12/03/2014 5:15PM

Pandolfo: Eric Carlson is having a career year

Sean Hamrock
Horses driven by Eric Carlson have earned over $5 million in 2014.

Harness driver Eric Carlson grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan. He took a job working for a major manufacturer.

"I was making a good living," Carlson said. "But my dad owned and trained a few horses and that's how I got the bug."

Carlson started training his own horses in Michigan in 1998. He raced at the Michigan tracks and also went to Canada to drive at Windsor Raceway.

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"I enjoyed training and working with the horses," Carlson said. "But I still had a full-time job, so it was tough. But when I started to make as much money with my horses as I did on my job, I went into harness racing full time. To be honest, even though I love driving, sometimes I do miss that life, training a small barn. I liked getting up early and working with the horses."

Carlson won 603 races in 2010, a career best. But, with the harness racing industry floundering in Michigan, Carlson started driving at Balmoral Park in Chicago the following year. In 2012 he moved east and was driving double-headers between Pocono and Harrah's Philadelphia. In the winter, he drove at Dover Downs in Delaware.

Then in December 2013, Carlson decided to drive the winter meet at Yonkers. He still drives occasionally at Harrah's, but Carlson has found a home at Yonkers.

Carlson, who is 4th in the Yonkers driver standings, is having the best year of his career. In 2014, Carlson's drives have earned over $5 million, putting him 15th on the earnings list among all North American harness drivers. The bulk of his earnings, $4.2 million, have come from his Yonkers drives. The 39-year-old has also seen his earnings rise in each of the last six years, and in the last four years, the numbers have increased by about a million a year.

"I like that progression," he said. "It's been nice driving at Yonkers because I'm not doing that many double-headers anymore. Double-headers can be brutal because of the traveling. Although, it’s easier going back and forth between Pocono and Philly. Trying to get to Yonkers from Philadelphia in time for the races is next to impossible."

Carlson is not a pedal-to-the-metal driver. He drives with finesse.

"With some horses, it's better to let them relax and do what they want to do. This way when you ask them, they respond. If you're always going all-out with every move you make, you'll just use horses up. When I first started out I was always sending. You blast out of there in :26 3/5 and people start saying that you can make horses go fast. But you don't get paid for being on the lead at the quarter.

"When I first started getting interested in harness racing, I used to follow harness driver Peter Wrenn,” said Carlson when asked about his role model as a driver. “I looked up to him. He was patient and smart and put his horses in good spots. He won a lot of races passing everyone in the stretch. Of course, as I've gone along, I've picked up things from different drivers that I've competed against. It adds to your repertoire."

Of course, Yonkers being a half mile track requires a certain style of driving.

"At Yonkers, post position is important. The inside is a big advantage. It's the only track where right after the start you make a left turn. In the mile and a quarter races that we're racing on Sundays, the distance is not an issue. But the 12-horse fields are. If you draw into the second tier, it's tough. If a few horses from the outside leave, the next thing you know you're far back and blocked."

Carlson uses a Tornado race bike, but sees most of the top sulkies as on par with each other.

"To be honest, I don't think that any particular bike gives you an advantage right now,” said Carlson. “All of the bikes that are currently being used track well and are light. The bike isn't going to help you become one of the leading drivers."

While success at Yonkers is wonderful, every driver dreams of winning on the Grand Circuit while driving the top horses in the country. Carlson is no different. "Sure, I'd love to have a top horse in a major race like the Breeders Crown,” he said. “I think that's every driver's dream. You just have to work hard, do your best, and hope that an opportunity comes along. My biggest win so far in my career was in a 2-year-old stakes race in Illinois, the Orange And Blue. The purse was $241,000. I won with a colt named Zall Good for trainer Erv Miller."

Carlson won the Open at Yonkers last week with Mcerlean. He rated him patiently first over and took control in the stretch. But he also drives a speedster named Sapphire City, who is a track record holder at Tioga and Yonkers. Last week Sapphire City tracked a hot pace and won from the pocket. This week both horses are in Saturday night's Open Handicap for pacers.

"There are some tough decisions you have to make as a harness driver," Carlson said. "Mcerlean is a game horse who can really finish. But this week he drew post seven. I've won three races in a row with Sapphire City, and he's a track record holder. What do you do? I took Sapphire City because he drew the better post. But Mcerlean is real good right now."

With his best years as a driver still likely in the years ahead, Carlson is hoping to find that great horse to kick his career into another gear.

"I'm still looking for that one,” said Carlson.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.