John Stark Jr’s name is almost synonymous with Saratoga harness racing over the past several decades. One of the fixtures at the track since the 90’s, Stark was one of the top trainers and drivers at the Spa ever since coming to town after beginning his career as one of the top horsemen in central and western New York. Stark made an immediate impact upon making a home at the Spa more than twenty-five years ago. Stark, who also did a stint at Fairmount Park in Illinois where he was one of their top drivers, found a home at Saratoga which has been his home base ever since. Stark’s driving career started over forty years ago in 1977 but it wasn’t until the mid 90’s when the native of western NY emerged as a top-flight trainer.
Stark won the local driving title in 1994, a year in which the talented reinsman won over 200 races for the third consecutive time. The following year was the first in which Stark operated a large stable and in the ’95 campaign, Stark won his first of what would be back-to-back training titles and three out of four at Saratoga. With now five local trainer titles to his credit, Stark made it big on the national scene at the early part of the 2000’s. Stark had focused mainly on training claimers and even some Open horses before switching his focus to young horses just before the turn of the century. To no one’s surprise, he handled that transition with ease as Stark thrived with a group of babies that turned into two and three year old stars.
The 2000-2001 seasons were career years for Stark who made New York Sire Stakes history on a night in ’00 when he had five horses race in the Sire Stakes Night of Champions at Yonkers. With a pair of fillies competing in the same race, the best Stark could hope for was four wins and a second for his five trainees and that night, that’s exactly what he got. Stark drove his trainees Missile Mike, Exporter, Fashionable Liv and Bunny Lake to stakes championship scores that fateful evening. Oh and Bunny Lake…she was the horse that burst Stark onto the national scene when in 2001, she was the National Horse of the Year in a season in which she won 19 of her 21 starts, competing against the top fillies in North America in all the biggest races and coming out on top almost every single time. That season she earned more than $1.1 million of the over $2.8 million she would accrue over the course of her Hall of Fame career. Stark joined Bunny Lake, who was enshrined at Goshen in the National Hall of Fame, in the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame in 2013.
Stark continued to enjoy success as a trainer in the years that followed and, in fact, it was 2006 when his stable piled up the largest amount of earnings it ever would in a year. Behind a training average of just shy of .400, Stark won 104 races as a trainer in a season in which his stable would pile up more than $1.67 million. Ever since that season, though, Stark’s numbers have decreased and last few years haven’t been his best to say the least. His trainees won a total of just fifteen races in ‘17, his lowest total in almost 25 years, and didn’t feature a stable star. But they wouldn’t be able to keep the Spa legend down for long and in just the first two months of the 2018 racing season, Stark has already recorded nine wins (and four seconds) in 23 starts with his trainees for an early training average of almost .500! It has been a group of trotters that has led the way for Stark in what certainly looks like a bounce-back season for longtime Spa star.
Royal Oaks is one of two early standouts from the Stark stable in ’18 and the four year old who has competed exclusively in the $15,000 claiming condition this year, has already matched her career high win total set in ‘17. The versatile trotter recorded her first victory of the campaign back in March and after two races where she wasn’t much of a factor, Royal Oaks is currently on a three-race win streak to comprise her four seasonal scores, the most for a Stark trainee early on in ’18.
The other Stark-trained mare to emerge as a standout in the season’s first couple of months is one of two that competed on Thursday afternoon in the John Mongeon Sr. Memorial Trotting Series at Saratoga. Lasa Dida Lady was the public’s odds-on favorite in leg two of the series as she drew the rail. The Stark trainee displayed big time talent in a three year old campaign in ’17 that was highlighted by a victory in 1:57.4. Pretty impressive for a three year old trotting filly over the half-mile track of Saratoga. It was breaking trouble that was the big issue holding Lasa Dida Lady back from becoming perhaps another in that long line of stakes stars for Stark. Here in ’18, she has seemed to figure out the whole “staying flat” thing and the four year old mare headed into the Mongeon series on a three-race win streak, including a romp that came in 1:58.3. The outside post neutralized Lasa Dida Lady in leg one of the series and on Thursday afternoon, the rising star likely needed to win to make the $37,200 Series Final. Lasa Dida Lady finished second as the favorite in leg two of the series which was not enough to qualify her for next week’s Final and instead she will compete in the $15,000 Consolation of the Mongeon Memorial Series. Stark will pilot the trotter who has been one of his stable’s two biggest stars early on in the ’18 season. Lasa Dida Lady has been installed as the 8-5 morning line favorite for Thursday’s consolation race as part of the Mongeon trotting series.
While Lasa Dida Lady couldn’t come up with a Thursday score in the Mongeon Trot for Stark, another of his trainees did punch her ticket to the Final after a career best performance that came at just the right time. Miss Muscle had the trotting hopples back on for the first time of the season and toughed it out first over in her $10,000 division to score in 1:59.4 in the second leg of the Mongeon Trot. She will start from post position seven in Thursday’s Final as she joins Lasa Dida Lady as two of four Stark-trained trotters set to compete during Thursday’s matinee as three time Saratoga Horseman of the Year John Stark Jr. looks to continue his renaissance campaign and add to his nearly 4,200 career driving victories and almost 1,500 training wins.
Live racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon beginning at 12:15pm and on Friday and Saturday evenings starting at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!