A conversation with trainer and astute yearling picker Jack Darling

A conversation with trainer and astute yearling picker Jack Darling

November 15, 2020

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by Murray Brown

Jack Darling was familiar with horses as a kid, but the riding and jumping kind. He really had no connection with harness horses until a friend who was involved with Western Fair Raceway took him to the races there and he liked it. Darling was 19.

His ambition soon evolved from wagering on them to deciding that he would like to own and train them.

His first venture was when he claimed Yankee BB at Western Fair for $1,500 and raced it back the following week at Woodstock for $1,750. He won and was claimed.

He not only made some purse money, but he also wagered on it. It turned out to be a very good payday.
In the early years, he not only trained, but he drove as well. His circuit consisted of Western Fair, then to Buffalo and Batavia and on to Windsor and across the river to Hazel Park. In winter he’d head south and race at Pompano Park.

He gave up driving at the age of 35. There were so many exceptional drivers at Windsor before and at the time that he realized he was at a disadvantage driving against them. He was better off utilizing them for his own benefit rather than going against them. Included in the drivers colony were: Lew Williams, Greg Wright, Ray Remmen, Bill Gale and a couple of young kids named John Campbell and Trevor Richie.

After 20 years of racing overnight horses he decided to take a crack at the yearling game.

His first yearling purchase was a colt that he bought for $4,000 named Steady Star Time. He did pretty well with him and sold him for a profit.

From that point on, that became his business model.

“One never goes broke taking a profit,” he said. “If someone will pay me what I think is a fair price for a horse that I own I will sell. I look forward to the next owner having as much, if not more success with the horse than I had. That way, everybody is happy and maybe that person will come back and buy more from me.”

Through the years, he had significant and successful partnerships with Dan Smith and Trevor Richie.

He recalls his first real good horse as being Terry Herbert.

He also became quite successful in improving good racehorses. To some degree, he credits his success to never having a really large stable, although the opportunities were always there to have that. He almost always owned the horses in his stable wholly or in partnership.

He never had more than 20 head in training. That size allowed him to give more individual attention to each horse under his care and owning them allowed him the freedom to make all decisions relating to them.

He considers himself to be an assiduous shopper. This author can certainly attest to that. He studies his catalog closely and is usually down to a relatively small number of horses to look at by the time he arrives at a sale. Before going, he has studied the videos of the ones that first interested him.

On a domestic note, Jack’s wife Ann helps with the bookkeeping and has also helped with the horses when needed. Their son, Justin, works with Jack with the horses and daughter Jaclyn is a business woman in Windsor. She is married to John and they have a son Julian. Those three are their biggest fans.

Jack, you are one of the most astute yearling buyers that I’ve known. I can almost visualize the prototype of the type of yearling you look for. What is it you want to see in a yearling?

“I suppose the first thing I want to see is the absence of faults. I like for a horse to have what I consider a classy look. Ideally, I’d like a little extra of everything. I wantthem to be a little bigger, to have a bigger ass end and shoulder. I go back to the Billy Haughton four finger test in the original edition of Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer. I want a horse to have a wide jaw, wide enough to easily fit four fingers. Of course I’m talking about my fingers which are average in size. I want a wide nostril. Both of these items indicate to me that the horse will be able to get its air properly. I watch the videos closely. A horse that paddles is a definite no-no. I like a nice head and a good sharp eye. I’m usually not very interested in a horse who appears to be dull or disinterested.”

In the past you’d buy horses from all over. In recent years, you seem to have concentrated almost entirely on Ontario-sired ones.

“There are several reasons. Ontario-sired horses have shown that they can compete anywhere. Of course, having a world renowned sire like Bettors Delight here certainly helps a great deal. But he isn’t the only one. Trotters like Kadabra, Balanced Image and Muscle Mass have shown that they can sire horses that are competitive everywhere. Trixton arriving here will be a big plus. Shadow Plays and Sportswriters and others are quite competitive. As I get older, shipping horses all over the place is not only taxing on me and the horses, but can also be quite expensive. The Ontario program is one of, if not the best Sires Stakes program in the world. Having an Ontario-bred also cuts down significantly on the stakes payments.”

You’ve just had one of your best seasons ever with 3-year-old Beaumond Hanover and 2-year-old Bulldog Hanover, quite arguably both being the best of the class in the province. Tell me a little about them.

Beaumond Hanover— “I remember him as being one of the early sellers in the catalog, maybe number five or thereabouts. I thought he was a gorgeous colt who impressed me in every way. I was fairly certain that he would bring $100,000 or even more. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy him. I decided to just hang around when he was selling, on the off chance that he would bring a price in my range. I was pretty surprised and very pleased to be able to corral him for $45,000.

“As a 2-year-old, he trained very well. I thought that he had a chance to be a really good one. He was and still is a really good feeling colt. He got to kicking in the stall and sustained a real bad bone bruise. That kept him from starting until late in the season where he showed some talent and won a couple of races. He came back great this year and has earned over $400,000. One of his best races was in the North America Cup when he had a tough trip coming first up on Tall Dark Stranger and still only got beat a length and a half.”

