CLEARFIELD — When Lester Smeal II talks harness racing, he glows.
“It all started here at the Clearfield County Fair about 10 years ago,” Smeal recalls. “I was here watching harness racing and I looked at my dad and said ‘I want to learn how to do that.’”
The father presented his son with a challenge. If he could train one of the family’s thoroughbreds to pull a cart, they’d see what path his passion took.
So, Smeal got to work.
He built a race bike and jogging cart, bought an old harness off of Ebay, trained, and attended driving school.
A “first generation” rider, Smeal grew up on a Morrisdale farm with horses but was never interested in them until he discovered the speed and control of a sulky.
The 22-year-old would go on to drop out of Lock Haven University where he played football, using the rest of his college tuition to buy his first race horse “Licensed To Steal.”
For nearly three years, he’s been a full-time owner, trainer and driver. And he’s never looked back.
“I like the speed and just being tight and knowing that anything can happen in a split second,” Smeal said. “It’s exhilarating and awesome at the same time.”
When it comes to horses he looks for one thing — enthusiasm.
Some of his horses were free, others only cost a few hundred dollars, but his five horse team which includes Dreams Are Tru, Out of Shu, Rescue Hanover, Whisperstemptation and License to Steal, is driven and to Lester that’s paramount.
“I don’t care what they look like. I don’t care what their breeding is. I want to know what a horse will do and that it won’t quit,” said Smeal, adding that one of his horses, Dreams Are Tru, actually smiles when he’s being harassed.
While harness racing is a long-standing tradition at the Clearfield County Fair, Smeal is the only harness racer in the county.
The fair is the oldest fair with harness racing. It started hosting races in the late 1800s. To date, there’s only 15 fairs in Pennsylvania that still have harness racing.
Horses circle two times around the half-mile clay based track vying to be the fastest.
Smell said the hardest part of harness racing is find the sweet spot where the driver and horse are in sync, especially mentally.
This year he placed fourth and fifth in the races he competed in. And he plans to come back next year to compete.
“If it wasn’t for my family, I wouldn’t be here,” Smeal said of his mother Lisa and father Lester. “My family is one of the biggest supporters that I have.”
He also gave a nod to his fiance Kyrsten Kowalczyk, as well as the Johnson family and Dave Brickel, who have been supports and constructive critics, helping him to learn and grow.
He also mentioned his gratitude for the Clearfield County Fair board, who has kept the tradition alive so he could find his passion and purpose. They also allow him to train for two weeks in the spring.
Looking to the future, Lester hopes to start competing on the big tracks like the Pocono Downs. Another goal is to get his judge’s license to better understand the rule heavy sport.
But until then he will race at every county fair in Pennsylvania he’s able to attend and traveling as far south as Virginia to race.
“This is my main job and I never work a day in my life because I love it,” Smeal said. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
See www.thecourierexpress.com to watch Smeal’s Go Pro video of one of his runs from last year’s Clearfield County Fair.