Patience is paying off for 21-year-old Lukas Harper

by Chris Lomon

It was a moment that played out in Lukas Harper’s field of dreams, a victory torn from the pages of a Hollywood script.

The eighth race on the afternoon of July 17 over the half-mile oval at Hilliard, OH happened to be the only drive for the young horseman on the nine-race card.

Teamed with Captain Income, a son of Captaintreacherous—Supplemental Income, Harper and the bay gelding lined up behind the starting car as the 5-1 third choice in the six-horse field for the $1,000 pace.

The pair got away in second and followed 4-5 favorite Bee A Hardtthrob through fractions of :29, :59.4, and 1:28.4, before taking over the proceedings and powering away from their rival to post a 1 ¼-length win in 1:59.1.

“Turning for home, it was a surreal thing,” Harper said. “I had the adrenaline going and I didn’t know if I was going to get there or not. But we got the job done. I was lucky to have such a game horse. You know that he is going to give you everything he’s got. He was a perfect horse for me to drive. When you ask him to go, he will, and he loves getting the best of other horses.”

For Harper, it was the first win of his fledgling career. But it was much more than just a milestone memory.

Far more, in fact.

“It was ironic that I won that first race at Hilliard,” he said. “It’s my home track, so to speak. My dad [long-time horseman Bob Harper] used to be stabled there and my grandmother and grandfather live right behind the track, along the backside. They have a house right on the fence, so it was pretty special.

“My parents weren’t able to be there, but it meant a lot to have the race at that track. I was overcome with emotion after the race. When I looked over, I saw my grandparents and my two little cousins standing at the fence cheering me on.”

The 21-year-old Harper had other things to cheer about over the 14 starts he compiled in his rookie 2023 season.

While the win with Captain Income was his only victory on the campaign, Lukas was money in the bank when it came to finishing in the top three, posting seven thirds along the way.

“I’m confident in any horse I sit behind, no matter what the odds are,” he said. “My belief is that you have to put every horse in play, to find the best spot for them to get the best result. When we get up to the gate, regardless of whether the horse is the favorite or a big longshot, I am confident. Anything can happen. Who knows? You might be able to pull off something spectacular.”

Most importantly, the former standout football and basketball player learned no shortage of lessons in his time on the racetrack and training tracks.

“My dad has always instilled in me that there are no friends on the racetrack,” Lukas said. “If you have a good horse and you have to make a move to give your horse the best chance to win, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. He also told me that as soon as you pull the line, you’ll immediately know if you messed up, but the top priority is to give your horse the best trip you can.”

What was one thing he learned about himself as a driver in 2023?

“I’ve learned to have a lot more patience,” he said. “I talked to a lot of other drivers and trainers about patience, when to make the right move or when to stay in. When I was in the Youth Driving Series, I didn’t have the best horses, at least on paper, but the ability to be patient helped me out a lot.

“When you have a good horse that can race on the front, it is a lot easier. When you aren’t driving the big favorite, you have to pick and choose your spots. That has helped me so much when it comes to driving from off the pace. You study the program and do your best to understand how the race will play out, but you also need to rely on split-second decisions because anything can happen.”

Born in Grove City, OH, a suburb of Columbus, Lukas still calls the city of just over 43,000 people home, a place that allows him to easily venture to many of the state’s standardbred racetracks.

With the calendar having turned to a new year, Lukas is looking to continue on the road to success with his life in the sulky, while also taking off some strokes on his golf game.

“Short term, the goal is to get my pari-mutuel license,” he said. “I need to have a few more qualifiers, but hopefully, I can get that done soon. I would like to up the number of drives I have this year, maybe around 40 would be a nice target to hit. Obviously, I want to get some more wins too.

“I started with dreams of winning the big races, but I am just going with the flow with everything right now. I am a big believer in God, and whatever He throws my way, I will be grateful. My ultimate goal would be to win the Little Brown Jug one day — that is definitely at the top of my list — but whatever happens, it’s an honor and a blessing to get to do what I love. I have such a passion for the sport and for the horses and I feel so lucky to get to be part of this all.”

Winning a few more races in front of his grandparents would no doubt be on his list of future accomplishments.

Lukas, understandably, is still moved by that victory at Hilliard.

“You always hope that your first win will be special,” he said. “But there is no way I could have made that moment any more special than it was. I can still picture my grandparents and my cousins cheering for me. No matter what I can achieve, that day will always stand out as one of the greatest in my career.”