The following is part of an occasional USTA newsroom series that will recount favorite childhood memories of members of the harness racing community and their subsequent careers in the sport.
Hightstown, NJ — Mike Wilder was anxious to drive. He was 10 years old and already helping his stepfather David Ritter around the family’s stable, doing stalls, bathing horses. But his desire to jog a horse for the first time was overwhelming and he was constantly bringing it up. Finally, Ritter relented.
“He said he would let me jog,” Wilder said. “He told me he was going to let me jog Yukon Knox.”
Wilder momentarily had second thoughts.
“Yukon Knox was probably the heaviest headed horse we had in the barn,” Wilder said. “He was a big puller. I had seen the men out there with him, and I thought he had to be kidding me. I told him, ‘I’m not jogging him.’ He said, ‘Then you don’t want to jog.’ I thought to myself, well, I want to jog, so I’m going to do it.
“The crazy thing about it, I took that horse out and he never grabbed on. It was amazing. It was like he knew a kid was behind him. I think they get a feel, maybe the way you talk to them or the way they feel the lines in your hands. He just knew. He kept me safe.
“I came back in and I was laughing. (The others) were in awe and couldn’t believe the horse jogged that way. It was just something crazy.”
Such was the unofficial start of a career that has seen Wilder go on to win 8,229 races.
“I got into this sport because of my stepfather,” Wilder said. “When I got to be about 8 years old, I just fell in love with the horses. It was just one of those things. All I wanted to do was race horses. All I wanted to do was be a driver. He helped me pursue that dream and got me started.”
The family was based at the Shelby County Fairgrounds in Sidney, Ohio, usually with a stable of 15 to 20 horses. Wilder followed Ritter and his mom, Rhonda, to the county fairs and Lebanon Raceway.
“The fairs were big for them,” Wilder said. “I can remember being in the center field when our horses were racing. They’d be coming off the last turn and we’d be running in the center field just screaming like crazy, running with the horses.
“My parents did well around the fairs. I remember how exciting it was to get our picture taken with our parents in the winner’s circle and running across the track to get there. They used to call me and my little brother Ritter’s Critters. They’d say, here comes Ritter’s Critters across the track. You couldn’t wait to get to the next fair. You could imagine yourself being in the sulky, that being you someday.”
At the age of 12, Wilder trained his first horse, going a mile in 2:21 with pacer B D’s Rebeck at Latonia in northern Kentucky. About the same time, he started warming up horses at Lebanon Raceway.
“I was warming up horses, not only for my parents but for other stables,” Wilder said. “I just wanted to be out there so bad. Just to get out there under the lights, here I am, this little 90-pound guy that looks like I’m in about the fourth grade, warming up horses for these different stables. They knew my parents and they knew how much I was involved and wanting to do it.
“It’s crazy that they would give me the opportunity, but it was great. I loved getting out of school and getting down there to do that.”
Wilder began driving in matinees at the age of 14 and got his first raceway win at 18 at Lebanon, bringing home a 39-1 shot named C H S Cress, who was trained by his parents.
“I had the rail, got away second, and sat the inside,” Wilder said. “In the last turn I thought I was never getting free, but I was in the fight and the adrenaline was pumping and I was excited. Then the floodgates opened, and I found room to get through. I won by like half-a-length. I thought I’d won the Little Brown Jug that day. I was on cloud nine. That win has stuck with me forever.”
Wilder won 13 driving titles at Lebanon and two at Scioto Downs before moving to The Meadows in western Pennsylvania in 2001.
“I was blessed enough that when I graduated high school, I got tied into some pretty nice stables that gave me the opportunity to try to be a driver,” Wilder said. “It worked out great. There’s such a list of people that helped me along the way.”
Over the past 10 years, Wilder has annually ranked among the top-five drivers at The Meadows in wins and purses. Four times in the past six years he has finished second to perennial Meadows driving champ Dave Palone in wins.
This season, he was second in wins at The Meadows with 86 and first in purses with $784,432 when racing was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also had 10 wins at Northfield Park and his 96 total victories were tied for seventh in North America.
He won 380 races in 2019, the second-best season of his career.
“I didn’t want (2019) to end, but boy did it take off like a fireball in 2020,” Wilder said. “I’ve got great barns to drive for, I can’t ask for anything more. I can’t wait to get back to it. I’m just hoping everybody stays healthy and safe and when the time is right, we can get this ball back rolling.”
Until it does, he’s got a lot of fond memories to look back upon.
“It’s funny how I cannot remember much of my childhood as far as school or stuff like that,” Wilder said. “But the racing, it’s just like I was there yesterday. You just don’t forget.”