Hightstown, NJ — Prior to this past December, Johnathan Ahle had never driven at Rosecroft Raceway. This year, the Maryland oval has become something of a home away from home.
Ahle, who lives in New Jersey, is third in wins among drivers at Rosecroft, where his total of 23 is two behind second-place Russell Foster. He also is third among the track’s regulars in win percentage, clicking at a nearly 17-percent clip.
His performance at Rosecroft has helped the 26-year-old Ahle get his second full season in the sulky off to a strong start. Overall, he has posted 37 victories this year and is rapidly approaching his total of 45 wins for all of 2022.
In addition to driving at Rosecroft, Ahle has competed primarily at Freehold Raceway and The Meadowlands this season. He is tied for seventh in wins at Freehold, where his 14.5-percent victory rate is fifth among regulars.
“I didn’t think I would be this far along so quickly,” Ahle said. “I’m more than pleased, for sure. I’m just going to try to keep doing what I’m doing, and hope things go for the best.”
Ahle first visited Rosecroft in mid-December as part of the inaugural Rosecroft-Freehold Drivers Challenge. A month later, Rosecroft-based trainer John Hollingsworth offered Ahle seven drives on the card the night the track reopened for its winter-spring meet.
“He was entering a bunch of horses and said he would put me down on all of them if I wanted to come down,” Ahle said. “I did OK with those horses, and it just took off from there. So, he pretty much got me started. I’m grateful for the opportunities. I did not expect it to go this way when I first went down there. I thought it might just be a short-term thing.”
On Thursday night, Ahle will drive in 12 of Rosecroft’s 14 races. He will get behind seven horses with morning-line odds of 9-2 or lower, including Stag Party (3-1) in the Preferred Handicap, Walden Woods (7-2) in the Maryland Preferred Open 1, and Tom’s Twilight (9-2) in the Maryland Preferred Open 2.
“I’m definitely picking up some power, which is what you need if you’re going to do well,” Ahle said. “No matter who you are, as a driver you need the horsepower to be successful. It’s always nice to sit behind a horse that you’re confident with and know you can do well.”
Ahle knew nothing about horses or racing when he started working in the stable of trainer Shaun Vallee about seven years ago. At the time, Ahle was working in a restaurant, where Vallee’s daughter Sarah also worked, and decided to give the equine job a try. Several months later, he left the restaurant to work fulltime with the horses.
Eventually, Ahle began driving. He started mostly in amateur races — which produced 21 of his first 25 wins — before getting his full licenses last summer. He finished last season by driving primarily at Harrah’s Philadelphia and Freehold. Philly opens for its 2023 season on April 2.
“I was able to pick up good work toward the end (at Philly),” Ahle said. “It’s a fun place to drive too. Hopefully, I can pick up where I left off there.”
Ahle, though, has no definitive plans for the remainder of the year.
“I’ll see what opportunities come my way,” Ahle said. “When Rosecroft came along, I decided to take it and see where it went. I didn’t know things would progress the way they did. I like driving and I’ll go wherever that leads me.”
In addition to driving, Ahle now works for trainer Noel Daley as well as trains one horse on his own. Last weekend, Ahle drove Daley-trained Ignatius A — a multiple Group 1 winning pacer from Australia — to victory in the Preferred Handicap at Freehold.
“It was fun to win with him,” Ahle said. “He’s just a really cool horse to be around and nice racehorse.
“It’s a blast over at Noel’s. You sit behind a bunch of babies and a lot of nice racehorses. He’s a cool guy to work for. You’re learning something every day.”
And Ahle is looking forward to every day and his continuing growth as a driver.
“Obviously, winning is fun, but all the drives mean something,” Ahle said. “I’m just hopeful that everything keeps going the way it’s been going.”