Justin Van Otterloo’s key to success is not sweating the small stuff

by Chris Lomon

Whenever Justin Van Otterloo has encountered question marks in his career, he’s always come up with winning answers.

The Van Otterloo name has been a familiar one in U.S. Midwest racing for decades.

Justin’s father, Warren, and uncles, Merlin and Nolan, along with his aunt, Kim, and grandfather, Harvey, have each made their mark in the sport, including in Iowa and Minnesota.

Growing up at the racetracks throughout his home state, Justin mucked stalls, groomed, and drove in fairs as a teenager.

After contemplating a career as a truck driver, he decided the standardbred life was indeed for him.

Three-plus years ago, after the Running Aces racing season reached the wire, Justin headed to Kentucky to work in the barn of trainer Justin Anfinson.

It turned out to be a win-win for both horsemen as Anfinson took home the leading trainer title. Justin worked for the conditioner in 2021 before returning to Iowa to ponder the next chapter in his career.

Last year, 2023, he worked for DanJer Farm and trainer Dan Roland.

The role enabled Justin to get more fair drives and qualifying drives.

Eventually, it led to a racing opportunity in California.

Justin had considered the idea before, the one where he would bring a band of horses to Sacramento and take a shot at competing in the Golden State.

This past winter, the native Iowan decided to give it a go.

Admittedly, he had some trepidation about going.

“I had planned to go to Cal-Expo the year before, but I decided to take the winter off and relax,” Justin said. “The summer was long and exhausting, so I wanted to have that downtime.

“This past year, I decided to make that jump to Cal-Expo. The horses [owned by Wilda McDanel] just kind of fell into my lap. It was a place to learn as both a trainer and a driver.”

While his California adventure didn’t start on a winning note, he would find success there.

On Feb. 2, he teamed with Anitas Red Rebel, a Pacific Renegade bred and owned by McDanel, for a wire-to-wire score.

Just over one week later, the duo was back in the winner’s circle, a victory that delivered the five-year-old pacing mare a new speed badge.

By the time he departed Cal-Expo, Justin had posted four wins, along with three seconds and a trio of thirds from 51 starts.

Most importantly, he headed home feeling more confident than he ever had.

“It was nerve-wracking at first,” he said. “Now that I have done it for a while, and seeing how things went at Cal-Expo, I don’t have to be as nervous. When I first had these horses, I was nervous and cautious, wanting to do everything right.

“It fell into place and went smoothly; it was a big jump to go out on my own. It’s a different learning curve than anything else I have done so far in racing.”

Justin was grateful for the encouraging words — plenty of them — that he heard from other horsepeople at the California oval.

“Hearing people say, ‘Your barn is doing well, and your horses are doing great,’ means a lot,” Justin said. “It’s a big confidence booster and it makes you feel 100 times better that you are doing something right. It tells you that you are doing the things that need to be done to be successful.”

It’s one reason why he was looking forward to the 2024 Running Aces season, which began on May 19 and runs until Sept. 21.

Justin has four horses, namely, Anitas Red Rebel and 4-year-old trotter Omaha Storm Chaser (also owned by McDanel) and a pair of 2-year-old Minnesota-breds in his barn.

“The first couple of starts when I was in California, I tended to overthink and maybe question myself too much,” he said. “Now, it’s to a point where I can bring a horse to the paddock and it feels very natural, where I am not stressing out about the smallest things. Of course, you are always nervous ahead of a race, but when you prepare your horse the best you can, then you feel more at ease about everything. You have that mindset.”

He also has goals.

“I was hoping to make $20,000 in purse money for both driving and training combined when I was in California,” he said. “I wanted to set the goal and reach it.”

Justin was happy to have missed that target.

“I wound up leaving there with just over $20,000 [$20,576] as a trainer and $18,000 [$18,910] as a driver,” he said. “I want the barn to excel and keep building throughout the season. If I reach a certain purse amount, I’ll bump it up another $10,000 and see if we can achieve that. I want to get my name out there and hopefully people will take notice of what I can do.”

The horseman, whose version of California dreaming turned out better than he could have ever imagined, is more at ease, career-wise, than he has ever been.

That he can keep pace — either himself or through his horses — with his contemporaries is no longer a concern.

“In a short time, being able to be competitive against some top stables — all the big-name operations that have very nice stock — is something that I am proud of,” Justin said. “It’s enjoyable to know that my horses can compete against some nice ones. Having that confidence to know that I belong out there and that I can do it, that’s a good feeling.”

Life is also good away from the racetrack.

Although it is a four-hour drive from home during the racing season in Minnesota, he has plenty to keep himself occupied.

“I play video games,” he said. “I like going to car races or just hanging out with my friends. But I also like to get back home to visit my family and friends.”

And when he does head back to Iowa, odds are he will have more winning tales to share.

“I am happy with how things have gone so far this year,” he said. “The goal now is to keep that momentum going and keep raising the bar.”