06/09/2016 10:09AM

Pandolfo: Greg Merton nearing 4,000 win plateau

Geri Schwarz
Greg Merton enters Thursday (June 9) just four wins from 4,000.

Greg Merton is not a name that gets a lot of national press, but the 42-year-old driver who competes mostly on the smaller northeast tracks is on the verge of a milestone. Merton, won two races at the Meadowlands Saturday night and won three more at Plainridge between Monday and Tuesday, needs just three wins to reach 4,000 for his career.

"It'll be nice when it happens," said Merton. "But I'm not going to let it affect my driving. At the Meadowlands, I don't get the top horses, so I have to try to work out a trip. Although, I have been driving Major War for trainer Mark Capone and he went some fast miles and took a new mark of 1:49 2/5. One week we went to the three quarters in 1:20 and change, but that night he broke two hopple hangers and they were flapping and hitting him the entire race. He was out of control."

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Merton has been splitting his time between Massachusetts and New Jersey of late, driving at Plainridge on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and The Meadowlands on Saturday.

"I went up to Plainridge to drive a few for Heidi Rohr last year and it worked out well,” said Merton. “Heidi is a good trainer and has a nice stable. This year I've also been driving for trainer Lindsey Blackler and her husband Scotty. They're also very good horsemen. I'm fortunate because both of these barns keep their horses looking great and they know how to spot them. You've got to keep a horse happy and put them in where they can win. You get to know who the real trainers are. They're hard workers. They're in the barn early."

Greg Merton came up through the Monticello circuit, along with his brother Mike, who is two years older.

"When I was starting out at Monticello, Billy Parker, Jr. was the dominant driver,” said Merton. “He was a good guy to compete against because he's not only a skillful driver, he's an outstanding horseman. He knows how to do it all from shoeing, to rigging, to prepping a young horse. He's also a great guy. When I was starting I could talk to him, ask him questions.

"I remember a few times after I felt that I didn't drive well, I'd give him a blow by blow description of the bad drive. Billy would say something to get my confidence back, like, ‘Okay, you know what you did wrong, that's how you get better. Next time you'll make the right move and you'll win.’”

In addition to Parker, Merton listed a couple of contemporaries that he admires greatly.

"George Brennan is a driver that I respect and he's always been sort of an idol to me,” said Merton. “There are a lot of good drivers, but right now, in my opinion, I'd rate David Miller as the best. Whether watching him or driving against him, he just makes it look easy. He has an uncanny knack of working out good trips. He's great under pressure; always calm. He has a great attitude and a good sense of humor.  David Miller is also someone you can talk to. He's very open and willing to give advice. He's a great guy. And he's an unbelievable driver."

As a catch-driver Merton often finds himself on horses he has never driven in the past. Sometimes nuggets of information from trainers can make a difference. Other times, Merton’s expertise can help the cause.

"The thing I want to know is how the horse handles the gate,” said Merton. “Some horses don't like their nose right up to the gate. Sometimes the trainer will tell me that the horse prefers to race on or off the pace. Naturally, if a horse has a quirk, like it doesn't like the whip, the trainer will tell me that. But once the gate opens, the strategy is up to me.

"Sometimes I can help out after I've driven a horse for the first time; make a suggestion. A couple of weeks ago I drove a horse and the way it was acting, I thought the horse might be perkier in an open bridle. So I suggested to the trainer that he try it next time. He did and I won with the horse. Maybe he would have won anyway, but sometimes these horses react well to changes. You don't want them to get bored and stale.”

Having spent a good portion of his years in the sulky competing at lower purse tracks like Monticello Raceway, Merton hasn’t exactly driven many Hall of Fame type horses. That said, he does get to drive a classy horse now and then.

"I wish I could tell you the names of all the best horses I've driven," Merton said. "But my memory isn't the greatest. Lately I've been driving this tough 11-year-old, Real Nice. What a horse. He's got 55 wins and almost $1.5 million in earnings. And he did it the hard way. I think he won the Levy final years ago, but most of that money was earned in overnight races. Even though he's 11, Real Nice is always ready and eager to race. I can do anything with this horse, he's so versatile. Last week I won the Open at Plainridge with him. He was four wide on the first turn and parked past a 26 2/5 first quarter. He got pressed but just drew clear. It's truly a pleasure to drive a classy veteran horse like that.

"Maybe I'll get my 4,000th career victory with him. That would be real nice," said Merton.

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, 112 Michael Ct., Northampton, PA 18067.