Justin Clark isn't swinging for the fences yet, but the first-year trainer has picked his spots better than any other trainer at Los Alamitos Race Course. Clark's horses have won almost as consistently as they eat hay.
Clark's secret: "Trying to keep my horses fresh and not run them so much - not make them think they have to run but make them want to run," he said.
A native of Spanish Fork, Utah, Clark became a full-time trainer at Los Alamitos in September 2006 after 10 years based in Utah. The son of jockey Barry Clark, a rider in Utah in the late 1970s, Clark began training at 18 years old in 1996. His horses raced primarily in Utah at Laurel Brown Racetrack and in Wyoming at Wyoming Downs. He said his biggest victory early in his career came in the 2002 Utah Classic at Laurel Brown.
"It's more of a breeding ground," Clark said about horse racing in Utah and Wyoming. "If they can run, then they come out here. The horses that compete there can come down here and be competitive."
The breeding ground for young racehorses also proved to be a breeding ground for a young trainer. In 2001, Clark visited Los Alamitos Race Course and worked as a groom for leading Quarter Horse trainer Paul Jones. In subsequent years, Clark would bring a few of his horses to run at Los Alamitos and then ship them back to Utah.
"I came down here a couple of times for two or three months a few years ago and then went home," he said. "But then I came down last September and have been here ever since."
Clark's modest stable of approximately 10 horses has made its mark quickly. In addition to his high win percentage, Clark also notched his first stakes victory at Los Alamitos on Saturday's California Breeders Champions Night when Flashin Dashin won the $21,150 Newport Beach Overnight Handicap. Clark had claimed the 3-year-old filly for $10,000 in April.
"I couldn't have dreamed this up," he said. "This is way better than I expected. I knew if I did what Paul taught me and what I've learned from my dad at home, I knew I could be successful. But I never dreamed I could win 42 percent of races or whatever. It's crazy to even think you could do that. So I'm really happy."
What did Jones teach Clark?
Said Clark: "I learned a lot - not really anything big but a lot of little things. There were things about conditioning a horse that helped me a lot.
"Don't gallop your horses so much. Keep them fresh. Once they're fit and running, just keep them wanting to run. Basically he told me that if the horse can breathe good and he isn't hurting, he's going to run. There were a few things with the feeding that I learned, too, that he said are different."
Clark said he still seeks Jones' training advice.
"We're really good friends. I owe a lot to him. I learned a lot at home, too, but I think this gave me the extra little bit I think I needed," he said.
When racing concludes for the year in Wyoming later this month, Clark expects his stable size to grow on account of the success he has achieved at Los Alamitos.
Still, Clark does not appear to get too far ahead of himself. His stable includes mostly claiming horses, and Clark said he eventually hopes to train horses that could contend in Los Alamitos' top futurity races.