by Rich Fisher
The fact that Chris Presley got his first driving win last month is not nearly as impressive as the fact that he lived through college long enough to gain such an accomplishment.
Growing up in Michigan, the 21-year-old Presley was raised in what he termed “A Michigan family,” meaning they all root for the university that plays football in Ann Arbor. Chris, however, spent two years at Michigan State — where they eat Wolverines for breakfast.
“I had Michigan stuff and they hated it,” he said. “I always walked the streets in caution. I never wore yellow on campus, but I really wanted to.”
After participating in Michigan State’s animal science program, Presley earned a certificate in equine studies last year. He quickly got his driver and trainer licenses and headed for Bowling Green, Ohio, where he started working with Billy Farmer.
Since Ohio State is Michigan’s most hated rival, Chris once again found himself in enemy territory.
“I can’t stand Ohio State,” he sighed. “Everybody around here loves it. I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He was in the right place on Aug. 12, when he drove 3-year-old pacing filly Angela Nichole to victory at the Hartford Independent Fair in Croton, Ohio.
“It was a rough first go, the first few times I drove,” Presley said. “It’s kind of a funny story, because the first three drives I had, I was parked the whole mile for the first three drives.
“I finally said, ‘Well you know what, we’re in cheap, it looks like we have the best horse in the race so we’ll sit back.’ We just sat pretty through the three-quarter pole and she opened up by 14 in the stretch.”
He did so with a Gene Humphrey-trained horse that had not been too popular among the other drivers.
“They had her racing as a 2-year-old last year, nobody got along with her,” Presley said. “I was lucky enough to be up at Delaware at the fairgrounds one day and they were qualifying her. They needed somebody, I had my colors and there I was. I got to drive her the rest of the year.
“I’ve been driving her at every fair. She’s a hard-working little filly.”
And she gave him a night to remember after pulling Chris into the winner’s circle for the first time in his professional career.
“That felt great,” he said. “I’d been waiting for that since I was 3 or 4 years old. I just got started late. I didn’t really have the opportunity in Michigan where I was.”
Presley, who now has two wins, 13 top-three finishes “and a whole lot of fourths,” grew up in Michigan Center. Neither of his parents had horses but his grandmother, Marie Konieczki, trained a few and Chris was fascinated by them.
“I could never get away from it,” he said. “My parents didn’t really want me to do it, they didn’t really want me to get hooked on it. I got to be around it when I was really little, and then I went out with my grandma to Indiana in the summers and took care of the horses.”
Konieczki works for Jamie Macomber, who oversees all training responsibilities for the division of the Ron Burke Stable racing at Hoosier Park. She got into the business through her association with Danny Davidson.
By the time Presley turned 13, he had thrown himself into playing sports. He played football, basketball and baseball at Michigan Center High School, and was recruited for hoops by some small colleges.
He could not get horses out of his blood, though, and every morning on his way to school he would see trainer Al Tomlinson out jogging horses.
“I stopped in one day and asked him for a job,” Chris said. “The first time I ever jogged a horse I was probably 18.”
He then went to Michigan State and his career was soon underway. After moving to Ohio, Presley was given the opportunity to train six or seven horses on his own.
“That was a good experience, it helped me out a lot,” he said. “You learn more doing it kind of on your own, than you do just helping out.”
Presley eventually hooked up as a second trainer for Peter Wrenn, who ran into Konieczki in Florida and decided to give her grandson a call.
Chris is now slowly building up a resume. His main focus is now on driving and he is not afraid to pay his dues.
“I’ve probably been to 30 fairs this year, one or two drives at each one, but that’s where you’ve got to start,” he said. “I travel three hours sometimes just for one drive. But I haven’t been doing bad. For the horses I’ve been driving I’ve been doing pretty good. I’m getting started, trainers are noticing, and other drivers think I’ve excelled pretty far along for how long I’ve been doing it. I haven’t really been involved that long.
“I’m just kind of building up clientele, showing people I have the potential to do it. That’s why I have to go to all these fairs. You hear people say they’re busy, they can’t make it, but I really like to move everything out of the way so I can go to the fairs and drive a couple of these horses.”
Looking down the road, Presley feels he and his girlfriend may look into making some purchases.
“I’d like to get a few horses of my own, so I don’t have to travel around working for other people,” he said. “But, I like what I’m doing now because I get enough free time where I can go to the fairs, go to the track if I need to race. But I’d like to have four or five of my own one day.”
Don’t bet against him. If Presley could survive being a Wolverine in the land of the Spartans, he’s probably a pretty capable guy.