“I guess it was like a kid looking in a Super Heroes comic book,” remembered the Libertyville, Iowa, resident. “For me it was seeing my idols out there racing. Growing up, I believed I could be a top driver or trainer, as I always dreamed of being the best I could and they say always set your standards high, but I didn’t really believe it would ever come true. You never know though. Without goals you are about done; someday you might get there.”
He hasn’t captured the Hambletonian or a driving title at the Meadowlands, but Liles has certainly arrived. It’s just the way he got there was not at all how he expected.
Last year the 55-year-old was second amongst all drivers in North American UDR (.484) with 100 to 299 annual starts; owned, trained and drove Morey, the Iowa Horse of the Year as well as the 2-year-old champion trotting male; and the state’s 2-year-old filly trotting champion, Summer Weight. Five of his 2-year-old trotters were in the Hawkeye State’s top 50. He made the most money in his career with $120,467 from his 51 triumphs in the bike and $105,716 from his 47 training victories.
This year, Liles has taken his horses to the gate as a driver and trainer on less occasions (128 vs. 156 and 108 vs. 127), but still has more wins (55 vs. 51) as a pilot and has banked $178,918 in the sulky and $137,735 as a conditioner. His UDR is .647 and UTR is .595. His closest competitor is Douglas Ackley with a UDR of .456.
“It was a super year for sure,” Liles said. “I don’t know how much longer it can keep going but I’m sure enjoying where I’m at right now. All the good 2-year-olds that turned three this year is what made it happen.”
Exposed to the business right around the time he went to Kindergarten, Liles decided being around horses was most definitely what he wanted to do with his life. He shares a barn with about 16 head in training with his father Paul, who along with his wife Evelyn, was inducted this past year into the Iowa Harness Horsemen’s Hall of Fame. Father and son manage roughly 15- 20 broodmares. His uncle Emmett Liles, now retired, also won a driving title in the 1960s.
“I start with between 11 or 12 colts every year and usually only have to turn one or two out to wait for next year,” Liles said. “Dad has started to slow down quite a bit so two or three is all he wants to sit behind in the winter. I try to hitch my colts up nearly every day no matter how bad the weather is. In the mornings it’s pretty cool but about 10 or 11 o’clock it starts warming up and if we can’t get them to the track, we get them on the road over gravel.
“I think it’s important for those babies to be hooked to the cart as much as possible,” he continued. “It gives you an edge over everyone else that turns them out for the two cold months or walks them. If we are lucky enough for the gravel road to melt down, we can get them out all the time. That’s our all-weather track.”
For Liles the area of the business he enjoys most is working with his young horses.
“Trying to shape the colts into racehorses is the best part,” he said. “You are trying to find their problems and get them to the races. Some of them are close to perfect, but you can always fix them. You can always mess them up, too, and you hope you don’t mess them up for sure.
“One of the things I’m always saying is if you don’t learn something new in this business every day, no matter who you are, you aren’t learning,” Liles continued. “You might think you know everything about this horse, then one day, you’ll find something you didn’t know the day before. If you keep your eyes open you’ll find something, that’s for sure.”
At this time, Liles is preparing Morey, who went 16-14-0-2 as a freshman and 15-9-3-1 as a sophomore with a career bankroll of $57,237, for a voyage to the Garden State within the next few months.
“He holds the track record at Prairie Meadows at 2:00.1,” he explained. “We had the stud (Proud Crown) and he was the last colt we had out of him, as we don’t have him anymore, and he is the best. He’s a really nice horse and I’m getting him ready to go to the Meadowlands to the Super Bowl series with Julie Miller. She’s another Iowa girl.
“We have sent other horses out East and it’s mostly to sell them,” Liles continued. “Iowa has such a short season and in October we look to race our horses to showcase them to be sold. We mostly race 2- and 3-year-olds here in Iowa so we try to make room for the incoming yearlings. That’s why Morey is going out there and I hope he does well.”
Even though Liles and his family have concentrated on the Iowa circuit for nearly their entire careers, he does admit he hopes to compete in other arenas within subsequent years.
“I would love to win a big name stakes race, of course someday the Hambletonian, but here in Iowa we don’t have anything big where we are going for a lot of money,” he said. “My goal is to expand outside of Iowa and to bigger, brighter races, maybe out East where a lot of horsemen from Illinois and the Midwest have gone.
“We have been buying mares out East the last couple years,” Liles continued. “Maybe one or two of those will go out and win a big race outside of Iowa after they are trained down.
“I’m comfortable here in Iowa with everything we have happening, but I would like to break out. That would be my goal right now.”