Michael Merton and Bob Lounsbury each earned honors at Monticello Raceway for the 2018 racing season. Merton took home his first Leading Dash title and Lounsbury won the Leading Trainer award. Both have been racing horses at Monticello for decades, and they are hoping to build off their success.

Merton’s best year

Merton thinks back to his past year driving horses and one moment sticks out to him. It was in January 2018, with Armor Hanover, when he earned his 3,000th win.

The 47-year-old driver followed up his memorable win with a career year. Last summer, Merton collected his first Leading Dash driver award at Tioga Downs, and he hit 267 wins at Monticello last year. Between both tracks, he won 349 races and $1,440,971.

Merton said his success was born out of opportunity.

“I got a lot more power drivers,” he said. “Bigger stables with better horses. People see you drive horses well and other people start giving you chances.”

Merton’s father, Robert, a carpenter from Long Island, often made the trip to Monticello to watch the races. He passed down his love of horse racing to his sons. By the time he was 8 years old, Merton was riding horses and going to the track on the weekends with his older brother Bobby.

A young Merton realized early on, growing up on a farm in Bethel, that he didn’t simply want to watch horse racing. He wanted to be on the track. Now, with a successful year behind him, he’s looking ahead to 2019.

“We’ll see what happens," he said. “If people see you can handle a horse, it catches someone’s eye.’’

Merton’s 382 combined wins ranked him No. 16 in the nation, and now he has his mind on bigger tracks, like the Meadowlands.

“I’m sure it will take some time,” Merton said, “but you never know.”

Lounsbury maintains edge

Lounsbury’s second career as a horse trainer at Monticello didn’t only start as a hobby. It began as a roundabout way to afford health insurance.

“If you were a trainer and you raced a horse two times a month in the winter or four times a month in the summer, they would pick up your health insurance,” Lounsbury said.

Lounsbury, 67, now considers horse racing a second full-time job. It won him the Leading Trainer title three consecutive years from 2013-15 and again last year. In 2013 and 2015, he was the percentage leading trainer in North America among trainers with more than 500 starts.

In 2018, the Bob Lounsbury Stable had 330 starts, amassing more than $305,797 in earnings, averaging $926 per start.

Throughout his decades of training, Lounsbury has been meticulous in his preparation, focusing on the little things that can make a huge difference on race day.

Of the horses, he said: “You change its shoes a little bit, or you change his diet a little bit or you buy better-quality hay, and you watch the horse pick up two seconds in speed on the track. It’s kind of satisfying.”

He made his first bet at Monticello in 1968 and began training horses in 1985. Though it’s not his only job, Lounsbury spends seven days a week watching races, reading about horses, doing anything he can to get a competitive edge.

Lounsbury said the secret to his success on the track is to look at horse racing as a business. Though his businesslike perspective on racing has netted him plenty of money, he still views it as a hobby.

“It’s just a lot of fun to me,” he said. “It is my enjoyment.”

jfedich@th-record.com

Twitter: @JFedichTHR