Trenton, NJ — When Irishman Jack Killeen arrived in America on his 18th birthday, he landed at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows and did so with GPS in hand. Fortunately for the merry wanderer, he wound up right back where he started and is happy to now call western Pennsylvania home.

“This is where I thought I’d be, but I went through a path for about a year-and-a-half where I thought ‘I don’t even know if I’m gonna be able to do this,’” Killeen said. “I was moved around. We’d stay in one place for two or three months, and they’d say, ‘Oh let’s go to Tioga, let’s move somewhere else.’ I was young and I thought ‘OK!’ After a while I figured it out, that’s not what you do. You find a track and you put the time in.”

So, in 2022 he became a permanent fixture at The Meadows and is forging a solid driving career.

In his first year based at the Washington, Pa., track, Killeen hit the board in 84 of 330 starts, winning 20 races and $248,079 in half of a campaign. Last season the 23-year-old finished in the money 233 times in 869 starts at The Meadows, claiming 55 wins and $648,343.

Last season Jack Killeen finished in the money 233 times in 869 starts at The Meadows, claiming 55 wins and $648,343. Chris Gooden photo.

“I finally felt like I made it as a driver last year, probably around August,” he said. “I had a horse (Whiskey Break) that was pretty good, he won (several) races in a row. That made me feel a little confident.”

In November, Killeen showed his skills on consecutive Wednesdays at The Meadows. On Nov. 1 he drove 43-1 longshot Swan Legacy to a stunning victory in a $15,900 conditioned trot. The following week, Swan Legacy went off at 40-1 and Killeen maneuvered a five-wide stretch rally to win a $21,200 Open Handicap Trot.

“It was awesome,” Killeen said. “Usually I just drive (longshots) and see how the trip goes. When I first came back to America, I was the guy people wanted to send the longshots to all the time. I kind of got away from that.”

Through 253 overall starts this season, Killeen has won 14 times, hit the board in 51 other races, and earned $177,130 in purses.

“It’s like, up and down so far this year,” he said. “It’s good some weeks, some weeks it’s bad. It’s not a bad start, I think.”

The seeds for Killeen’s arrival in America were planted in the summer of 2018 when Meadows-based driver Mike Wilder and his wife, Heather, arrived in Jack’s native Dublin for the Vincent Delaney Memorial festival of races. Mike was guesting for the event and Jack hit it off with the couple.

Killeen was working as a blacksmith in Dublin’s Portmarnock Raceway at the time, but mainly as a hobby. He got the odd drive here and there, but the track only ran on Sundays, so pickings were slim. Jack had long been a fan of U.S. harness racing, watching some of the great North American horses perform via YouTube.

The Wilders invited him to stay with them if he came to the States. He took them up on the offer in September of that year, and soon found a place of his own while helping around the stable. As a bonus, Killeen began getting drives from several trainers. In 25 starts he had three wins, was top-three nine times and won $29,525.

“I got to see what people were doing for a living and I was really interested in it,” Killeen said. “I actually got my first drive and my first win when I was over here on holiday, and I was addicted from then. The Wilders were very special to me. They helped so much. They’ve helped a lot of people.”

Jack went back and forth to Dublin for the next few years and while in America, his happy feet took him to many places.

“After about eight months I said ‘I want to go to New Jersey,’ and the Wilders said, ‘You should go to other places and see stuff,’” Killeen recalled. “They were supportive of it.”

So, he lived in Jersey and raced at Freehold. He worked in Indiana for a year, spent three winters in Pompano, raced for a summer at Tioga Downs and drove in a few New York Sire Stakes races.

“I don’t think there’s too many racetracks I haven’t been to as a driver or a spectator,” said Killeen, who opted for purple and gray colors to distinguish himself from most other Irishmen who choose green and white or gold. “I’ve lived everywhere, worked everywhere. I was trying to find where to go and The Meadows was the best option.”

Through 253 overall starts this season, Jack Killeen has won 14 times, hit the board in 51 other races, and earned $177,130 in purses. Provided photo.

He settled back there midway through the 2022 season with wife Alexandria, who he had met at the track in Pompano.

Killeen has been helping Amanda and Jason Shaw jog horses in the morning but is planning to increase his driving load and seeks to visit other tracks on days when The Meadows is dark. He has been racing more frequently at Hawthorne, Northfield, and Oak Grove.

“I’m trying to expand as long as it doesn’t conflict with The Meadows,” Killeen said.

“I used to be real nervous but after about two or three years of being here it went away,” he said. “It’s basically like a job now. I do it every day now so it’s natural. It’s just something that has become a habit.”

During a St. Paddy’s Day YouTube interview with Hot2Trot, Killeen noted that folks in his homeland seem to believe his success is no big deal. They have the impression that finishing first is just a way of life for drivers.

And just why would they think that?

“When I came to the U.S. I won one race, and it got posted on Facebook by Harness Racing Ireland,” Killeen said. “So, everybody thinks you just come here and you’re just gonna win a bunch of races. They don’t understand how many races you lost. They don’t understand how hard it even is to get a drive in a race that’s worth driving.

“It took me some time. I think if I didn’t leave The Meadows the first time, I might be a little further than where I am, but I really don’t know how much further I would be.”

He obviously had to adjust to driving in America and noted there is one big difference that he noticed.

“In Ireland horses can race the whole time on the outside and not get tired because we don’t go as fast in the quarters as much,” Killeen said. “It just took me a long time to get used to the speed.”

Jack has become more than just a regular driver in the U.S. He has also become a father, as Alexandria gave birth to Ronan three months ago.

“Ronan is the second most common Irish name and she liked it,” said Killeen, who noted that the baby has helped him deal with adversity on a whole much better level.

“When I have a bad day, as soon as I walk in the house it all just goes away,” he said. “He just smiles. It doesn’t matter if you finished last in every race. He just changes that.”

Killeen is having fewer last-place finishes these days as he continues to figure things out in the States. He is secure at The Meadows but still has an urge to dive into bigger ponds.

“I would like to try The Meadowlands when those guys take the winter off,” he said. “But right now, I don’t have many plans. It was pretty good living in New Jersey and racing at Freehold but I’m kind of happy where I am now.

“The only thing I’d really like to do more is drive more at Northfield like some of the guys here at The Meadows do. I’d like to do that two times a day. I’m sure (Northfield star) Ronnie Wrenn could kind of help me out. Not right now but in a couple months I may try it out a little bit. Ronnie gives good advice.”

As he has made his way through the various tracks, Killeen has not only improved his driving, but his ability to communicate in his new country. Trainer Carl O’Callaghan, a fellow Irishman, was on the aforementioned Hot2Trot interview with Killeen and remarked that the Dubliner seemed fairly “Americanized.”

“I kind of agree,” Killeen said. “I talk to so many people every day. For the first year or two when I got here everybody would be like ‘Excuse me what did you say?’ I try to pronounce the words as best as I can. I got tired after about a year or two of people not understanding the Irish language. I kind of changed that a little bit. I got here when I was pretty young. I’ve lived here a quarter of my life now.”

And at the rate he is going, that percentage will only get higher.

Original source credited to ustrottingnews.com
Cover Photo Credit to Chris Gooden

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