Hightstown, NJ — Eric Neal enjoyed a season to remember in 2023. The 32-year-old driver was named the Pennsylvania Fair Horseman of the Year after leading the circuit with 68 wins and his .416 driver’s rating was fifth best in North America among drivers with fewer than 300 starts.

In addition, Neal and his dad, Randal, campaigned 2-year-old male pacer Always Bet On Me, a $3,000 yearling purchase who hit the board in all 10 of his races, winning four and finishing second in four. His second-place finishes included the Pennsylvania Fair Final.

“It was a real good year,” Neal said. “I didn’t really plan it or expect it; you just have to let whatever happens happen. I don’t know if any one thing stood out last year. It was pretty good all around, and every race you win is special.”

Neal, a native of western Pennsylvania who still resides there, never considered doing anything but working with horses while growing up.

Eric Neal got his first driving win in 2008 and has added 439 since then. Chris Gooden photo.

“I’ve been working with the horses for as long as I can remember,” Neal said. “I’ve always wanted to do this. There wasn’t any question. I was probably 5 or 6 the first time I jogged a horse with my dad. I’m pretty sure the horse’s name was Summer Lad. I was hooked.”

Neal got his first driving win in 2008 and has added 439 since then. He has finished in the top 10 for wins on the Pennsylvania fairs circuit nine times, including the past seven years in a row. He has been in the top five on four occasions.

Among his top triumphs were fair finals with Champ Charbel in 2019 and Crumcake in 2015.

“I think driving beats any other job,” Neal said. “It’s exciting, and if you do well for a trainer, it makes you feel good. They spend all week with their horses putting in the work for you to drive them on race day, and if it’s a good day, that’s the best feeling to see the work paid off.”

If things don’t go as planned, Neal has learned not to dwell on it.

“That’s helped me as a driver,” he said. “Horses have off days; drivers have off days. Some days don’t go how you hoped, or the race doesn’t go as you hoped, and you’ve just got to move on to the next one. You can’t let something that’s happened carry over to your next drive, you have to start every race like it’s your first of the day.”

Neal and his dad have 12 horses right now. They usually buy two yearlings each fall and found an unexpected gem with Always Bet On Me at the 2022 Standardbred Horse Sale. The son of Betting Line-Sweet Toujours earned nearly $26,000 last season.

“We didn’t even look at him, but for the price, we tried him,” Neal said. “He was a surprise. Our other horses were OK last year, but he was our best one. He’s a big good-looking colt. He seems OK coming back this year and hopefully he’ll be like he was last year.

“I enjoy working with the horses. Every horse has a different personality, and you get to watch them develop from yearlings to racehorses. When we get one like him, it’s special. It always is.”

In recent years, Neal has not started driving until April or May, but already has 30 starts under his belt at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows this season.

“It’s been a little bit more frequent than the last couple years, but otherwise, I’m probably going to keep the same schedule as last year,” Neal said. “I don’t really set goals, but hopefully I can have another good year this year.”


Original source credited to ustrottingnews.com

Cover Photo Credit to Chris Gooden

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