Bulldog Hanover— “He was a beautiful colt that I bought on Day Three at Harrisburg for $27,000. His dam BJ’s Squall was a terrific race filly, but to that time really hadn’t come close to replicating herself. All last winter, everyone including myself thought he was only our second best colt. He was always nice but he trained together with a Sportswriter colt who we all thought was a lot better. As time went on, he gradually came close to catching up. I remember one day thinking to myself, by the time this is over, he just might be our best 2-year-old. As the season progressed, he just got better and better. I think his performance in winning the OSS Super Finals just might have been one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen by a 2-year-old — not only an Ontario 2-year-old, but by any anywhere.”

I’m guessing that it’s likely not a coincidence that Beaumond and Bulldog are Hanovers. Do you have any special places where you like to shop?

“Not necessarily so. I look at most places. But I feel that I’ve built up a pretty good relationship with the folks there. I’m a big believer in videos. I really love the way they do theirs. Also, I feel that they are loyal to their customers. I remember buying Winbak Maya as a yearling for $100,000. After she was done racing, I asked her breeder at the Lexington Sale if they were willing to give me a yearling credit for $50,000 for her. I could have been over reacting to it, but I felt that I got a brushoff. If I had got the credit, I would have spent all of that and probably significantly more with them. I went to see you the next morning and you said that you’d speak to Dr. J and Jim Simpson and get back to me. The next time I saw you, you said we had a deal. She’s been a good producer for Hanover. *Her yearling this year sold for $135,000. I couldn’t be happier for them. If I’ve got a worthwhile filly or mare to sell, I now generally go to Hanover first. I learned that from Bill Herbert (see below).”

* Author’s note. Of some interest with this yearling is the fact that he is line bred to Yankee Blondie. On top as the dam of Muscle Hill and below as the great grandam of the colt named Whiskey Hanover. He will be trained by Julie and Andy Miller.

You started out mostly with overnighters and claimers and gradually made the transition to youngsters.

“The first really good horse I had was Terry Herbert. I bought him privately from Bill Herbert for $11,000. He was racing in a series where he was considered to be one of the also rans. He wasn’t even going to make the final. Bill said that if by some miracle he did and did well in it, he would hope that I reconsider the price. As luck would have it, another one scratched out of the final and he drew in from the outside. I drove him myself, went to the top and won easily. When I got the purse check, I gave Bill a few thousand more. I remember him saying to me that I would never regret doing the right thing. From that point on, if Bill had a horse to sell, I would have first dibs on it. Terry Herbert went on to be a consistent open and free-for-all winner. In the interim, though, we nearly lost him. He had a bout of severe colic resulting in his being operated on and having surgery to remove about 20 feet of intestines.”

You’ve had a lot of very good horses, some bordering on greatness. Among them were Northern Luck, Twin B Champ, Apprentice Hanover, Northern Sky, Decor, Big McDeal, Gothic Dream, Ticket To Rock, Diehard Fan, Faded Glory, Diamond Dawn, JR Mint, Silent Swing, St Lads Popcorn, Pearl River Matt and Low Places. Which one was your favorite?

“I suppose that prior to this year it would be Twin B Champ. He was very special. He was the favorite in the North America Cup and broke down. But in the past year, it would be hard to duplicate the success we had with Bulldog Hanover and Beaumond Hanover. All three of them occupy a special place in my heart.”

Who would be the person you’ve learned the most from in training horses?

“There have been several. I suppose number one would be Bob McIntosh. Look at his record – two Halls of Fame, year after year being successful on the racetrack and as a breeder as well. Also, I learned a lot from the first edition of Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer. It was my bible for the longest time.”

How about drivers? Who is the best that you’ve ever seen?

“Undoubtedly, that would have to be John Campbell. He was a true professional. He always came prepared. He came early and was free to discuss any horse with you. There are more good drivers, maybe even great drivers today than there ever have been. With many, in many instances, I’d differentiate between those who are overnight drivers, Grand Circuit type drivers and those I’d like to use in helping a green 2-year-old starting out. Among the best two in the latter category, Bill Gale and Trevor Richie were excellent.”

What has been your greatest thrill in all your years in harness racing?

“Before this year, it was winning the Metro with Gothic Dream. This year,. it was equalled with Bulldog and Beaumond in the Ontario Super Finals. I’m really excited and looking forward to racing the two next year. I suppose some of Beaumond’s races will take us out of Ontario; also some of Bulldog’s. I sure hope that darn virus is gone by then.”

What has been your greatest disappointment?

“I’ve never won a Breeders Crown. I thought I had a great chance with Northern Sky. She was just super warming up for the race. She was always at her best racing off a helmet. As the race turned out, she was forced to cut it. She just got nipped at the wire.”

In recent years, you and your wife have taken the winters off traveling, usually in the southwestern United States leaving your horses in good hands until you returned. In this COVID-19 year, what are your plans?

“To be truthful, I have no idea. This whole COVID situation is such a mess. For one thing, we wouldn’t be allowed to cross the border by automobile. For another, especially based on the recent reports, things are getting worse rather than better. The reports from Pfizer on their vaccine are encouraging, though. Things can change. But for the moment, I think we will probably just stay put.”

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Reach him by email at: hofmurray@aol.com.

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