It has been less than two years since harness racing driver Jason Bartlett decided take a big gamble — on himself.
The 28-year-old Windsor native traded an established, successful family business in Maine for a shot at bigger money in a much more highly-competitive and much less familiar racing environment in another state.
Bartlett’s gamble has paid off even more than he dared hope. The two-time Yonkers Raceway driving champion is coming off a third season in which he won 720 races — the second-highest total in North America — and more than $10.8 million in race purse money, which ranks him fourth on the continent.
With more than $540,000 in purse earnings last year, Bartlett has already established himself in the competitive New York harness racing community.
Now he’s making a name for himself outside the harness racing community. Bartlett has been named a recipient of the 30th annual Thurman Munson Award, an honor that memorializes late New York Yankees All-Star catcher Thurman Munson — who died tragically in a 1979 plane crash.
“I didn’t even know I was up for it,” said Bartlett. “To be even mentioned in the same breath with all the past winners and big names in sports like Muhammad Ali and Mariano Rivera, that’s incredible, but also to win when it’s open to anyone in all sports, that’s exciting.
“Plus it’s really great that it recognizes a lesser-known sport like harness racing.”
The award is presented to winners for their philanthropic work in the community and excellence in competition.
Bartlett has long been an active participant in charitable programs such as winter coat drives, breast cancer and Toys for Tots. He has continued his involvement in these and other charitable endeavors at Yonkers.
“I’ve been involved in those things for several years now,” Bartlett said. “We also did a driving challenge in Cuyahoga to raise money for a local family that had suffered a tragedy.
He will be honored at a Feb. 2 awards dinner at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City.
Thurman’s widow Diana Munson has been involved in the dinner since its inception 30 years ago, and has raised more than $8.5 million for the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC), a not-for-profit organization with many programs that enable people with developmental disabilities to lead richer, more pro-ductive lives.
AHRC New York City is one of the largest organizations of its kind, serving 11,000 children and adults who have mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries and other developmental disabilities.
Bartlett is the first harness racing driver to win the award.
“They had a thoroughbred jockey win it back along, but I guess I’m the first for harness racing,” said Bartlett, who now lives with his family in a condominium in Goshen, N.Y.
Bartlett races roughly all of the 244 racing days on Yonkers’ schedule. He also races at Saratoga Springs, Pocono [Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.] and Cuyahoga [Ohio].
“I took two weeks off in December and I’m racing five days a week now,” he said. “I’ll be going seven days starting in March.”
Last spring, Bartlett received another major honor when he was selected to represent the U.S. in the World Driving Championships in Norway.
“I knew you could make a lot of money in this sport if you could be successful and stay healthy, but this has been so much better than I hoped,” Bartlett said. “I’m very grateful.”