TRURO – Adam Merner has been watching harness racing around the Truro Raceway his entire life. Ever since he can remember, winning the Exhibition Cup has been a dream.
Saturday, Merner will get his first shot at chasing down the dream.
An up-and-coming horseman around the track, Merner will make his Exhibition Cup debut as Likely to Win, a horse he trains, will get a crack at the top prize in Truro racing.
“It’s my first time being in a big race like this, so it’s really exciting,” Merner said. “To be at home in front of a big crowd, it’s going to be a major experience.”
Despite having success behind the reins himself, Merner will give way to reigning top driver Ryan Ellis.
“I have complete faith and trust in him driving,” he said. “He brought him to the top class and raced all the best in the Maritimes for the last month and a half and he’s been on a roll lately.”
Likely to Win, driven by Ellis, capped a mile in 1:56.2 earlier this month at Truro Raceway, shortly after doing a mile in 1:55 in P.E.I. Despite not having the best odds, Merner believes the horse could surprise people.
“He’s a 7-1 but he’s done it in 1:56, so if he gets a trip he’ll be alright. But it’s going to take a whole lot of racing luck.”
Merner can still remember watching his first Exhibition Cup, when Gilles Barrieau won with Comedy Hour to cap off back-to-back Exhibition Cup titles in 1997. Barrieau and Comedy Hour was also the only driver/horse combo to win the Gold Cup and Exhibition Cup in the same season. Saturday night, Merner’s horse, driven by Ellis, will line up beside Barrieau at the gate.
“It’s always exciting to be involved in the big races,” said Ellis, who is racing in his third Exhibition Cup. “Especially to be here at home, on the track I grew up around. It makes it pretty special.”
Ellis hasn’t finished higher than third in his previous two attempts, and knows the odds are against him this weekend.
“To be honest, we know he’s in a little over his head,” he said. “But if we stick to the rail and take the shortest route possible around the track, we could hang in there pretty good.”
Ellis too can remember watching the Exhibition Cup as a child, and has been intent on winning one for himself ever since.
The Merner and Ellis combo will be one half of Truro’s contingent in the big race, as Darren Crowe will be driving Prosecco Brut, trained by Mark Whidden.
While the horse has been away in Ontario for most of its career, it has been around the Truro track a few times.
“I think it helps, for sure,” Crowe said of driving with home-track advantage. “It’s good to be comfortable in the driver’s seat, and the horse has been around a few times here before, too.”
While Brut will be going at 6-1 odds, the odds haven’t meant much to Crowe in the past. In 2003, he took a relatively unknown horse at 99-1 odds around the track quick enough to capture first place and win his first Exhibition Cup.
“Nobody thought it was possible,” he said. “It was a total surprise to everyone. To be such a long shot at home and win it, it was pretty incredible.”
With 1,000 career wins under his belt, the ’03 Exhibition Cup Invitational remains a pinnacle for Crowe.
“I don’t think I can remember the first one I watched, but I’ll always remember the first one I won.”
Exhibition Cup Invitational draw
1) Prosseco Brut – D. Crowe/M. Whidden, 6-1
2) Junebugs Baby – M Heffernan Jr./F. Turnbull, 5-1
3) Likely to Win – R. Ellis/A. Merner, 7-1
4) Duke Did It – T. Trites/R. Sullivan, 5-2
5) Red Rock – G. Chappell/J. Hughes, 7-2
6) Ultimate Luck – G. Barrieau/S. Melanson, 4-1
7) Modern Xhibit – D. Spence/J. Moase, 9-2
8) Touch of Lightning – A. Smith/A. Smith, 8-1
9) Astor – J. Hughes/J. Hughes, 3-1