‘Owner for a Day’ Steve Wetzel now a horseman for life
story by Evan Pattak
Until recently, Steve Wetzel knew little about harness racing or Standardbreds. As a kid minding his neighbors’ cattle, he occasionally would slip off to the nearby Shenandoah County Fairgrounds, in Woodstock, Va., to watch a few races.
“We would draw spoons and those would be our numbers in the race,” he recalls.
But, aside from a trip to the Preakness, those youthful sprees were his only experience with horse racing. Then, years later, as a feedlot operator himself, he began showing his stock at the fair and became intrigued by harness racing once more—especially when a woman walked through the stands on that fateful 2021 day to explain the “Own a Horse for a Day” drawing the track was staging in association with the Virginia Harness Horse Association (VHHA).
Eight lucky winners would, by draw, be assigned a horse in a $6,750 featured race; the purse would be split among them in the same percentages as owners customarily enjoy. Thus, one “Owner for a Day” would walk away $3,375 richer. And, instead of only five lucky winners cashing, each participant would receive at least $100.
Darrell Wood, communications and marketing director for the Virginia Equine Alliance, notes that the association has been supporting the promotion—and even supplying the purse money—since the old Colonial Downs days.
“It gives eight fans a real hands-on experience of what it’s like,” Wood says. “We give them a tour of the backside, introduce them to the connections, and encourage them to bring guests to get more people exposed. We have them watch the races together on the viewing deck. There’s an energy and camaraderie that form. They talk about the experience, so it’s a neat way to spread the word and grow attendance.
“Everyone always says that when those horses are coming to the wire and yours is one of them, you get that rush. These people get that rush. They become fans, and they know a bit more about the game.”
Even so, Wetzel’s experience did not begin auspiciously.
“On the day of the race, Darrell would say something about each horse after it was drawn,” Wetzel recalls. “Then he got to my horse, CC Big Boy Sam. He was about 12-1 and didn’t even have a driver listed yet. I said, ‘Does that mean I have to drive him, too?’”
Eventually, veteran horseman Fern Paquet Jr. took the call and piloted the long shot to victory. To say that Wetzel “got that rush” as the field turned for home would be an understatement. He jumped up and down so wildly that he injured his foot; a physician ultimately put him in a walking boot.
But he discovered something about harness racing—and something about himself—that made the bum foot seem insignificant. Soon, he claimed a horse, engaged Brian Tomlinson as his trainer, and began helping out in the Woodstock paddock.
That horse won the very next week, reinforcing Wetzel’s decision to go all in. He went about the business of expanding his stable, purchasing a horse named Sea Of Life at the Standardbred Horse Sales Co. Mixed Sale, in Harrisburg, Pa.
“I was afraid he would go for $100,000, but we were able to get him really reasonably,” Wetzel said. “He won the (second) Open he tried at Rosecroft, and he’s won the Open at Woodstock, too.”
With growth on his mind and Tomlinson talking about retirement, Wetzel knew he would need new arrangements. So he purchased a farm, the old Lineweaver Acres near the track, and relocated his horses there. Then, on July 31, 2023, his initial foray into harness racing became complete. In that day’s mail, he received his trainer’s license.
An “Owner for a Day” had become a horseman for life.
Wetzel’s commitment to harness racing is so strong that he sold the feedlot to concentrate on his harness interests. (He does retain two rental businesses for landscaping and party equipment. Tables and chairs? Yes. Tents? Nope.) He’s grown his stable to 12: six racehorses, three broodmares (all in foal), a yearling son of Courtly Choice, a weanling, and a retiree soon to be retrained as a riding horse. His initial reaction to his new vocation as a horseman was pure joy.
“Watching them race, that’s probably the most fun. The rest of it is work. When you’ve worked with your horse all week and he gives his all and races well, you feel you’ve done your job. I love animals. What better thing to have than an animal that pays you money.”
But as he’s expanded his horizons, he’s checking off some of the lessons most horsemen learn.
First, he knows now that size matters—at least when it comes to staffing. Twelve horses turned out to be too many to handle by himself, so he’s hired a fellow harness racing neophyte, Sarah Miton, to groom for him.
“We’ll learn this business together,” he said. “She knows less about it than I do, but she’s a hard worker. My trainer had a lot of horses—16 at one time. I would never want to be that big without good help. If you have good help, you can do it.”
Wetzel also has come to understand that, no matter how much he may know about racing horses and caring for them, breeding Standardbreds is a wizard’s art full of weird incantations and treacherous trapdoors for the uninitiated.
“I had no idea about the expenses of breeding, especially compared to cattle,” he said. “With cattle, the whole breeding can cost $50.”
Risk-taker that he is, though, Wetzel got involved in onGait breeding auctions and found himself the winner of frozen semen from He’s Watching and Wearinmysixshooter.
And, like most horsemen, he’s struggling to find that elusive work-life balance.
“For the next year or so, I want to race at Shenandoah and maybe twice a month at Rosecroft, then skip Ocean Downs and maybe take the whole summer off and do things with the family,” he said. “This business does tie you down.”
Wetzel’s successful foray into harness racing is testament to his entrepreneurial spirit and skills, of course, but it also tells us a few things about the sport itself.
First, while industry veterans might not recall what attracted them to the sport, it seems abundantly clear that harness racing remains compelling to newcomers. The thrill of betting, the excitement of winning, the joys of caring for wonderful animals, the enduring relationships with compassionate horsepeople—all of these will serve to attract new fans and owners to harness racing . . . if only we can get those newbies hands-on.
That’s what makes promotions such as “Owner for a Day” so valuable. Winners get up close and personal with the sport’s participants, and for some, at least, that will be the ticket to an ongoing relationship with the sport.
VHHA typically stages three “Owner for a Day” contests per season, joining with radio and print partners to advertise the events. Would-be contestants actually can enter through those media partners.
Wood notes that Wetzel has become “a year-round ambassador for harness racing,” a marketing tool that’s typically more effective than a million “Likes” on Facebook . . . but not always. Consider what happened about a year after CC Big Boy Sam launched Wetzel on his harness racing journey. Wetzel’s wife, Nicole, entered an “Owner for a Day” contest, and, defying the odds, won the grand prize. Much like her husband, she invested it in harness racing, right? Wetzel laughs at the memory.
“She took her money and ran. She said, ‘I’m smarter than you.’” HB
Evan Pattak is a veteran harness writer, publicist, on-air analyst/commentator and owner. He provides public relations services to the MSOA. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.