Last year, Eric Carlson was the new kid in town. It really didn't matter which town he was in, he was a newcomer trying to make his name. The 37-year-old Michigan native hopes to be considered more of a regular this year.
Carlson arrived on the East Coast in 2012 after a successful launch to his harness racing career in the Midwest and Canada. Carlson, who didn't start driving regularly until he was 33, won a career-high 603 times in 2010 and captured titles at Hazel Park, Northville Downs (fall meet) and Windsor Raceway (fall).
A year later, he posted 488 victories and was the top driver again at Hazel Park and claimed winter titles at Northville Downs, Sports Creek Raceway and Windsor Raceway.
In 2012, he headed east and saw his win total drop, but his earnings reached a career-best $3.29 million. Carlson won 267 races, with his greatest success at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, where he was sixth in the driver standings for wins and fourth in purses. He also won at least one race at Harrah's Philadelphia, Balmoral Park, Dover Downs, the Meadowlands and Freehold Raceway.
This winter, Carlson is trying to get established at the Meadowlands while also competing at Dover Downs.
"Transitional is the way I would describe last year,” Carlson said. "I can't really complain on any level at all, to move out east and get work and drive for more money than I ever have. It's been successful, but it's also been hard. You don't always have success on a daily basis, but monetarily, that's what we're all here for; you want to make a better living. I guess I'm doing that.
"Some days are really tough, but that's how it is out here. You take the good with the bad and keep going.”
The "good” would include Carlson notching career win No. 2,000 on Dec. 14 when he drove Donna Party to victory at Harrah's Philadelphia.
"It's noteworthy, but there are more things ahead to accomplish,” Carlson said. "I just keep working. There are so many more guys that have won so many more races. I haven't accomplished anything near what a lot of these guys I'm racing with every day have done. You acknowledge (the milestone) and move on.”
Carlson got a degree in sports business management at the University of Michigan and spent several years after college working for a wholesale mortgage lending company and an auto supplier while training and driving his own small stable on the side.
His father, a schoolteacher, owned horses, which is how Carlson initially caught the racing bug.
"I trained a lot, but driving is where the final piece of the puzzle is,” Carlson said. "Race day is where the final execution comes out. I like being the guy who can orchestrate it on the track. To me, driving is the most enjoyable part of being involved with racehorses.”
While racing in the Midwest, Carlson was often the go-to driver wherever he competed. Now he is hustling for work against already established drivers at the East Coast tracks.
"They get the best horses and they deserve it,” Carlson said. "They deserve what they have and I'll take what I get. All I can do is pay my dues and climb the ladder.
"That's probably the hardest thing to do. You come to a new track and all the trainers have their set drivers. You get what's left over and most of the time that's the 40-1 shot out of the eight hole. That's the hardest thing to do as a driver, to work something out with that kind of horse. It's easy to drive the 1-5s; anybody can do that. It's driving the longshot and trying to trip them out; that's what is really challenging about being a driver.”
Carlson has been getting a good number of drives at the Meadowlands. He is listed in all 10 races Thursday night, although none of his horses are at single-digit odds on the morning line, and is in nine of 11 races on Friday and five races on Saturday.
He raced at the Meadowlands one day in late June, winning with his first starter--Moonlit Dragon in a division of the Reynolds Memorial Stakes--before returning to the Big M this winter.
"It's a growing experience,” Carlson said. "It's great. I wanted to be with the best trainers, the best horses, at the best tracks. I'm going seven days a week and trying to drive as many horses as I can and do the best I can with what I've got.
"I came out here and I didn't have any set goals. I just wanted to get work and drive for people and prove that I'm a good driver. That's still my plan.” (HRC)