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Harness Racing: Inside look at driver Matt Kakaley
Over the previous three years, Matt Kakaley won a total of 16 races at Yonkers. So far this season, Kakaley has 49 victories – good for second place among all drivers at the Hilltop – while winning at a 21.7-percent clip.
Kakaley, of course, is no stranger to visiting the winner’s circle; in 2009 at the age of 21 he became the youngest driver to reach 1,000 career triumphs (a record broken by Doug McNair in 2010) and last year he became the youngest to hit the 2,000-victory level.
In 2011, Kakaley won a career-best $6.06 million in purses and was the leading driver at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. Last year, he finished second at the northeastern Pennsylvania oval and was third in wins during the winter meet at Dover Downs in Delaware.
Kakaley picked up his top lifetime open stakes win last year, guiding Clear Vision to a nose victory over Foiled Again in the $182,000 Bettor’s Delight at Tioga Downs. The field also included older pacing stars Bettor Sweet, Won The West, We Will See and Aracache Hanover.
He also had stakes wins at Indiana Downs with Carols Desire and Dedi’s Dragon, as well as Pennsylvania Sire Stakes victories with a group that included Darena Hanover, Stormin Normand and Frau Blucher.
A third generation horseman, Kakaley follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, Joe, who owned horses and spurred the family’s interest in harness racing, plus dad, driver John Kakaley, and mom, trainer Linda Kakaley. He lived in Michigan, but spent his teen years around Pompano Park in Florida before moving to Ohio in 2007 and embarking full time on his career as a driver.
In 2010, Kakaley was given the Rising Star Award by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.
Kakaley recently took time to speak with Harness Racing Communications’ Ken Weingartner about his year so far, and the future.
HRC: You seem to be driving at Yonkers more than in previous years.
MK: Yonkers has been really good to me right now. I’m driving all of (trainer) Ronnie Burke’s (horses) and they’re all ready to roll and his barn is on fire right now. So things are going along pretty good.
HRC: Are you still planning to go back to Pocono when it opens?
MK: That’s the plan right now.
HRC: Is that plan subject to change?
MK: You never know. Things are going so well at Yonkers. It’s not out of the question, put it that way.
HRC: You drive a lot of the Burkes’ horses at Pocono, too, so is that something you would discuss with Ron?
MK: Yeah, it’s whatever Ron wants me to do. If he’d rather have me at Yonkers driving horses, then I’ll stay at Yonkers. If he wants me at Pocono, I’ll be back there. Once the stakes season starts up I want to be at Pocono anyway and try to get some Pennsylvania-breds to go with.
HRC: What was the highlight for you last year? You had some nice stakes wins.
MK: The Bettor’s Delight with Clear Vision and I went to Indiana and won a couple of stakes there. I’m starting to pick up some (stakes horses). I drove in the Jugette last year. I drove quite a few Pa.-bred horses that did well. It’s starting to come around.
HRC: Which race stands out for you?
MK: The Bettor’s Delight; that was a good day. That horse raced great that day. The Bettor’s Delight field was the top horses in the country at that time. It was stacked up.
HRC: Let’s test your memory. You got your first win with a horse trained by your mom. What do you remember about that experience?
MK: My first win was in the amateurs. The horse’s name was OG’s Charlene. I just kind of rolled off the gate, made the front; I didn’t take any prisoners and she held on for me.
HRC: What was the feeling like to get that first win and do it with a family horse?
MK: The first win is always exciting. I think it sticks in your mind; I think it sticks in everybody’s mind, just because it is so exciting. When you first start out, you want to win that first one and get it off your back. With my mom’s horse, it was extra special. I used to jog that horse all the time. It was a good day.
Everybody from the track was there, because I grew up at Pompano and everybody knew me. There were a lot of people in there. It was exciting to get back to the winner’s circle and get the picture taken.
HRC: Was it hard to leave Florida, to know you had to go elsewhere to get started?
MK: In the wintertime there were a lot of good drivers there. It was competitive, that’s why I had to leave to get my feet wet somewhere else. I knew I was going to have to do it. (Trainer) Mickey Burke came up to me and talked to me and the rest is history after that. It made me more confident to leave when I talked to Mickey. I knew I was going to go up north and have someone to work for. I knew they won races. Working for them and driving for them, I knew it was going to be a good experience. Things have worked out very well.
HRC: Are there guys that you learned from or modeled yourself after?
MK: I’ve always looked up to the way Brian Sears drives. I think he’s the best. He’s always got a horse in the right spot. He’s never too aggressive, but he’s never too conservative. He’s always in the right spot.
HRC: What’s the best advice anyone has given you and who gave it to you?
MK: My dad always told me from the beginning to be thankful for the drives, be thankful for the opportunities. Even if you don’t drive the horse the next week, at least you got the opportunity to drive the horse. Maybe down the line you’ll get another chance. Don’t ever get mad because you get taken off a horse.
HRC: It’s hard to believe you’re still only 24 years old, but what have you learned, how have you seen yourself mature, over the past six years?
MK: When you first start driving you’re so green. When I first started driving when I was at Northfield, I was a little too conservative, I think. Now I’m more aggressive when the situation calls for it. You just get the feel for driving and make the right instinct move.
HRC: How have you grown in confidence?
MK: I think driving is definitely a confidence game. You’ve got to have some confidence in yourself. When you win races, you get confident. You just have to be confident in yourself and not get down on yourself. I used to get really down on myself after a bad race or a bad night. I used to beat myself up. I think I’ve matured to a level where I can shake it off. One race isn’t the end of the world, even if at the time it seems like it.
HRC: Is that one of the most difficult things to do; not get too high or too low?
MK: I think that’s one of the toughest things to deal with. We want to make everybody happy; we want to drive perfect every race. But it’s not going to happen. When you drive one bad and you’ve got to come back and the trainer is mad at you and you beat yourself up all night for it, it’s not worth it. You’ve got to take it in, and let it go. The next horse is like a new chapter.
HRC: Are there races when you’re driving back to the paddock and you know you’ve really messed up and don’t want to face people afterward?
MK: It happens quite often. If I drive one bad and I know it, I tell them I’m really sorry and I know I messed up. If they lay into you, there’s not much you can do. You can’t change it now. You have to let people vent and let it go.
HRC: Conversely, what’s it like heading to the winner’s circle?
MK: That’s great. I love making people happy. When you get to the winner’s circle and everybody is smiling and happy, it’s a great feeling. Drivers, I think, get too much credit when they win and they get too much blame when they lose too.
HRC: Who should get the credit?
MK: Definitely the horse. It’s the horse and the trainer.
HRC: Growing up, did you do other things beside work with the horses?
MK: In my teenage years, it was pretty much all horses. When I was younger I used to bowl and I was good in school, but when I was about 13 or 14 and started to jog them every day and work with them all the time, that’s what I wanted to do without a doubt.
HRC: When you have free time now what do you like to do?
MK: I just like to relax. I go golfing once in a while; I don’t get out as often as I’d like to. I just spend time with my girlfriend and relax. Watch TV or go to a movie or go out to dinner.