Harness: Profile of driver Leon Bailey
Derick Giwner May 27, 2021
Leon Bailey recently won seven races on one card at Vernon Downs.
What kind of car do you drive?
- 2011 Chevy Silverado.
Favorite dinner meal? Snack?
- Shake N Bake Pork Chops; Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
What is your favorite track to race at? Why?
- I love Vernon, but I would have to say The Meadowlands. It is a big track that always has a good surface, and you get to race against the best in the sport. Racing there is always something to look forward to.
What is your favorite big event in racing?
- The Hambletonian — It is probably the most prestigious race in the sport, and I like trotters a little more.
How often is racing on your mind?
- Every day, all day long.
What is your favorite thing to do outside of racing?
- I love to fish, and I’m just starting to get into golfing with my buddy Frank Affrunti; he also drives at Vernon. I have to get more practice in, but I like it.
What is your favorite sport to watch? Team?
- Pro Football — Dallas Cowboys. Every year I say they will do something, and I’m wrong every year, so I have to stop saying it. They went heavy in the draft on defense, and I like the guys they got.
What is one thing about you most fans/bettors don’t know?
- That I’m better with trotters than pacers.
What is one word that describes harness racing for you?
- Life — It is definitely a way of life.
How did you get started in the sport?
- I’m the fourth generation. My great grandfather, grandfather, dad, and all of my uncles did it, so it was a no-brainer for me. I got into it early and liked it. I was fortunate enough that they all had big stables when I was a kid, so there was plenty to do.
How far back do you remember being involved in the sport?
- I’ve been at the barn since I was in diapers, but I think I jogged my first horse by myself when I was 10 or 11 years old.
Considering your family involvement, was there ever a chance that you wouldn’t be involved in harness racing?
- I gave it a shot. There were like four years when I tried to have a normal job, but on my days off, I’d still try to drive one or two at night. I really tried to have a regular job, but it just wasn’t the same. Once it is in your blood, it is all you can think about. It becomes hard to punch the clock every day.
So what were you doing from 2012 to 2016 when you left racing?
- I worked in a cigarette factory on the Canadian border in Massena, New York. It was a good job, and they paid me really well. Had I stuck it out, I’d probably be making good money right now because it is huge, but it just wasn’t racing.
- I tried a couple of different jobs. There was a molding shop I was at, but I didn’t like it. During that span, I tested the waters.
Are you able to make enough as a driver, or do you have a job on the side?
- In the morning, I’m jogging and training for whoever needs help. I make a little bit of money doing that. There is plenty of opportunity as a catch-driver during the summer, and I make enough to survive and have a little extra. The winter gets a little tough. I normally go down and drive for Brian Brown at Spring Garden Ranch. He is the best guy I’ve ever met. He’s taught me a lot and probably doesn’t even know he’s taught me. Just the way he handles situations. You can’t get the guy mad. The way he presents himself, he is definitely someone you want to learn to be like. If the world were full of Brian Browns, it would be a better place.
Have you improved as a driver over the years?
- I’ve definitely improved as a driver, but I’ve improved more as a person over the years, which has probably translated into my driving.
You have a 14% win rate as a driver and 16% as a trainer. Are you a better trainer or driver?
- I’d say as a driver, but I like to train horses. It’s just tough, especially racing up at Vernon because we don’t race for a lot of money. It is tough to charge owners enough to justify your time. I definitely like the driving aspect more.
How come you haven’t started a horse yet as a trainer in 2021?
- I gave up my barn last year to focus on driving and be available for anything that comes up.
Recently you won seven races on a card at Vernon. Was that a surreal experience?
- Absolutely. There are many nights where you can’t do anything right, and then there are crazy nights like that one where you can’t do anything wrong; every move you make is the right one. The horses were obviously good; that’s 95% of it.
Right now, you are a regular at Vernon. At 34, where do you see your career going from here?
- I’m looking to get into the Sire Stakes more. The younger horses are really where I want to be. I grew up around them, and that’s how I learned; my dad had Sire Stakes horses. Plus, that is where the money is at. I spent a lot of time at the county fairs last year and did some good. Hopefully, we can step it up this year and get into the Sire Stakes.
You also won a few races at The Meadowlands last year. Do you think after you won, people were saying, who on earth is Leon Bailey?
- Absolutely, but that is the best part of it. People don’t know who you are, and you make them look. It’s never a bad thing when people say, ‘who the hell is this kid’ after I win.
What about your “Lightning” Leon Bailey nickname. Is that making the rounds?
- Oh boy, I’m never going to live that one down. Many people like to bust chops, and I get a lot of messages about that, picking on it, but it’s all cool. Tony Lasinski came up with that name a long time ago when I started driving, but it never took hold until I started winning.
What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten about harness racing?
- There have been so many people who have given me advice, but I will stick with what my dad said. He would remind me all the time to keep my nose to the grind and not to let others tell me how to drive, that I should drive horses the way they need to be driven.
What was your favorite moment in harness racing?
- It’s probably a tie between when I knew I won the Vernon driving title (2020) and when I won two races on the same night at The Meadowlands.
Which is the best horse you’ve ever driven?
- As far as racehorses, Taco Tuesday. He is a really nice trotter. He’s still going now, but he isn’t as good as he used to be. On Friday (May 14), the night I won seven, I drove a 3-year-old pacing colt named Natameri for Jessica and Howard Okusko. I won in 1:50 2/5. That’s the fastest I’ve ever been and by far the best colt I’ve ever driven.
Which horse is/was your favorite that you’ve driven?
- Jenny Lake — I won like eight races with her last year. It just seemed like she and I got along really well and won every race we were in together.
What’s the one race that you most want to win in your career?
If you could choose any horse in history to train or drive, which horse would it be and why?
- Sebastian K — What a freak he was and good-looking too. It would’ve been fun to sit behind him and see how fast I could go.
If you weren’t involved in harness racing, what would you be doing?
- Maybe a harness racing judge.
If you had the power to change one thing in the sport, what would it be?
- I would make everything uniform. Basically, every state has the same set of rules, and I’m not just talking about medication, but for driving or getting a license. I wish there were just one body rather than different states or racetracks with their own rules. You have to change your driving style a little bit for every track you visit because they have different rules.
How do you view the future of harness racing?
- It’s a little worrisome. Tracks need to get more involved in their communities more because those are the people that are potentially going to come to their races. It would help the future.
Time for the stretch drive:
- Best Horse You Ever Saw: Atlanta and Manchego.
- Best Race you ever saw: I was at the Jug the year Wiggle It Jiggleit nosed out Lost For Words.
- Lasix — Yes or No?: Yes. If the horse needs it, they need it.
- Favorite TV Show?: I’m a history buff — Curse of the Oak Island.
- Trotters or Pacers?: Trotters.