by Chris Lomon
Clay Craib is on the opposite of the fence these days, but his love for all things harness racing is still the same.
He remembers the day and the moment clearly, the time when he was around six or seven when he was standing trackside with his parents at Hoosier Park.
The sights and sounds of the standardbreds stampeding down the stretch was like music to his ears, scenes that fueled his dream to one day become part of the industry.
When one of the sport’s most accomplished horsemen drove by and responded to Craib’s request on that day, he was left temporarily speechless at the reinsman’s thoughtful gesture.
“That was a pretty cool moment. I still couldn’t believe Andy Miller did that, tossing his whip to me. Every Friday and Saturday, mom and dad, we always went out to the steakhouse for dinner and then watched the races. When the horses came down to the last sixteenth of a mile – the fence was right down by the homestretch there – and I thought it was so cool. I would take off running to the finish line. I loved doing that.”
Over 20 years later, Craib still has the souvenir, which isn’t packed away in storage.
“I’ve got it on my wall. I always wanted to keep it. It’s something I always look back on and remember that played an important part in my life.”
The piece that eventually became artwork served as a daily reminder of what Craib wanted to achieve himself.
But it wasn’t the only thing that sparked his interest in horses and horse racing.
“I wasn’t raised in this business, so I’m an outsider. Where I grew up, there were four or five farm tracks that were close by, and it just always drew me to it every day. When I would get home off the bus, there would be horses out there racing. One day, I just stopped in at [trainer] Walter Haynes’ place and talked to him about getting a job. I figured the worst thing anyone can tell you is no, but he didn’t. I started cleaning stalls. I did that for a about a year and a half. I was also a groom, and he let me start jogging and training.
“Walter and I bought a horse, Bens Beach Boy, together. I jogged and trained him, and Walter drove him. He made us a little money. All those experiences, it really helped me push myself to work towards having my own stable.”
In 2015, Craib went out on his own and won two races from 11 starts as a trainer. One year later, he found himself in the driver’s seat.
Earning his first win in the sulky took some time, but throughout the ups and downs of getting that milestone victory, Craib never doubted himself.
On November 17, 2016, he celebrated his first driving win with Pan Full Of Money at Hollywood Dayton Raceway. The triumph came in Craib’s 33rd attempt.
Owners, including Marlin Fry and Jerry Schwartz, soon took noted of the young horseman’s work ethic and sent their horses to him.
“That’s the one thing I expect of myself, to work hard every day. I have a lot of respect for the people who have given me some great opportunities.”
Craib has no doubt made the most of them.
In 2021, he set career-best marks in both the training and driving categories.
“We’re just taking one step at a time, but luckily, they are getting a lot bigger. We started out small and we’re growing now. We have 11 in the barn, seven of them 2-year-olds, two 3-year-olds and two older horses. It’s a nice mix for us. But I do really like working with the younger horses because it’s nice to see them develop. You start out at nothing, and you hope you make them into something.”
Working with young pacers and trotters continues to be a source of enjoyment for Craib.
“Even when I was working for other people, I enjoyed working with the babies. But you’ve got to have patience. Each one is different, and you can’t treat them all the same. That’s for sure.”
Two horses in particular, both pacers, helped Craib craft his best season to date.
The man who campaigned them plotted out a gameplan that ended up yielding strong results.
“I didn’t have the stock to compete there at that moment, so I thought I’d hit up the fairs and try to have some success at that ballpark. I came up with my own program of everything that was fair eligible and saw this horse called Sunburst Kada. asked the owner if he would be interested in selling her. He was, so I had her for a little while. I paid $6,500 for her. The first start was a trial-and-error type of thing. She was rigged for the big track, and I didn’t want to change anything, and I took her to the fair track, and she ran on me. So, I went back to the drawing board and tuned her up and then things came together for her. She won eight straight races. There was another filly, Dirty Talk, who was a conditioned claimer, and I asked her owner if he would be interested in selling her. She’s still in my barn. My belief is that we take care of the horses, and the horses take care of us.
One of Craib’s short-term objectives is to make it back to the Super Finals ranks.
Just over five years ago, he matched strides with some of the top North American drivers at Hoosier Park.
“I hope we can succeed with some of the babies we have, and we can get back to the Sires Stakes again. That’s one of my goals. In 2017, I was the youngest trainer/driver to make it to the Super Finals. I had a horse named Just N Ace, who made around $55,000 as a 2-year-old. We made it to the Super Finals at Hoosier Park, going for $220,000. I finished fifth and it felt like a win for me. I drove against Yannick Gingras, Corey Callahan, Brett Miller, Tim Tetrick… it was pretty cool. I drove the horse the whole year and I was given the chance to drive in the big race. I thought that was pretty amazing. That’s something that always pushes me to want to succeed. I just want to keep everything moving forward.”
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Craib’s rising star status is in knowing each horse’s ceiling and each one’s limitations.
“I think it’s knowing what a horse is capable of and knowing how they will react in a particular situation. I study them the best that I can and really do my homework as to where the best fit is for them.”
And whenever the avid fisherman and hunter makes the walk over to the winner’s circle, he views it as a team accomplishment.
“I love spending time with my family. My wife Breanna and I have a son, Andrew, who is five. They are the two best things that ever happened to me. They give me that drive to want to succeed. I don’t want to succeed just for me, I want it to be for all of us.”