Ryan Stahl has a lot going on in his life these days, and it's pretty much all good. The 34-year-old is the leading dashwinning harness racing driver at Northfield Park this year and, after second-place finishes in 2011, 2009 and 2007, is bidding for his first title at the Ohio track.
He is engaged to be married to Nichole Gagnon. The two are expecting a baby girl in late June to give Nichole's 4-year-old son, Owen, a little sister.
Stahl and Gagnon work together as trainers and are in the process of building a barn and track on Stahl's Republic, Ohio, farm. At the moment they are training the horses at a nearby fairgrounds. Stahl knows how much less time he will have when the little one arrives and is hoping to have the barn and track finished by mid-June.
"We'll be getting a lot less sleep," he said with a laugh. "It will be nice to walk out the backdoor and be at work instead of having to dress the kids, pack them in the car and drive them someplace.
"We're hurrying the process a little with the baby on the way. The barn is coming along real good. We're kind of waiting on the weather to get the track done."
One drawback to all these nice developments is it may hinder Stahl in his quest for the driving title. Defending champion Dan Noble, who led all of North America in wins last year, is not racing as frequently at Northfield, but neither will Stahl once summer rolls around.
"Right now I haven't been worried about it," he said. "It's going pretty good, but I live 100 miles away so I don't go up there every night. I usually take one or two nights a week now.
"When summer comes me and my fiancée have about 14 horses we're training, some 2- or 3-year-olds. We'll go to a lot of fairs and won't be up much in the summer. I have a (20) win lead right now, so I have some cushion. If fall comes around and I'm close to the lead, I'll think about it then and maybe go up there."
Stahl is a second generation racing man. His father, Lee, was a trainer and a driver and had a big impact on Ryan. The son would watch his dad drive at Northfield and thought to himself, "That's what I want to be."
He got his license at age 14, was a mainstay in the stables, and pretty much took over the operation when Lee passed away four years ago.
"I was raised in the business with my dad," Stahl said. "As soon as I got out of school I worked for him."
It's not like he didn't have other offers. Stahl was a pretty fair point guard/shooting guard for his high school basketball team, and had scholarship offers from several small colleges.
"I enjoyed it a lot in high school," he said. "But I was born into the horses; it's tough to get out of my blood. I knew that's what I wanted to do."
He also figured life in basketball would not extend beyond college.
"And I wasn't a big fan of school as it was," Stahl said with a laugh. "Right from the day I jogged my first horse, I knew I wanted to be a driver."
Stahl has won more than 300 races each of the past five years, topping $1 million in purses as well. He won a career-high 412 times in 2009. He has captured five Ohio Sire Stakes championships and last Saturday won the Courageous Lady Stakes with Podges Lady at Northfield.
"Just driving at Northfield on a nightly basis and winning one of the prestigious races there will always be a good memory," Stahl said. "It's been going good for me driving wise. I'm wishing we went for a little more money but I've been driving a lot of live horses with good trainers. They've got them classified right and we're winning some races.
"I like driving right now; as long as I'm young and healthy it's something I want to keep pursuing. Maybe as I get older and it takes a little longer to heal up, I'll think more of training. Right now, everything is going good in both aspects."
Of the horses he and Gagnon are training -- most of them Ohio-breds -- current 3-year-old trotting filly Wardon's Daughter took second in 2011 in the sires stakes freshman final.
"I don't like to talk too much about the other younger ones," Stahl said. "As soon as I say something they'll end up going backwards on me."
As opposed to his life at the moment, which is moving forward at a fairly nice pace.
by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent