Dominick Merritt

When Adriane Merritt visits Laurel Park and watches her son, Dominick, work as an exercise rider, she believes a mother's prayers were answered.

Adriane and her husband, Gary, raised Dominick and his two older siblings, Michelle Branch and Delvon Merritt, in an inner-city neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore that no one would choose. Not even the playground offered refuge from drugs and crime. Adriane said drugs were sold even as children played. Bad company was to be found on virtually every corner, leading Dominick Merritt and other at-risk youngsters to understand grim realities of inner-city life far too soon.

"You get exposed to a lot of stuff earlier than you should be. I have friends who have been murdered, sentenced to life, gotten hooked on drugs," Dominick Merritt said. "That's a path I didn't want to go down."

Adriane prayed for all she was worth that her children would not travel that path. Her fears only worsened as some of Dominick's friends made wrong choices and paid terrible prices for those choices. Dominick struggled academically throughout grammar school, disturbed by much of what was transpiring around him. He can remember lying awake as his parents argued deep into the night. They only recently separated.

"It was pretty rough. I wasn't focused in class. My head wasn't in school," he said. "It was just trying to get by day to day."

He quickly understood the damning consequences of attempting to escape reality through drugs and alcohol.

"I was never really the party type because I knew what that comes with,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol, next thing you know someone is getting shot at. I don't need to be around that type."

Things got so bad that the family fled the neighborhood after two burglaries occurred in rapid succession. In one instance, Dominick and his mother were asleep upstairs, unaware of intruders on the first floor. In the other break-in, Adriane returned only to find that thieves manipulated a chain lock so the family could not immediately re-enter its own home.

Gary suggested they put bars on all of the windows to increase safety, but that brought back horrible memories for his wife. Adriane's mother, Carolyn, had perished in a house fire.

No, Adriane would not live in an environment with bars on the windows, and so the family briefly moved in with her father until safer accommodations could be found.

"I had to protect my children,” Adriane said. “They are my ultimate. They are everything to me."

Dominick was 5 or 6 when their inner-city home became too unsafe to be home any more.

"I was old enough to remember,” he said. “I just remember my mother saying, 'We've got to leave.' "

Dominick finally found a healthy escape from it all. Michael Branch, an uncle, began taking him to Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. He quickly developed a passion for horses and racing. But how could he pursue that?

With maturity came a greater sense of purpose, and Dominick enrolled at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md. That proved to be fortuitous. Although he never completed his associate's degree at Harford, he immensely benefitted from his time there.

"You could tell he had definitely turned around when he was in a supportive and caring environment," said Jenny Jakulin, his academic success coach.

Once Jakulin identified racing as his passion, she arranged for him to speak to Jennie Towner, an avid rider who is Harford's director of student success. Towner contacted Bonita Farm and Merritt was soon mucking stalls there, learning everything he could about horses from the ground up.

He learned his lessons so well that Kevin Boniface of Bonita Farm highly recommended him to Maryland-based trainer Phil Schoenthal last spring.

Schoenthal is meticulous in hiring exercise riders. He was initially skeptical when Boniface called.

“The quality of your riders is supremely important to how you train, especially young horses," Schoenthal said. “Riders who have patience and good hands and understand what you are trying to accomplish and do a nice job with horses go a long way toward the success of those individuals."

Merritt has no aspirations to be a jockey.

Merritt quickly won over Schoenthal. He arrives at the barn every morning with a smile. He leaves the same way. No chore, no horse, is too much trouble.

“He immediately demonstrated and proved that he was not only a competent rider but an excellent rider,” the trainer said. "There is not a racehorse on the backside that he is not able to handle and gallop."

Merritt continues to live with his mother while he works to afford a place of his own. Adriane delights in his happiness. She said he recently told her, 'Ma, there's nothing like going to work and you don't feel like you're working. When I get out there and I get on them horses, I'm so focused. It's like serenity.' "

As much as Merritt immerses himself in his new life, he is occasionally reminded of a past that threatened to bury him. In January, Tavon Edwards, someone he viewed as a good friend, received a sentence of 45 years to life in prison for second-degree murder.

"It was like a gut punch," Merritt said. "The last time we were together (2018), he was talking about how he wanted to do better for his mother and his sister. He wanted to get them out of Baltimore. One night, I guess he just made the wrong decision."

Merritt turns 22 this Friday. Everything points toward a bright future. Schoenthal has expanded Merritt's responsibilities so he now oversees the feeding program. He hopes to prepare him to manage a string of horses and eventually become an assistant trainer.

"We feel we found a gem with him," Schoenthal said, "and we hope he stays with us a long time."

Copyright © 2020 Paulick Report.
Photo credit: Dottie Miller Photography

This article was published it the Paulick Report, February 19, 2020. Source: is published by Blenheim Publishing LLC, 3070 Lakecrest Circle, Suite 400-292, Lexington, KY 40513. Copyright Blenheim Publishing LLC.

This entry was posted in In Their Care, NL Article, People and tagged Bonita Farm, Dominick Merritt, exercise riders, In Their Care, Kevin Boniface, Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care, laurel park, Maryland racing, phil schoenthal, Pimlico Race Course, tom pedulla by Tom Pedulla.


KCW | a day ago
It would be great to hear of more stories like this.
Congratulations Dominick and keep up the good work.

little | a day ago
Great story. Best of luck to Dominick and his family.

Deb | a day ago
Bravo! I hope other inner city kids find the horses. Horses do save lives in so many ways.

Dominick | a day ago
Thank you all 😊

the buzz23 Dominick | 20 hours ago | edited
Yours is a great story Dominick. Can only imagine the pride your mom has for you. Wish you the best in all your future endeavors.

Elizabeth Delgado | a day ago
Horses can be the life changer for so many people. Somehow an animal so different from us can communicate lessons that no human can make us learn. It’s almost magical.

Sunshine Bonnie | a day ago
I love the picture at the top of this story. The horse has head up, nostrils flared, ears pricked, perhaps looking at something "scary" and Dominick has a reassuring hand on his neck. In tune with his horse. Best of luck, you're more than a survivor, you're a winner Dominick!

SUNNY FARM | 3 hours ago
Dominick, you show great strength in character to be in an arena and stand and face down the bull. (drugs). Is it okay if I now spell your name as Merit? I know you appreciate the leg up you've received and the love of your mother, but it is you who has ultimately made the choices. A sign of a real man. I wish you all the best!