Driver Justin Vincent has carved out a niche doing well with difficult horses

by Chris Lomon

Problem pacers or troubled trotters, Justin Vincent has a soft spot and a winning touch with complex standardbreds.

Throughout his time in the race bike, which dates back to 2008, the Delaware horseman has never shied away from taking on a project horse, the unpopular types with a less-than-stellar reputation.

“I suppose I’ve done it the hard way, with longshots and horses that other people want to drive,” Vincent said. “Some people are fortunate enough to start with the nice horses. It’s easy to drive a good horse, but you have to drive the tougher ones before you get a chance to drive the better ones. I took those words to heart, and I think it helped me in the long run.”

Vincent now finds himself on the cusp of reaching a well-earned milestone, fewer than 10 wins away from 500-lifetime trips to the winner’s circle.

“It feels good,” he said. “I’ve had some good years and bad years, and everything else in between. I know I’m getting close, and I think it will be a good feeling when that day comes. I just enjoy what I do. My dad’s been in the industry and so has my mom, along with grandparents too. I love being around the horses and I like going out there and competing every night.”

The 36-year-old also appreciates the chance to work with any horse, regardless of record, reputation, or raw ability.

Vincent said he views each opportunity to drive as an educational lesson.

“My dad also told me that you could be 90 and still learn something new every day, and that really is true,” Justin said. “You always want to keep an open mind in this business. There is always something you can pick up on and then use it to improve yourself.”

Advice, all of it welcome, has been in abundance since Justin drove in his first pari-mutuel race 15 years ago.

One, in particular, still resonates with him.

“When I started, my dad told me, ‘You have to have a real thick skin in this business if you want to be a catch driver,’” Justin said. “When you first start out, trainers will put you down on their horses, but sometimes, the very next week, they will take you off, and you can’t take it to heart. It’s something you need to learn to deal with. Most of the time, they will come back to you eventually, but when they don’t you have to move on, or it will wear you down. That’s something I take pride in, not getting hurt if they fire you. Catch drivers are a dime a dozen in the business, but if you’re good and you have a good attitude, they will come back to you.”

Even more so when you happen to have a penchant for pairing with the difficult horses.

Justin, who lists the now-retired 24-time winner Varsity Hanover as one of his favorites to drive, readily embraces every chance he gets to work with the ones most others would prefer to distance themselves from.

Playing a major part in a horse’s form has nothing to do with Justin seeking an ego boost. Instead, those projects are very much about pushing himself to find solutions, a chance to bring out the best in a horse.

“The one thing I can say about myself is that I’m not afraid to drive the so-called ‘bad ones,’ the horses no one else wants to drive,” he said. “I’ve done well in that way. I’ve carved out a niche for myself with some of these horses, the ones that some drivers might be nervous or wary of. I like driving those crazy trotters, the runaways, the kind that have those quirks or things that push you to think outside the box. My dad had a lot of those crazy ones when I was growing up, so I guess I’ve carried on that tradition. It makes me happy knowing I can drive those ones.”

A prime example would be a bay gelding by the name of Rockindude.

The son of Rockin Image—Halle Go Lightly, who was a $30,000 purchase at the 2020 Hoosier Yearling Sale, was claimed by Justin last summer.

After a handful of out-of-the-money results, the gelding, with Justin in the sulky, finished second at 17-1 on Sept. 3 at Ocean Downs.

“It’s always good when your horse does well,” he said. “I’m really happy with him. He’s been a bit of a project horse and I’ve been working with him quite closely. I was really happy with him. So, when that work pays off and the horse does well, it’s a very satisfying feeling.”

Justin was the leading driver at Rosecroft in 2012, a meet that included a six-win night. Now he has added a new chapter, this one outside of racing, to his teaching skillset.

Three months ago, the baseball fan and his partner, Cory Lee, welcomed a son, Brooks, named after Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson.

While it’s far too early to know if he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps, Brooks can look forward to a lot of time around the barn and watching his dad compete at Ocean Downs and Harrington Raceway.

“I guess when I look down the road, I’d like to teach him about the business,” Justin said. “Maybe he will become part of it one day.”

One guarantee, in the shorter term, is Justin’s hope to add a couple more horses into the fold.

No need to guess as to what one of the requirements will be for those pacers or trotters.

“I like to buy those project horses so that I can put that effort into them,” he said. “Three would be a good number. Any more than that would seem like work. But when they finally do well, it just makes it all the better. It is such a rewarding feeling.”

One thing that won’t change is Justin’s upbeat attitude.

Although there won’t be an asterisk beside the odds of the horse he’s piloting on most nights, he will drive them as if they are the favorite.

“I’m happy,” Justin said. “I always like to look at racing as a glass half full. You will have a lot more tough days than good days in this business, but when it’s a good day, you take it. And when I get the chance to work together with a horse who isn’t the type most prefer, I’ll gladly take it.”