Aaron is a great guy who many years ago, while out with an injury, did a great job co-hosting our simulcast show at Northfield. He didn’t have to, he wanted do. And now he is within shouting distance of 10,000 career wins. Not bad for a guy who wanted to be a postman at one point in his life.

I am thankful for trainer Brian Brown and the recognition he is getting. Brian is just one of good guys in the sport and he is having another banner year, even if I do have to put up with the insane, bourbon-fueled, social media rants of one of his relatives who shall remain nameless. But Brian just keeps working hard and surrounding himself with other hard workers. The fact that he has some great Ohio-based owners is also a great signal of the sport’s Midwest health.

I am thankful to see driver Chris Page start to get a bit of National attention after driving possible divisional winner Downbytheseaside (a Brian Brown-trainee) to victory in the Monument Circle at Hoosier and the Matron at Dover. A Mt. Vernon, Ohio native, Chris traveled the Ohio tracks quite a bit learning his trade in the early days (10 years ago he wasn’t even getting 1,000 drives a season), but the success of Ohio slots has helped put him on a three-year-roll.

I am thankful I was wrong about Miami Valley and Dayton. I thought it was stupid putting two tracks so close together and that it was a formula for failure, but both tracks have been successful, drawing quality horses and horsemen, while basically sharing a circuit with Scioto Downs, which has returned to being Ohio’s Showplace of Racing. The limited schedule allows rich purses at all three.

I am also thankful that my home track, Northfield Park, where I toiled in one form or another for nearly 20 years, has reemphasized its on-track product. And while racing 200+ nights a year for 20 or more consecutive is a model that would be unsustainable for most tracks, Northfield pulls it off with an aggressive driver colony and competitive racing.

And, as our fan base ages, I am thankful for the Harness Horse Youth Foundation (HHYF). Now in its fifth decade, the organization was founded in Ohio and has been headquartered in Indiana for many, many years. No matter where it is headquartered, it will always be a part of the Midwest tradition of the sport to me. But one thing that will never change is its dedication to teaching and developing the next generation of harness racing fans. Executive Director Ellen Taylor and her diverse group of Trustees should be proud of what HHYF has accomplished and of its potential for the future. If you are looking at ‘Giving Tuesday’ on November 28, or year-end giving or any other donation to an industry-based charitable organization, you could do no better than the HHYF.

That’s it for this month. Hey, mom did call me back. Turns out my one brother (whose wife wanted sweet potatoes with the Thanksgiving feast) didn't show up. So it was cheesy garlic mashed after all.  Now I am truly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving. See you next month.