Trenton, NJ — Jason Bartlett clearly remembers the first time he trained a horse. The pre-teen thought he was going much faster than instructed, discovered he was going much slower, and came up with a number somewhere in between.
“My grandfather (trainer Dick Bartlett) told me to go in (2):15 and I think I went in, like, (2):40, and I thought I was flying,” Bartlett said. “I missed that mark by a lot. I had to come back and lie to him a little bit and told him I went in (2):25 so I wasn’t too far off.”
Since that day Bartlett has learned to go fast for real in becoming one of harness racing’s top drivers. He has ranked among the Top 10 in North American harness racing in wins nine times overall and among the Top 10 for purses also nine times. Bartlett has enjoyed great success at his home track, winning nine driving titles at Yonkers Raceway. He has 8,431 career wins and $114 million in earnings.
It all started on his family’s farm in Windsor, Maine, where Jason would wile away the hours in the stable when not excelling at football and basketball.
“As a kid I was always drawn to it, it was never a chore for me to go to the barn and work and help out,” Bartlett said. “I always loved it. Loved going to the races. It was very easy for me. I kind of knew I wanted to do that. But my grandfather told me to ‘Go to school, get a degree, and this will always be here when you get back.’”
Dick had a stable that ranged between 20 and 30 horses, “so on the weekends and school vacations it was almost kind of mandatory I was there at the barn helping.”
Aside from performing his duties, Bartlett showed an eye for horses at a young age. One of the favorites among his grandfather’s stable was Pay Or Play, for good reason.
“I actually picked him out at a sale,” Bartlett said. “He showed a lot of speed, but he showed a ton of breaks and my grandfather always loved that. I had to drag him to the barn to look at him. He was in one of those far barns and he was like ‘Nah I don’t want to go see this thing.’ I ran over myself and looked at it and I dragged him over and he ended up buying him.”
Another special horse from Bartlett’s youth was Geri’s Beauty, with which he won his first race at the Windsor Fair in 1998.
“I don’t remember that much,” he said. “I just remember it was at a fair and it actually worked out pretty good. I came second over to three-wide down the backside. I started driving three weeks before that. I think I was a junior in high school. We started out two fairs before that and I finally got my first win at our hometown fair.”
During that period, Bartlett was splitting his time between the stables and the gym. As a standout two-sport athlete in middle school, he needed to decide between basketball and football in high school. He would have opted for the gridiron, but his school did not have a football team, so he chose hoops.
That turned out to be a pretty good choice as Bartlett became an explosive backcourt scorer. Heeding his grandfather’s wishes about attending college, Jason took his talents to the University of Southern Maine in Portland, where he became the NCAA Division III scoring champion one year with a 28-point average.
Despite those numbers, he never harbored illusions of playing at the next level.
“Division III is a whole different beast,” he said. “I’m fast, I’m quick, I can jump, but I was too small, didn’t have enough muscle.”
After graduating with a degree in industrial electricity, Bartlett headed straight back to the barn to get started on his “real” career.
Asked if that major ever came in handy, Jason laughed.
“For the most part if I look at a tool I draw blood,” he said. “If I had to, yes. But I wouldn’t get rich on it. My uncle did that sort of work, that’s why I jumped into that field. But I just got the degree to have it in case racing didn’t work out.”
Bartlett worked with his grandfather for the next five years. In 2009, owner Scott Dillon — who owned most of the horses Bartlett trained at the time — encouraged him to go out on his own. Dillon helped him financially in making the move to New York.
“I knew some trainers in New York that were originally from Maine,” Bartlett said. “Bobby Sumner and Timmy Case were doing really well at Yonkers at the time. I used to take horses from Bobby Sumner if they weren’t right, he would send them to me so I could race them in New England.
“Bobby always had a stable of 40 or 50 horses, he was one of the leading trainers at Yonkers. When I came down, he asked me to drive some of his horses at Yonkers, so I started catch driving for him. We started doing really well and it just took off from there.”
Bartlett also trained 25 of his own horses when arriving in New York. But when he started having driving success, he sold them in order to focus on just one aspect of the sport.
“Driving was always the one thing I was trying to strive for,” he said. “To be a catch driver, and that was it.”
Bartlett points to Dillon, Sumner, and Maine Hall of Famer Don Richards as playing big parts in his success. Richards allowed Jason to live with him during college so he needn’t incur any housing bills.
His biggest influence, of course, is Dick, who is still going strong at 80.
“Tough love would be one of the big things I took from him,” Bartlett said. “He critiqued me a lot. I always say he was my biggest fan but my biggest critic. Even if we had a great day he was always pushing me to be better. Don’t be satisfied. Don’t be complacent. Just because you’re doing good now doesn’t mean you’ll be doing good in a month. Work hard.”
Bartlett and his wife Kristen are trying to pass along those qualities to their children, who inherited the athletic gene of both parents. Kristen is a former field hockey, basketball and softball player.
The Bartletts run their local CYO basketball program and also coach their sons’ teams. Kobe, 13, and Karter, 9, are more into playing sports than working the stables at the moment. Jason speaks with pride at how Kobe’s team finally won New York’s Orange County CYO championship along with the regional title after several years of near misses.
“They focus a lot on sports,” Bartlett said. “They play soccer, lacrosse, football. They’ll watch me on TV. I guess Karter is a little more intrigued by it, he loves to go jog. It’s a tough business, a tough way to make a living. They might get into it later but they’re going to have to go to school and stuff, just like my grandfather made me do.”
And that seems to have worked out pretty well.