A year to remember for Leon Bailey

Ken Weingartner

Hightstown, NJ — Leon Bailey is living his dream. The 34-year-old from upstate New York recently won his first driving title at Vernon Downs — an emotional accomplishment he dedicated to his late father Bill — took top driving honors on the New York County Fair circuit, and won his first races at The Meadowlands.

For the year, he has won 96 of 524 starts and $288,971 in purses — all career highs.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to have a year like this,” Bailey said. “It’s kind of nice to have a little success. I don’t really know the formula of how it happened. I had some live drives early in the Vernon season, and success leads to success. You keep getting better drives the better you do. It just kept rolling. It’s like a domino effect.

“Even now, it still feels like a domino effect. Things keep happening that are better and better. I just hope to keep it going.”

Leon Bailey won the 2020 Vernon Downs dash title with 47 victories. Fotowon photo.

Bailey’s grandfather, Jack, captured multiple driving championships at Vernon Downs and Bailey’s father won 1,513 races in his driving career. Bill Bailey passed away at the age of 54 on Sept. 27, 2018, after a battle with cancer. Almost two years later to the day — Sept. 26 — Leon Bailey accepted his Vernon Downs driving title.

“I can’t think of a single thing in my entire life that I wanted more than this,” Bailey said at the time. “Dad passed away two years ago. Unbelievably, he never won a title here, although he came darn close a lot of times. It got late in the year and I knew I had a shot. This one definitely goes to him.”

Bailey’s success at Vernon Downs this season included driving 4-year-old trotting mare Jenny Lake, who was named the track’s Horse of the Year after winning eight of 12 starts there.

Other top moments for Bailey were winning New York County Fair championships with Miley Rose, a 2-year-old pacing filly he also trains, and 3-year-old pacing colt Mr Dunnigans. On Oct. 9, he won two races at The Meadowlands and last month he added a third triumph at The Big M with 91-1 longshot Milady Denver A.

“There have been so many highlights,” said Bailey, who has won 370 races lifetime. “The goal now is to keep having good things happen and to keep putting myself in a position to have good things happen.”

Leon Bailey’s success at Vernon Downs this season included driving 4-year-old trotting mare Jenny Lake, who was named the track’s Horse of the Year. Fotowon photo.

Bailey, who is quick to thank all the horsepeople that have contributed to his success, has not slowed down since Vernon Downs’ season ended in September. In addition to racing at The Meadowlands, he is competing at Freehold, Monticello, and Yonkers. This past Friday, he drove at three tracks, beginning his day with four starts at Freehold before two at Yonkers and one at The Meadowlands.

“That was something I’d never done before; I didn’t even think it would be possible to drive three racetracks in a day,” Bailey said. “That was cool. It was a lot of fun.

“I don’t have a specific day that I’m at a certain track, it’s whenever and wherever the horses get in,” he continued, adding with a laugh, “My truck has turned into my personal locker room. I’ve got my colors, my boots, an extra set of clothes. I need to find a little dresser that fits in there and I’ll be all set.”

Bailey dabbled with jobs outside of harness racing years ago, but returned to the sport to pursue his dream.

“My goal in life has always been to be a catch driver,” Bailey said. “I absolutely enjoy taking care of the horses, I like putting my all into them to see them do better, but driving is the biggest thing.

“I’ve always wanted to be leading driver (at Vernon) so I wanted to do whatever I could do to get to that point or get closer to that point. It all falls into that experience category. It’s kind of hard to come up with a plan for it, you just have to take what you get and hope you do well with it.

“I finally got there.”

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