Don Irvine Jr. has been well known to Maryland harness racing fans as one of the best drivers in the state. But now, with two new additions to his stable, Irvine's training ability is also bound to come to light.
Irvine arrived in Maryland in 1988 after establishing himself as one of the nation's better drivers while campaigning in Ohio. He has continued to be a plus in the sulky in the Free State, winning three driving titles in the past two years.
Since coming to Maryland, he has maintained a small and undistinguished stable. That changed last week, when Irvine picked up pacers Big Eyes and Aristocrat Hanover.
In their first starts for Irvine, both horses handily won opening legs of the Fort Washington Pacing Series at Rosecroft Saturday.
Irvine received Big Eyes from trainer Henry Molinari, who last week left Rosecroft for Florida. Big Eyes raced well in Maryland the past two years as an invitational pacer. But a paralyzed flapper (a breathing disorder) kept him out of action during the summer. Now surgery appears to have helped the veteran pacer.
"He couldn't breathe," said Irvine, who has driven Big Eyes on numerous occasions. "It's just something that happened in racing."
After winning his fourth straight race Saturday, in 1:56 3/5, Big Eyes is looking like his old self.
"He's about 95 percent now," said Irvine. "If he's not best, he's one of the best" in the series.
Irvine's Ohio connections brought him Aristocrat Hanover. Trained in the Buckeye State by Terry Holton, Aristocrat Hanover was shipped here for the Fort Washington.
"He was green this summer, so they brought him along slowly," said Irvine of the 3-year-old. After a 1:57 3/5 victory Saturday, Irvine feels Aristocrat Hanover is one of the top five prospects in the series.
The newcomers give Irvine six horses in his stable and the foundation to recapture past glory as a trainer. One year in Ohio, his stable included five pacers with marks of 1:55 or better.
"I'd like to get back to training," said Irvine. "I like to drive my own horses, plus you make more money that way."
The $30,000 final of the Fort Washington will be contested on Dec. 1.