by Chris Lomon
He was describing a veteran trotter, but Jacob Stillwell could very well have been talking about himself.
Dark Pool, a 9-year-old son of Cantab Hall, has travelled far more miles than the 22-year-old standardbred driver/trainer from Jackson, a township in Ocean County, NJ.
But despite their difference in racetrack experience, the bay with 166 career starts, 33 of them wins, and the rising star horseman who has 180 combined starts, do share one thing in common.
When it comes to work ethic, the duo shares an unmistakable connection.
“He’s taught me a lot and he’s a very nice horse to drive,” said Stillwell. “He fights right to the end, and he never gives up. He’s a hard worker who shows up every time.”
Just like the man holding the reins.
Although his family tree is rooted in horse racing, Stillwell didn’t branch out and feel a connection to the sport until his final year of grade school.
But when he did discover it, Stillwell was hooked from the very start.
“I wasn’t much into horses until I was in eighth grade. I went to the farm one day with my uncle Paul [trainer, Fusco] and from there on, I just fell in love with it. It’s always been in my family, so I guess it was only a matter of time for me. Once I started going to the farm, then jogging horses and taking care of them, I fell in love with it.”
So much so, in fact, that his career calling became crystal clear soon after those initial experiences.
In 2020, he launched the driving side of his racing life, making three starts and earning a second-place finish.
The following year, Stillwell added trainer to his repertoire. In 40 starts, he won seven races, along with seven seconds and four thirds.
That season included a pair of treasured milestones.
“It was a rush,” he said of his first driving win, on January 21, 2021. “I was at Yonkers and I drove Dark Pool, my uncle’s horse. We left and just followed the pack and at the half, I pulled him and he did the rest. I was just a passenger for him. We ended up winning by four lengths. It was so nice. That was during the pandemic, so at Yonkers, they didn’t have the winner’s circle at that time. It was just me and my uncle. But it was still amazing, just so exciting.”
As was his initial score as a conditioner.
This time, however, it was a picture-perfect moment.
“My first training win came at Freehold with a mare I still have called Iron Mistress. Everyone was in the winner’s circle that day. She raced so well for me that day. I wasn’t driving, but my cousin, Vinnie Ginsburg was. It was pretty cool seeing one of my horses out there and winning a race under my name. It was great to have my cousin give me my first training win.”
Stillwell hasn’t slowed down since then, adding more victories on both sides of his stat sheet.
Despite the successes, he remains driven when it comes to his dual horse racing role.
“When it comes to driving, it’s about knowing everything about each horse you’re sitting behind, learning different ways and skills to help bring out the best in them. With training, again, it’s all about learning what makes each horse tick, making sure you are sending them out there at 100 per cent and ready to go. I just love seeing their faces every morning, to walk into the barn and see them waiting for you. Each one is different and each one is special.”
Currently, Stillwell has six horses in his barn.
For now, that number is a perfect fit. But he’d like to see that count increase in the near future.
“One day, I would like to get some more horses and some more wins. My goal with driving is to keep learning and keep getting better. My long-term goal would be to go out and drive with the professionals one day and become a regular somewhere. Training, I want to get more wins and have more horses.”
He doesn’t need to be reminded those victories might not come when anticipated.
Despite his relatively new status to standardbred racing, Stillwell has embraced the understanding of expecting the unexpected whenever his horse lines up behind the gate.
“With racing, you never know what can happen out there. You get to know that right away. There are a lot of ups and downs. There are times when you think there’s no way you can lose, but you do, and then there are times where you feel you don’t have a shot and you end up winning. You just never know. That’s why when you do win, it’s always a special feeling, that you accomplished something.”
Whenever he does experience that sense of accomplishment, he sports a familiar familial look, specifically, the driving and training colors he proudly wears.
“My colors are the ones my family have always had, the red, white and green. They were my grandfather’s colors and I thought when I got mine, I’d stay with them. He started the tradition in racing and I wanted to carry that tradition on. That’s very important to me.”
Whenever he’s afforded the time to take a break from the demands of racing, Stillwell can often be found hanging out with his driver cousins, Vinnie and Rob Ginsburg.
Two particular subjects always seem to work their way into the trio’s leisure time conversations.
“I like to relax and play videogames with my cousins. But we always end up talking about the races and the horses.”
And that’s just fine with Stillwell.
After all, being around the racetrack is everywhere he wants to be.
“I like seeing when my hard work pays off. When one that train wins, it’s a great feeling to know all that effort you put in resulted in a win. With driving, if I make the right move and we win, it shows me that my hard work in becoming a better driver has paid off. It’s rewarding to get better and get the win because of the hours you put in.”