Hightstown, NJ — Every morning when he wakes up, Devon Tharps is reminded of one of the best nights of his life. It occurred Jan. 16, 2021, when Tharps drove Acting Out to victory in the Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Race at The Meadowlands.
To win such a meaningful event would be enough to make it memorable, but there was another reason it was momentous for Tharps. It was the first triumph of his career, and it proved to be a steppingstone for the 28-year-old driver to increase his workload. Tharps, who works for trainer Tony Alagna’s stable, got 96 more drives the rest of the year and posted an additional 12 victories.
This weekend, Tharps will return to The Meadowlands for an expanded slate of MLK events, which honor the memory of slain civil rights leader King, who was born Jan. 15, 1929.
On Friday, there will be a GSY Amateur Series/MLK Remembrance Race followed later in the card by the Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Race featuring 10 African-American drivers. On Saturday, there is another Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Race as well as Pro-MLK Remembrance Race.
This is the fifth consecutive year The Meadowlands is hosting the tribute to King. Tharps is driving in all but the GSY event and will hope to repeat his success of a year ago.
“That is a night I’ll never forget,” Tharps said. “I’ve got the trophy and the picture hanging up in my room. I wake up every morning and look at it. First win in an event like that, that was awesome. It really meant a lot to me just to participate and represent such a staple in our country, especially with everything going on in the world right now. It was very special.
“It was definitely one of the best nights of my life, for sure. It was huge.”
One other reason the night was memorable, Tharps drove against his cousin Eric Tharps Jr. for the first time. Eric finished third.
“I remember back in the day we used to hook race bikes up to the fence and drive against each other like that,” Tharps said with a laugh. “So, it was definitely cool driving against each other that night. And it was cool beating him.”
Following that night, Tharps put his driving on hold until the summer. In mid-July, he began getting in the sulky on a regular basis at Lexington’s Red Mile, where he won 10 of 77 starts and participated in several state-bred stakes races.
“When I went to Kentucky, a lot of people would put me up because of that (MLK) race,” Tharps said. “With the Meadowlands being one of the biggest stages, a lot of people watched that race. It kind of blew up over social media that night, too, so it definitely was an eye-opener for people.
“That has helped my driving career a lot and Tony has taught me a lot. It’s really helped get my name out there working for him. Tony and a couple owners, like Myron Bell, they believe in me and give me chances and opportunities. They’re good people. Tony has got good owners. Lexington was a good meet for me.”
Tharps hopes to continue on the path to becoming a catch driver in the future.
“That’s the plan,” Tharps said. “Working for Tony brings a lot of opportunity my way and I really enjoy working for him, but eventually I’d like to see my career take off.”
In last year’s MLK race, Tharps and the Symon Spicer-trained pacer Acting Out rallied from mid-pack at three-quarters to win by 1-3/4 lengths over Randy Crisler-driven Pogey Beach. On Friday, Tharps will drive Rockin Panda for Spicer and is 9-2 on the morning line. On Saturday, Tharps will be behind Captain Hill (8-1) for Dan Morrissey and Claytons Bettor N (3-1 favorite) for Bill MacKenzie.
“I had some success over the summer, and I think I’m definitely a better driver going into it,” Tharps said. “Hopefully, we can make it happen again.”
The Meadowlands will present 15-race cards both Friday and Saturday. On Saturday, the top purse events are the $31,500 Preferred Trot, where Chin Chin Hall is the 5-2 favorite, and the $31,500 Preferred Pace, with Let It Ride N getting the nod, also at 5-2.
Racing begins at 6:20 p.m. (EST). For free TrackMaster program pages, visit the track’s website here.