Corey Callahan was slow to embrace working with racehorses, but he's been quick to win driving them.
The 35-year-old Callahan is the winningest harness racing driver in North America this year, entering Monday with 299 victories. Last month Callahan wrapped up his fourth consecutive leading driver title at Dover Downs in Delaware and he is third in the standings at Harrah's Philadelphia and fourth at the Meadowlands.
Not bad for a guy who only eight years ago won his first race. The victory came at age 27, which would be the oldest of any driving champion should he finish the year on top.
"It's kind of surreal," said Callahan, who grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and was a standout soccer and hockey player in high school. "I could never have imagined anything like this. Hopefully I can peck away and get some more wins."
Although his father, Nick, trains horses, Callahan had little interest in the business during his teenage years.
"When I was younger, I liked going to the races but wasn't a huge fan of the horses; it meant more work for me," Callahan said, laughing. "My friends just had to cut the grass or something."
Callahan earned a business degree and played hockey at the University of Kentucky, where four years in horse-rich Lexington reconnected him with racing. After graduating, he worked for a while in the business world, but soon decided to help his father with his horses.
"Harness racing seems to be something passed down through generations," Callahan said. "If it's in your blood, it doesn't seem to go away. It always seems to come back."
Callahan's late start to driving hasn't been a hindrance.
Last year he set career highs with 519 wins, which was good for eighth place among all drivers, and $7.39 million in purses. He was the regular driver of world-record-setting trotter Googoo Gaagaa, whose stakes victories included the $500,000 Colonial at Harrah's Philadelphia.
Callahan in 2011 represented the U.S. in the World Driving Championship, finishing second to Canada's Jody Jamieson. In April, Callahan notched career victory No. 3,000.
He is on pace for 785 wins and $8.18 million in purses this season.
"Growing up I wanted to be a professional athlete," Callahan said. "I was a good player, but not quite good enough to be at that top level. Luckily, I've had a lot of success driving. Now here I am with the best of the best. In the harness racing world, I've finally made it to the pros, so to speak."
As a hockey player, Callahan needed good hands and the ability to anticipate and react to fast-paced action. Those attributes are helpful as a driver.
"You have to kind of see things before they happen," Callahan said. "Having played hockey helps your mind think that way, it's so fast.
"Wayne Gretzky would probably be a really good driver," he added with a smile. "Maybe he should try it now."
Callahan hopes to keep his hold on the No. 1 spot in wins, but knows it will be difficult. He leads last year's champion, Dave Palone, by 46 victories. Palone has won 15,775 races in his career, the most ever for any driver in North American harness racing history.
"I'd really like to keep it going, but I'm just going to try to let it happen," Callahan said. "I'm going to work hard at it, but I'm not going to do two tracks every day. My wife is due with our second child in July and there's no way I won't be able to not get any sleep at night and do two tracks during the day.