Horsin’ around at the Mighty M

Posted 12/31/69

MONTICELLO, NY — Drive by the once-Mighty M, and at first glance from the hectic highway, it’s a faded relic of its former glory from the heydays of harness racing.

The grandstands …

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Horsin’ around at the Mighty M


MONTICELLO, NY — Drive by the once-Mighty M, and at first glance from the hectic highway, it’s a faded relic of its former glory from the heydays of harness racing.

The grandstands are a shadowy shell of what they used to be, as the throngs of spectators and bettors are long gone into the mists of local lore. The once packed parking lots stand mute with memories of Monticello Raceway’s former decades of opulence.

But take a closer look at the paddock and pause for a moment to talk to the drivers, trainers and grooms, and you’ll find that the blood of harness racing still runs strong, like hidden currents in a mystic river.

Forget the peeling paint and lonely barns rising on a hill, which set the tone on a windswept afternoon as the season marches into early spring. You’ll soon discover a world rich in fascinating stories, tales of horses, men and women that bring the breath of life eternal to the sport of Standardbred racing.

Elisha LaFreniere got into harness racing right out of high school, inspired by her father, Walter LaFreniere Jr. He was a driver at Monticello during the 1990s.

“I idolized him, and wanted to be just like him,” she recalled while sitting next to this sports scribbler on a metal bench in the paddock.

While growing up in a little town in Massachusetts called Winchendon, she started training horses before graduating, and because “there weren’t any blacksmiths nearby,” so she taught herself to shoe horses.

“So when I left home with a tractor trailer and a horse—can’t forget the dog—like, I was 22, I started shoeing horses for other people, to make money and to survive,” said LaFreniere.

Over the years her stable grew from a single horse to about 30. She trained for other folks and today has a stable in Middletown when not in her birth state.

“Harness racing was the original sport, when people drove their horses to the stores and church, things like that, and then raced ‘em on the way home,” said LaFreniere. “The Standardbred was named for a horse that could do a standard mile in a minute.”

Asked her take on harness racing, she responded, “I like that it’s a family sport, and I like going to the barn every day to feed ‘em up and work with them, and see them feel better.

“It’s like an addiction, once you get doing, the addiction of doing well and competing,” she said.

On July 22, 2022, LaFreniere teamed up with driver Kevin Switzer Jr. to post a driver/trainer hat trick at the Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, placing Ubanji, Touch of Dragon and Spell Cuteypie into the winner’s circle.

She calls Monticello Raceway home, adding “It was beautiful back in the day; if you look it up in the history books and like that, you wish it could be back to that era. But probably nowadays, it’s not going to,” she said.

But “the people here are friendly; management has always been good to me throughout the years. It’s just like coming home.”

On the topic of public perception of harness racing, LaFreniere touched on what she described as “animal activists,” who think that the sport doesn’t take proper care of the horses. “In reality, this is our life, not a job. Our horses get the best care. When a vet takes a look at them if they’re sick, you know that day what’s the matter. It’s not going to a doctor, and he tells you to come back in three weeks… these guys get taken care of, top quality.”

She said the sport could get a boost from more promotion and getting younger people involved. “There’s people that follow us, drivers and trainers, they are sort of like sports heroes or celebrities. And if people would start watching, it would bring more people to the sport.”

Greg Merton does most of her driving at the Mighty M. “Greg is like my brother—we’re a team now. I’ve known him since I got here.”

On that recent Thursday, Fernand A. Paquet Jr. was in the cart for her, piloting Circling the Prey, a four-year-old trained by LaFreniere, around the half-mile oval in the fifth race on the card.

Fern Paquet has been driving for 30-some years. He grew up in Freehold, NJ and followed his father, a trainer/driver, into the sport. 

“Harness racing has come a long way, but we have to get more fans involved in it,” he said. “Most of our original fans are either dead or getting older, and that’s no good. We have to promote it more, and get younger people involved.”

Reflecting on his early days in the sport, he said, “I can remember when I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed in the grandstands; back in the day you had to be 18 or older… that’s when it all started. I grew up in it.”

Paquet has raced at some of the most memorable tracks, including Saratoga, Pocono Downs and Pomano Park. From 1987 to 2024, he has posted 3,317 wins; 3,567 second-place finishes; and 3,584 thirds, for a total to-date of $20,065,780 money won, with 753 starts this year.

One of his most memorable outings was driving Aruba Vacation, trained by Guy Howard. “We went all over; he was a fun little horse to drive... we ended up with half-a-million, maybe.”

Asked his take on the sport of harness racing, he replied without a moment’s hesitation, “Once it’s in your blood, it’s tough to get it out.”

Pocono Downs, Might M, Monticello Raceway, Elisha LaFreniere


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