Pocono Downs at Mohegan Pennsylvania has only been open a few weeks, and driver Matt Kakaley kicked off the season with a powerful start, defending his Leading Driver title.
The 35-year-old Kakaley set goals last season, and one of them was to be the leading driver at the track in Northeast Pennsylvania. He finished the 2022 season with 262 wins, total purses of over $3.2M, and a UDRS of .361. And he’s on a roll this season to keep the momentum going with a strong start.
Matt visited the Winner’s Circle six times on both Saturday, March 11th and March 18th, and now has 36 total wins for the Pocono meet. He’s excited about his early strong success, and the excellent racing ahead.
“I’ve had quite a few good horses in good spots in the Game of Claims series,” he said. “The Saturday card has been really good for me. (Trainer) Travis Alexander has had some good horses on Saturdays, some horses that just fit really good spots. It’s a good start.”
The mild winter has been kind to the meet so far, with little or no snow to hinder racing. “The track (at Pocono) isn’t lightening fast right now, so the miles these horses are going are actually a lot better than they look on paper. It’ll take a month or so to tighten up the track, get it really fast and ready to go, and once the temperature warms up, too, it will be fast.”
With the new season starting, the way horses get into the groove of racing varies, and it shows in each start. “There are certain barns that have horses that have been really sharp and fresh and ready to rock, and some of the other barns, it took them a couple weeks,” Matt explained. “Now their horses are starting to race better, and they have a couple starts under their belt, so now they’re tighter. Some people have their horses a little more ready and sharp right away when a new meet starts, and fortunately for me, I’ve been driving for a lot of those people.”
Matt is thankful to have such a successful driving career, and has developed solid working relationships. “I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of people giving me opportunities, and obviously, Travis (Alexander). He’s the leading trainer right now. I drive most of his horses. We have a great relationship, so I definitely want to keep it that way. But if I have one that’s way better than his in a race, he’s understanding that I have to take care of myself once in a while, too. There’s other people to keep happy too, not just one barn. I’m trying to keep all my clients happy. I’m just trying to do the best I can, and it’s a little harder than expected, but I’m getting used to it. Trying to keep everybody happy is kind of hard, but it’s a great spot to be in, and I wouldn’t trade my spot with anyone right now.”
Last season, Matt set his goal of attaining leading driver at Pocono, and with hard work and determination, met that goal. This season, he’s more determined than ever to keep working harder. “I try to do better than the year before. Obviously the leading driver last year was my number one goal. And this year, it all depends on how the summer goes, if I’m missing days at Pocono because I’m driving (other tracks) stakes races, then it’s a little bit harder for me to attain the leading driver, but that’s still my goal. To be the number one. It’s a good feeling. It’s been a lot of hard work to get here and it feels great, so I want to keep it going for as long as I can.”
When Matt was starting out, he looked up to other drivers, seeking advice and suggestions. For any young up-and-coming drivers at Pocono, Matt is always ready to help with pointers or advice. “On the circuit I’m driving right now, the only young guy would be Braxten Boyd. I get along really good with Braxten, I like him. He’s doing a good job. He’s out here driving with us and he handles himself well. I don’t know if he looks up to me that way, but we get along really good. So any time he needs a little pointer here, or asks me for advice, I’m willing to give him my opinion on things.”
The Game of Claims series ends this weekend with the championships, and the Saturday card will feature a $40,000 final. Matt will be driving A Bettor Beach for Travis Alexander, and they drew post 7.
Wherever Matt drives this season, his biggest fan will be watching. Matt and Annie Larrabee’s daughter Arianna always cheers for her dad and never misses his races. “She was in the Winner’s Circle last Saturday for about four of my wins, and she kept throwing up fingers to count my wins each time in the photo. She tells me all the time ‘I’m proud of you, Dad. There’s no better feeling in the world than that.”
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