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Pandolfo: Ronnie Wrenn an Ohio mainstay
Harness driver Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. is currently sitting third in the race for the North American dash-winning title. Wrenn (672 wins through 11/3) is behind George Napolitano, Jr. (727) and Aaron Merriman (711), but I wouldn't count him out. Wrenn has won the title the last two years.
"It would be nice to win it again this year because I don't think anyone has ever won it three years in a row,” said Wrenn. “But right now I'm driving Monday though Friday. Northfield is closed on weekends and it's nice to have a couple of days off. So we'll see what happens."
[Editor’s Note: Northfield began racing Sundays on November 1]
Wrenn, who is the leading driver at Northfield Park, drives almost exclusively in Ohio. His win percentage at Northfield over the last 12 months is a phenomenal 28% and he's finished first or second in 45% of his drives. It's not a good idea to leave him off your exacta tickets.
"Between Northfield, Dayton, Miami Valley and Scioto, harness racing is going strong in Ohio,” said Wrenn. “I have no intention of moving to a different circuit. If I get a good horse that can compete on the Grand Circuit, I'd certainly welcome that opportunity."
Wrenn got a taste of the Grand Circuit on Ohio Super Night (Sept. 12) at Scioto Downs. Racing against some of the top drivers in the sport, Wrenn turned in a masterful performance winning 5 races including three stakes. Of the five winners, only one was the favorite. Wrenn's winners paid $30.20, $20.40, $15.20, $12.80 and $3.00.
The 29-year-old Wrenn has won 9 races in one night three times at Northfield Park and he also won 10 races on one card at Northville Downs, which is in Michigan. But that night at Scioto was the best of his career in terms of earnings. His biggest stakes win on the evening was in the $225,000 Jim Ewart Memorial. Wrenn picked up the drive on Doo Wop Hanover. The 4-year-old pacer had been racing off the pace. But Wrenn gunned him to the lead in 26 1/5 from post 5, rated the pace under pressure and kept him alive to win by a head over the speedy All Bets Off and one of harness racing's classiest pacers, State Treasurer, who was the 2/5 favorite in the race.
"Doo Wop Hanover is best horse I've ever driven,” said Wrenn. “Later on that night David Miller came up and gave me a compliment. He's from Ohio, a great Hall of Fame driver. That meant a lot to me. Hopefully winning those stakes races on a big night like that will help me get some stakes drives."
Wrenn's dad was a long time harness driver and also did some training. When he passed away from cancer in 2014, Ronnie changed his driving colors to match that of his father, maroon and black. Wrenn's uncle, Peter Wrenn, is a veteran driver and has had an outstanding career with over $65 million in earnings. Ronnie Wrenn certainly has the pedigree to be a top harness driver.
If you follow Northfield Park racing, you know that Ronnie Wrenn wins a phenomenal amount of races the first time he gets on a horse. That is a key skill that separates the average driver from the elite.
"Sometimes a different pair of hands helps," he said. "I'll ask the trainer if the horse has any quirks. With the new whipping rules you have to keep both reins in your hands, so sometimes I'll rev them up a bit before the race, score down faster, for instance, try to get them to grab the bit, see-saw the lines. It depends on the horse. The good ones don't need to be revved up.
"I like to try to keep a horse on the bit, so the new whipping rule isn't that big of a deal to me because when you pull your arm back to use the whip the way we used to, that loosens the bit,” continued Wrenn. “I'm fortunate in that I get a lot of good horses to drive. And many times I'll get on a horse that the trainer's been driving, so it's a good change of pace for the horse."
Wrenn was being modest. A driver change from a trainer to Ronnie Wrenn is lightning in a bottle. In my opinion, no driver change in harness racing is as dynamic as first-time Ronnie Wrenn.
Since Wrenn has won two dash winning titles, he does sometimes hear criticism about driving at staying at Northfield rather than pursuing other avenues.
"I've heard that, you know, sure he wins but he doesn't drive at the major harness tracks like the Meadowlands,” said Wrenn. “First of all, the Meadowlands only races two nights a week, and that wouldn't work for me. And I have a lot of respect for the drivers at Northfield. It's a competitive group. Aaron Merriman is one of the top drivers in the country. The drivers at Northfield are aggressive. You can't predict what they're going to do. I have to be on my toes. I have no intention of leaving Ohio, except for stakes races. Harness racing is doing well there and I like living in Ohio."
But the winter nights and those long 15-race cards can be tough for harness drivers.
"Northfield has a lot of time between races and some of those cold and windy winter nights can be tough,” admitted Wrenn. “Driving in those conditions can be a lot of wear and tear on your body. I like to stay in shape. I work out with weights and lately I've been going to a boxing club in the morning. The workout combines self defense and fitness."
Other than a standard whip, the tools of the trade basically include one key item, a race bike. Wrenn is a bit old school when it comes to his sulky, but cited a lesser talked about item as a key to winning.
"Believe it or not, I still use the original UFO, the first one they made,” said Wrenn. “You don't see it used that often anymore, but I like it. I feel comfortable in the UFO bike. I think the most important thing, even more than the sulky, is the wheels, which have improved a lot. I always make sure that the bearings and hubs are up to date and I use the newest wheels. I think it can make as much as a fifth-of-a-second difference."
Perhaps most amazing about Wrenn’s climb to the top of the harness racing leaderboard is the fact that his career didn’t begin until he was 21 years old.
"I was studying criminal law but harness racing was in my blood,” said Wrenn. “Considering that I've only been in the business eight years, it's satisfying to have accomplished so much in a short time. I feel very fortunate. Being able to drive horses and make a good living, it's great."
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.
Nice piece and family.