Some 40 years ago, Lemoyne "Mooney" Svendsen took a job at a gas station. It was the first time the Albert Lea native pursued work that didn't involve horses, and it would be the last.
"I was 19 years old, and I was there for six weeks," Svendsen said. "I really never wanted to do anything but race."
After more than 3,400 career victories as a driver, that fervor hasn't faded. Svendsen, 59, is back in the bike for his 10th season at Running Aces Harness Park, which begins a 52-day meet Saturday. Though he has wintered in California for the past 18 years, the Columbus track has become his summer home, allowing him to spend time with family and reconnect with his racing roots.
When he was still in diapers, Svendsen began going to the races with his father, Lorenz, who trained some of the fastest horses on the county-fair circuits in Minnesota and Iowa. Mooney began driving his dad's horses as a teen, and both Svendsens built careers that landed them in the Minnesota Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Horses and family always have been inseparable in Svendsen's mind, leaving him "crazy excited" when Running Aces opened in 2008. He has raced all over the country, but he's happiest at the home-state track where his siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces can join him in the winner's circle.
"As soon as I heard they were getting a track in Minnesota, I couldn't wait to get there," said Svendsen, who has 3,421 victories and $11.38 million in career purse earnings as a driver. "My whole life, I knew what I wanted to do. But when I was young, I had to leave [Minnesota], because there was no racing.
"I was so glad to get to come back home and race. Horses have kept my family so tight over the years, and they still do."
Svendsen has been driving harness horses since he was 16, not counting the three races he sneaked into a year earlier while posing as his older brother. He spends six months a year at Cal Expo in Sacramento, where he won 61 races and $213,447 in purses this year before returning to Running Aces.
His career has taken Svendsen all along the East Coast, West Coast and Canada, but none of those places is as dear to him as the tracks of his native state. He learned horsemanship from his father at little race meets in places such as Cannon Falls and What Cheer, Iowa. Even now, Svendsen gets teary-eyed when recalling those days alongside his dad, caring for the family's horses at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds.
Lorenz Svendsen raced for 32 years and trained multiple champions in Minnesota and Iowa. Mooney has trained on and off for 30 years, but he found his true calling as a driver. His first victory came when he was 16, with a horse named Miss Lasko; 39 years later, in 2014, he drove Meritage Hanover to his 3,000th win at Running Aces.
"I've been lucky to have good horses and good people to work with," Svendsen said. "And I've been lucky to stay healthy. But when I hit the 3,400 [victory] mark five or six weeks ago, I couldn't hardly believe it. I never dreamed I'd get to a number like that."
Svendsen's plan is to keep charging toward 3,500 victories, a milestone he could reach next year. He expects to stay in the sulky another five years or so, then open a small training stable or work with another trainer. This summer, he will keep his hand in that part of the business, training two pacers at Running Aces.
He's known since that short, long-ago stint at the gas station that he would never leave the racetrack again, a feeling that has only grown stronger over time.
"I'll never quit," Svendsen said. "If I didn't have a horse around me, I'd go crazy.''