Steve Wetzel pulled his harness racing career out of a hat

by Chris Lomon

Steve Wetzel hasn’t just embraced his good horse racing fortune – he’s owned it.

It was just over two years ago when Wetzel, a cattle farmer by trade, found himself at Shenandoah Downs on a rainy Virginia afternoon.

He had brought his daughter to the adjacent fairgrounds to take part in a cattle-showing competition, and figured he might as well step outside the bovine ring to catch some horse racing action.

Little did he know that decision would set into motion a series of life-changing events.

It started when Wetzel entered his name into the Own a Horse For a Day contest.

Along with six other entrants, he waited to hear if his name would be called.

And it was.

So far, so good.

The odds of being the person to keep the $2,000 purse money for the winning horse were certainly reasonable.

CC Big Boy Sam, the horse who carried Wetzel’s hopes, was 5-1, the fifth choice on the tote board.

Wetzel, perhaps to increase the odds of victory, headed to the paddock for a brief pep talk with the pacing son of Nobleland Sam, who would rack up 327-lifetime starts and 42 wins, including in his final start on Jan. 24, 2022.

Leaving the wings from post 6, CC Big Boy Sam glided off the gate and settled into the second spot. Third at the half-mile mark, he was second at the stretch call and closing in on the leader.

Wetzel liked what was unfolding in front of him.

He was even happier when CC Big Boy Sam dug in and crossed the wire a quarter-length on top in 1:57.3.

Processing what had transpired took a few moments.

“It was a great moment,” he said. “There weren’t that many fans in the stands because of the weather. When we found out about the contest, we decided to throw our name in the hat and hoped for the best. It couldn’t have turned out any better.”

The story of Wetzel and his association with harness racing does not end there.

It was, in fact, just the beginning.

“Things just grew from that moment,” Wetzel said. “I bought one horse with my winnings and acquired a few more horses. My trainer got sick, and those health issues meant he was going to have to leave the business. I had been going with him to the tracks and he was showing me the ropes, so to speak.”

Wetzel listened attentively to the veteran horseman, eager to broaden his knowledge of the sport and its stars.

Then he had a light-bulb moment.

“I thought, ‘If you are going to get out of it, I think I’m going to sell my cattle farm and get into it,’ so that’s what I did,” he said.

Homebase is the horse ranch Lineweaver Acres, where his racehorses, numbering close to 10, and three broodmares take up residence.

At one time a harness racing ranch, Lineweaver Acres is a stone’s throw from a track, owned by another family, which Wetzel uses for jogging his band of trotters and pacers.

Although he now works with a different type of animal, the long hours, early mornings, late nights, and everything in between, are by no means a new way of life for Wetzel and his family.

“Farming is a lot of hard work and it’s the same thing with racing,” Wetzel said. “The most important thing is that you have to love what you do and that is the case for me.”

He isn’t the only one in his family who feels that way.

It was something he discovered when he was in Pennsylvania just over two years ago.

“My favorite one — this happened at the Harrisburg sale in 2022 — is a horse named Sea Of Life,” Wetzel said. “We went to the sale just to get a feel for the experience. I had been to a lot of cattle auctions and saw how they went, so this was going to be something I could learn about.”

As it would turn out, Wetzel came away with a lot more than newfound racing knowledge.

“My wife and I were sitting in the balcony, just watching the horses come in, and around three in the afternoon on the last day of the sale, Sea Of Life came out,” he said. “My wife loves sea turtles. She had to leave for a few minutes, and she told me that we should buy him.”

Wetzel pondered the probable price tag and figured it might not pan out.

But, just like that day at Shenandoah Downs, racing luck was on his side.

“I looked at the lines and thought he would go for around $100,000 or a bit more,” he said. “We actually got lucky and got him for a very good price. That was the moment when my interest in the sport really took off.”

Last year, as a trainer, Wetzel posted 10 wins, along with $60,073 in purse earnings and 33 top-three finishes from 72 starts.

He’s on track to eclipse those numbers in 2024.

Wetzel doesn’t need to be reminded that attaining any goals, current or future, will need a team effort.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what he has.

“My wife’s big thing is working with babies,” he said. “Whenever a calf was born, it was as if it was better than Christmas. She wanted to have babies at the farm, so we bought three broodmares. We were new to the business, so we spoke with a lot of people and did a lot of research so that we would do right by the horses.”

Being relatively new to the industry brings its share of challenges.

For Wetzel, the biggest hurdle is the steep learning curve.

“The most challenging part is making sure you know as much as you can,” Wetzel said. “You talk to anyone in this sport, and they will tell you that you learn something new every day. It doesn’t take you long to realize that.

“I have been around horses for about three years. A lot is still new to me, so you can’t be afraid to ask questions – that will only help you.”

It already has.

“The best part about learning is that you can take great advice and then incorporate it into your daily routine,” he said. “It’s satisfying when everything comes together, and you get to see the results of your efforts.

“From the training to taking care of the horses, you need to be on top of everything, every day.”

One of Wetzel’s main objectives is to breed Virginia-born horses and have them race in the Virginia state races.

He likes what he sees in the direction racing is heading in his home state.

A longer Shenandoah meet is welcome news.

“We live five minutes away from Shenandoah, so the fact that it is going to 14 weeks a year also sparked my interest in racing,” he said. “Before it was a lot less than that and now it is 14 weeks. It’s nice to race close to home. Our meet starts on April 6th, and they continue to do a lot of great things for our sport.”

As is Wetzel, who pulled a horse racing career out of a hat.

He can remember the day of good fortune as if it were yesterday.

“It all started on a Wednesday afternoon at Shenandoah,” Wetzel said. “It was a miserable day with all the rain, but I think it has all worked out pretty well since then. It’s been a whirlwind. I have had some success, had some nice horses, and acquired some nice ones too. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Wetzel hopes there is even more of it to come.