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Willie Clark's life story as good as ones he told

Willie Clark's life story as good as ones he told

December 03, 2006|by LARRY YANOS

The thoroughbred horse racing industry lost one of its most beloved characters last week with the passing of Willie Clark.

The retired jockey, once the oldest rider in the country, died Nov. 25. He was 84.

According to Charles Town chaplain Rick Mann, a memorial service for Clark will be held Dec. 11 at 11:30 a.m., in the second-floor grandstand at Charles Town Races & Slots.

"Everyone has a Willie Clark story," Mann said. "The service is for the horsemen, but the general public is also invited to attend. Willie had many friends."

The man many called "Father Time" was never at a loss for words.

If you had the time, Clark would relate endless stories about his race-riding days, his trips to the track kitchen, his jewelry and coin sales or his "coffee club" in the mornings.

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He could talk.

When our conversations dealt strictly with horse racing, Clark would often discuss his favorite horse of all time, Crying For More, or his many incidents at racetracks - such as riding through the starting gate on an unruly horse (a second time during the race) at Cumberland.

Speedy Crying For More, trained by Steward Mitchell, won 54 career races (18 with Clark aboard) and shattered three world records in the 1960s.

Clark had numerous injuries during his career - the most serious in 1977 when a crushed collarbone sidelined him for two years.

Despite the numerous aches and pains, Clark was never one to back down from a challenge and, as any opponent would attest, was very aggressive in the saddle.

He was a constant fixture at Charles Town after his retirement, discussing "the old days" with anyone who would listen.

I never avoided Willie, but there was many a night at Charles Town when he heard the phrase, "Sorry, Willie, I can't talk to you now. I'm working on a story."

Clark closed out his career in 1991 at age 69 - just five months before his 70th birthday - after 45 years riding.

I still remember the "Willie Clark Night" promotion when free T-shirts were given to the racing fans.

Clark rode mostly at Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs, but his stops also included Hagerstown, Cumberland and the rest of the Maryland thoroughbred circuit.

He was in the horse racing record book until August 1995, when jockey Frank Amonte Sr. - at age 69 and 11 months - became the oldest rider in recorded American racing history to win a thoroughbred race.

Some Clark highlights:

· The Philadelphia, Pa., native began his career at Laurel Park in 1945 and won his first race at Tampa Downs on Jan. 26, 1948, on a maiden named Free Lass.

· On June 19, 1991, Clark traveled 2,500 miles to ride in the Willie Clark feature race at the Montana State Fair Seniors Weekend. He rode Red Wings Dancer in the mile-and-70-yards test and finished third.

· Clark rode 10,630 races in his career and had 1,143 wins, 1,171 places and 1,207 shows. His horses earned $1.8 million.

Thompson rests at Laurel

Three veteran riders - including former Charles Town-based rider Winston Thompson - have joined the Laurel Park jockey colony.

Mario Pino and Jeremy Rose, the second- and third-leading riders at Delaware Park this year, will ride full time in Maryland for the next five months while Thompson goes to Laurel Park for the first time.

Thompson has been the leading rider at Suffolk Downs the last three years - winning 142 races at the Boston track in 2006.

The 42-year-old rider has been a mainstay in New England since leaving Charles Town in 1988 and has seven five-win days on his resume.

Pino, the all-time winningest rider in Maryland, was ranked in the top five in the Maryland standings from 1979-2003 before moving his tack to Delaware Park full-time the last three years. The 45-year-old ranks 16th on the all-time wins list.

The 27-year-old Rose, who got his start as an apprentice at Laurel Park in 2001, has not wintered in Maryland since 2004 - opting to ride at Oaklawn Park (2005) and Gulfstream Park (2006) the last two years.

Pony tales

Sunday racing has returned to Laurel Park for the first three weeks of December.

After a two-week break for the holidays, Sunday racing will be included during the entire 2007 winter meeting - from Jan. 1 to April 15.

The first 11 weeks of the fall stand consisted of racing on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

· The condition of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro continues to improve.

"Barbaro is steadily gaining strength on his right hind limb now that it is out of the cast (removed Nov. 6)," said Dr. Dean W. Richardson, chief of surgery. "He is only wearing a very light cotton bandage on that leg and both walks and stands well on it."

Barbaro's lower right hind leg had been in a cast since surgery at Penn's George D. Widener Hospital following his accident during the Preakness on May 20.

· McDynamo looks like a favorite to add a 2006 Eclipse Award to his championships won in 2003 and 2005. The steeplechase standout has career earnings of more than $1 million.

McDynamo is trained in Pennsylvania by Sanna Hendriks.

Larry Yanos is sports editor of The Daily Mail. He writes a weekly horse racing column for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2311, or by e-mail at larryy@herald-mail.com

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