12/21/2012 3:07PM

Harness Racing: Eric Carlson is coming to the Meadowlands in 2013

Lisa Photo
Horses driven by Eric Carlson have earned over $9 million.

When the Meadowlands opens for business on Friday (December 28) there will be a fresh face in the driving colony. Eric Carlson, a former cross-country runner who competed at the University of Michigan, plans to spend his first winter competing at the East Rutherford, New Jersey oval.

It won’t be the first time Carlson has raced at the Meadowlands. That came earlier this year on June 30.

“Most of the top drivers were racing out of town in stakes races,” said Carlson. “Bruce Saunders asked me to drive a filly Moonlit Dragon in a division of the Reynolds. He didn’t know how good she was and neither did I.”

When Carlson got behind Moonlit Dragon, it was the first time he’d ever set foot on the surface. The result was Moonlit Dragon capturing the $50,552 stakes event.

The victory was by no means beginners luck.

Carlson has been around horses all of his life. His father, a teacher in Michigan, had campaigned horses and Eric learned the business from the ground up. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Carlson went on to take what he describes as a “good job” with an auto parts company.

“I was working full-time and training and driving a small group of horses part-time,” said Carlson.

While growing up he had watched Michigan’s top drivers Peter Wrenn and Kevin Wallis compete and was confident he could do well on the racetrack. In 2001 he finally made the decision to get out of the auto business and try his hand earning a living in the horse business.

“I had a small stable of horses and we did pretty well. I did my own shoeing,” Carlson said.

Initially Carlson would drive mostly his own horses, but in time others would notice his ability on the racetrack.

“When you’re driving your own stock and they’re going off at 10-1 and beating other guy’s horses that are even money, you get noticed,” Carlson said.

In 2005 he started getting more drives on the Michigan-Southern Ontario circuit, but it wouldn’t be until 2009 that Carlson would make his move.

Carlson had enjoyed his greatest success in the sulky in 2008 winning 92 races in 512 starts, but there was a limit of how much he could earn as the fortunes of racing were changing in Michigan.

“The state of racing in Michigan was not good,” Carlson said in the nicest way.

So when trainer Perry Smith called and told him he would give him drives racing in Chicago, Carlson jumped at the opportunity to race at Balmoral Park and Maywood Park.

Carlson took advantage of the chance and quadrupled his win total from the year before, winning 361 times in 2009 and going over the $1 million mark in earnings for the first time. It was more than his horses had earned in his first 10 years in the sulky combined.

What Carlson learned in Chicago was the value of driving every type of horse no matter what.

“You’re driving 50-1 shots from outside posts a lot. But in those races if you can get a fourth or fifth place check it’s big,” said Carlson.

Other trainers started taking notice and by 2010 Carlson was driving many more favorites than longshots and catching the eye of not only more trainers but of more astute gamblers.

It was an astonishing year for Carlson, with his win total ballooning to 603 in just 2,357 drives. While his win total slipped some in 2011 to 488, Carlson’s mounts earned $2.3 million, showing that he was obviously getting the calls on better caliber horses and delivering.

Carlson continued in Chicago through this past winter, but when local trainer Ken Rucker suggested that he drive some of his horses when Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs opened this past March, Carlson again packed his bags and took the plunge.

The move would take Carlson from Pocono to Harrah’s Philadelphia and to Dover Downs on a regular basis, with the driver doing what he has done for years-driving longshots and giving them a shot.

The shift in scenery has put a serious dent on Carlson’s UDRS (Driver’s Weighted Batting Average). His total has dipped to .229 this year, well bellow his .391 rating in 2010. But that’s easy to understand when you become the low man on the totem pole trying to catch on in a hotly contested environment that already has established drivers.

The fact that Carlson’s roughly 2,500 drives this year have netted his supporters $3.2 million in earnings is the most significant statement that the driver has made an incredible impact in his first year on the east coast.

“There have been a lot of doubleheaders,” Carlson says with pride about his day-night trips from Harrah’s Philadelphia to Dover Downs. Not all of those days are fruitful but the driver remains upbeat and positive for his next opportunity.

This past Wednesday at Harrah’s Philadelphia, Carlson drove three of the first four winners on the 14-race program. When you consider he was beating the top drivers in the sport, namely Tim Tetrick, Yannick Gingras, Ron Pierce and Andy Miller, there is plenty of reason to believe he’s set up for success at the coming Meadowlands meet.

Carlson now resides in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a convenient midway point between the areas harness tracks. At 37 years of age it’s not like he’s been an overnight success. Clearly over the last four years his star has been on the rise.

As for his driving style, “It’s more about feel for me. I see how the horse feels when I go on the track and I try to follow,” Carlson said.

What Carlson has gained over the last year is a familiarity with the horses he drives and the ones he drives against. All catch drivers have to adapt to their circumstances whether it be the horses they are driving or the competition. Carlson has clearly shown an incredible knack for learning and earning on the job.

So expect him to do well at the Meadowlands in 2013 even when the top drivers are in town.