by Rich Fisher, for the US Trotting Association
When he was a 10-year-old boy, Lester Smeal II visited the Clearfield (PA) Fair, and it was love at first sight with the sport of harness racing.
He told that to his dad, Lester, whose reply was “You’ve got to wait until your opportunity comes.”
The opportunity began in an unusual way when a year later the Smeals rescued two Thoroughbreds from a track and brought them on to their farm in Morrisdale, Pa., situated near Penn State University.
“We had seen an ad in the paper and we went and got two of them,” the 20-year-old Smeal said. “We used them as normal riding horses, and my dad said ‘If you want to see how good you are, train the one.’ My dad helped me out and I trained a Thoroughbred in a cart. If you can train a Thoroughbred to do it off the racetrack you can probably do a Standardbred.”
Smeal went to the U.S. Trotting Association’s Driving School in 2014, got his license, and bought and trained two Standardbreds — Amber Eyes and License To Steal. He drove qualifiers at The Meadows before heading out to the fair circuit. After getting rained out a few times, his first race came earlier this year at the Bloomsburg Fair, where he finished fourth out of five horses.
“I was a little bummed out about the finish but I was happy with the way I drove,” Smeal said. “You can’t do anything about it for your first time. It was still pretty good.”
He said the thrill of being in a race was everything he thought it would be. He rated it higher than stuffing a running back for a five-yard loss from his linebacker position at West Branch Area High School.
“I loved doing it,” Smeal said. “I used to play tons of football when I was younger. I told my dad I loved doing this more than I loved playing football.”
After a fifth-place finish, Lester came up with his first win, driving Amber Eyes to first place in a division of the Quaker State 3-year-old pace on July 3 at the Butler Fair.
At the start of the race, Aaron Johnston’s horse took the lead and Smeal said “I had my horse literally right up behind his ear, breathing right down his neck.”
The horses stayed that way until an inside hole opened up on the second lap. Johnston and another driver took their horses high and Smeal said, “I didn’t know if I could take the hole down on the inside, but that’s what I did, and took off and got the first win.
“It was pretty exciting, very emotional for my whole family,” he added. “I had my whole family there, they were all watching me. They couldn’t believe I got my first win in my third race. They were all proud.”
Since then, Smeal has raced at as many tracks as possible “to keep my horses going.” He has driven Amber Eyes to two thirds and License To Steal to a second, and enjoys driving horses that he owns and trains.
“It’s pretty sweet,” he said. “Whenever you do that you learn more about your horse. By training them, you get to know the horses and know how to trigger them to go fast.”
Smeal makes no secret that he wants a career in harness racing. His dream is to get his professional driver’s license as soon as he gets enough drives, and he also enjoys being an owner and trainer.
“Honestly, it’s not a hard deal for me to do it all,” he said. “For football I always had the same commitment. With the training and driving, it is a big deal, always working with horses, constantly driving them. It’s fun. People might not think it’s fun, both training and driving, but for me it’s a blast. I’d rather be doing that than sitting at a desk. I love the personality of horses, each horse is completely different.”
And while he is confident in his ability, Smeal is humble at the same time, as he acknowledged having plenty of help up to this point.
“I want to give a big thanks to my family and everybody on the fair circuit,” Lester said. “(Trainer/driver) Roger Hammer has given me pointers on how to get a horse faster. (Driver) Chris and (trainer) Jason Shaw were the first people I had to work with to get my license. And everyone else on the circuit has been helping me out so much. I really owe a lot to them.”