Ross Wolfenden knew harness racing was in his blood, but he wasn’t sure where that was going to take him.
It just had to be a warm place somewhere.
His father, Peter, is one of the most well-known conditioners in New Zealand, having developed, among others, 1968 champion pacer Cardigan Bay.
But in his youth, during rainy, damp winters in Auckland, Ross thought more about being an auto mechanic than a horseman. He and a brother even completed mechanics training, and in 1984 were ready to go to work in a garage, when their father purchased a farm where the boys could be closer to horses and help their father.
Then came a 1991 trip to California that warmed Ross’ heart, literally. He wanted to check out how horsemen did things in the United States, and when he visited Los Alamitos, he fell in love with the warmer, drier climate.
Wolfenden took a job as a groom at Los Alamitos. He got a break from a trainer who admired his hard work and let him drive in a few races.
“I had no intention of driving,” Wolfenden said. “I met [trainer] Paul Jessop and he got me started driving here.”
A year later, Wolfenden got an offer to race at a track in Yonkers, N.Y., and he moved to a farm in New Jersey. He ranked among the top five drivers in New York and later raced in New Jersey. Occasionally, he ventured back to California for paper work on his work permit, and when he did, he drove a few times at Los Alamitos.
Each time he came west, warmer weather beckoned him to stay. Despite having grown up with wet winters in Auckland, he never really adjusted to the snow and ice of the Northeast.
“Winters in New York are pretty brutal,” he said.
Now driving in his first full season at Los Alamitos, Wolfenden, 33, had 28 wins in 169 starts through mid-February. His $154,366 in purses was second overall in earnings to Bruce Clark, who has won more than $190,000. On Friday, Wolfenden drove Leading Choice to victory in the $30,000 California Sires Stakes for 4-year-old colts. Wolfenden ranks fifth overall in the drivers’ standings.
What will his future bring?
“I suspect I’ll eventually live back home,” Wolfenden said. “It depends on the industry. Things have been slowing down all over lately. I might have to go back to being a mechanic. That’s a fallback, but I’d like to keep racing.”
Wolfenden paused. He has dreams of other warm spots around the world where he might pick up a drive or two.
“The weather will have a lot to do with it,” he said. “I’ll go where it’s warm. I’ve always said, if you are working outdoors, you might as well have nice weather.”
Trainer Rudy Sialana, from whom Wolfenden has picked up many drives, has jumped to the head of the pack in earnings for conditioners, posting $189,442. His 35 victories is also tops. Montreal-based Nicol Tremblay is second with 28 wins, and Denise Maier is third with 20.
Tremblay, who has earnings of $145,885 at this meet, thinks he is in a good position to make a run at Sialana.
“I knew we had a lot of good horses, but things have worked out even better than I ever could have expected,” he said. “I haven’t had a stable with this much talent since I left Montreal.”
Till We Meet Again is considered to be the richest horse at the current meet and is expected to surpass $1 million in total earnings soon. Before the weekend card, he had $997,030 in career earnings. The horse is trained by Stan Bayless.
One of the hottest drivers is Rick Kuebler, rapidly becoming known as the “Friday Night Special.” He posted three victories on Friday, Feb. 14, and two more this past Friday, giving him 13 this meeting.
“In this sport things go in a cycle, so I know that I will not keep this streak up,” he said. “Hopefully, I can start a new streak, maybe Saturday nights.”
The total handle for all quarter horse racing nationwide took a 14% drop in 1996 and the number of races held around the country dipped 12.5%, according to the American Quarter Horse Assn. That is in stark contrast to earnings per start, which jumped 4.9%. The average purse value was up 10.8%. Los Alamitos bucked the downward trend in overall handle. The track posted a 1.7% increase over 1995, with an average daily intake of $1,178,668. Out-of-state bets via satellite wagering increased 28.2%. However, track handle--bets placed at the track--was off 7.4% and in-state satellite wagering dipped 1.1%. . . . Speaking of handle, the first three weeks of harness racing at Los Alamitos produced an increase in revenue over the previous meet. According to figures released by the track, despite rainy conditions early in the meet, the average nightly handle was $1,104,547, a 13.74% increase. The track also posted a season-high attendance figure of 3,621 on Feb. 15, thanks to a sweatshirt giveaway.