by Nicolle Neulist
Pacing down the stretch in the sixth race on Friday, February 16, a pace for non-winners of $500 in the last four starts, eight-year-old mare Olivia V held a daylight lead turning for home. That lead grew thinner and thinner, as small as a head, as Lexington Lady came up the pylons, bearing down. But, as her driver Ryan Anderson implored Olivia V for her best, she found more. In the last sixteenth of a mile they turned back the foe inside, edging ahead to win by a length.
After two decades in the bike, Ryan Anderson headed to the winners’ circle for the 3,000th time.
He grew up close to harness racing, the son of a successful trainer/driver. “My father Joe Anderson pretty much brought me along into the business,” he recalled. “When I turned 18 years old I got my P-License [provisional license] and started doing the amateurs. And, progressively, after that it’s just been going.”
As a lifelong horseperson, Anderson always planned on to make standardbreds his career, and the thrill of driving still carries him twenty years after he first began to drive. “Pretty much all I’ve ever known is working with the horses. And. I love the grind of it. I love the adrenaline rush. You know we’re out there going 32 miles an hour with these horses as fast and as hard as they can go: rain, snow, or shine.”
Anderson began his career in Chicago. He made his first purse-money start at Balmoral Park on August 8, 1999, winning it with a horse his father trained, Super Marc It. Just eleven days later, he beat professional drivers in an open handicap at Balmoral while driving another one of his father’s horses, One Cadet. Success came early and often for Anderson, as the very next year he became the then-youngest driver to win a Breeders Crown race. On October 27, 2000, he drove Popcorn Penny to victory in the three-year-old filly pace; he also became half of the first parent-child pair to win a Breeders Crown race, as his father trained Popcorn Penny.
Earlier that month, Anderson had a red-letter moment here in Illinois. He drove another horse from his father’s stable, Rattle and Rock, to a share of a $1,000,000 bonus offered to Illinois-bred two-year-olds. The bonus required winning at least three out of four designated stakes races. Pacing filly Cyber Wave had already clinched a share, but Rattle and Rock still had a chance to lay claim to half the windfall. Since the son of Sportsmaster had missed the first leg in Springfield over the summer, it came down to the Cardinal at Maywood Park on October 13, 2000.
Rattle and Rock claimed his share in world record fashion. Starting from the inside post, Anderson put him right on the front end. Big Green Machine got within a length of him with a quarter of a mile left to pace, but could not keep up. No one could. Anderson and Rattle and Rock won the Cardinal in a time of 1:53.3: a new world record for a two-year-old gelding over a half-mile track.
Since then, Anderson has continued to drive talented and memorable horses. He still beams with pride about Sagebrush, a Ken Rucker trainee who he drove to a 1:49.1 track record on July 24, 2004. Sagebrush’s record still stands today as the fastest mile ever paced at Hawthorne. He also ranks his 2008 Hoosier Cup victory with Art Official as among the top in his mind. That day, he overcame a first-over trip, keeping enough in reserve for the Joe Seekman trainee to roll past Dali late for a one-length, 1:51.0 victory in the $500,000 race.
The superstars, however, are not the entire story for Anderson. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a 4 claimer, or winning the Hoosier Cup with Art Official for $500,000, or the Breeders Crown, or Windy City Pace.” True to that form, it’s not just the stakes champions who make harness racing the sport of a lifetime for the newest member of the 3,000-win club. Anderson also has fond memories of Singletree Run, a consistent overnight-class pacer who won 22 times and finished in the money another 36 times across 120 starts from 1999-2004. Though he began his career trained and driven by Cynthia Fieldman, Ryan and his father Joe were his regular driver and trainer from March of 2002 through the end of his career. “I owned him with a buddy of mine,” Anderson remembers. “He actually turned out to be just a really good money-winning horse that I just loved.”
Though Ryan Anderson is glad to have reached the 3,000 win milestone, the future likely holds many more horses, victories, and memories. Still only 37 years old, he remains devoted to his harness racing career, taking particular pleasure in working with younger horses and trotters. “I love driving horses, and this is all I know.”