Winning races at Saratoga Casino Hotel is certainly nothing new to John Stark Jr. In fact, the lifelong horseman is one of the winningest drivers and trainers in the track’s history. With Saratoga serving as his home base for almost thirty years now, Stark has been a fixture at the Spa although at times he has seemed to disappear. Where has he gone? Well, nowhere really. And everywhere too. Stark has spent the majority of the last two decades training young horses. Most of his young ones compete in New York Sire Stakes competition, whether in the big time stakes races or in the Excelsiors. The highlight of his New York Sire Stakes tenure came back in 2000 when the western New York native made history winning four stakes finals on the Night of Champions. Stark got on the national map the following year when he trained and often drove Bunny Lake, the National Horse of the Year in 2001. The superstar mare was the all-time gem of the Stark stable and quite likely the top horse to ever call Saratoga Harness home.
While it would be nearly impossible for Stark’s successes at the beginning of the century to be matched at any point after that, the now 61 year old all-around horseman is still producing NY Sire Stakes competitors. No, he hasn’t had another Bunny Lake (realistically, that would be all but impossible) but he still journeys around the state competing in stakes races. The majority of the horses he travels with in the past several years have been trotters and currently almost all of the top participants out of the Stark stable are high-steppers. A pair of three year old fillies has been solid performers for Stark this summer and those sophomores both were on their game on Wednesday, August 26th when their NY Sire Stakes seasons brought them to the Spa. C And T’s Credit was the champion among two year old trotting fillies in 2019 as she completed a strong breakout campaign with a victory in the $55,000 Excelsior Final with Stark in the sulky, a race that took place right here at the filly’s home track. Coming off a freshman season in which she earned almost $55,000 in just nine starts, C And T’s Credit hasn’t been quite the same in ’20 but she’s has continued to be a solid threat in Excelsior A races. On the 26th, Stark drove the defending Excelsior champ aggressively and once the sophomore got to the front, she didn’t look back holding off her race’s big favorite en route to her second Excelsior victory this summer.
C And T’s Credit’s stablemate Flotus followed an incredibly similar path as she did in ’19 when the two year old filly earned more than $50,000 in nine starts. After dominating in Excelsior races last year, Flotus faced the “big girls” in the Sire Stakes and showed well against the top-flight fillies. Flotus has stuck to Excelsior competition this year and finished second on the 26th in a $15,000 race contested on her home court to add a runner-up try to the wins that she recorded in her two local starts leading up to that contest. Either or both fillies could wind up finding their way into the Excelsior Finals set to take place later this month.
While the Excelsior races went well on that Wednesday evening for Stark, the veteran conditioner also enjoyed success with another group of trotters at Saratoga last week. Stark kicked off his week in the Monday opener with another of his trainees that had a big year in 2019. Xcuseme earned over $60,000 last year after winning seven races and finishing second four more times in his fifteen tries. The solid stakes competitor turned four years old in ’20 and now competes in regular conditioned races at the Spa. On Monday, Stark guided him to a wire-to-wire score in mild upset fashion. Xcuseme has been a bit inconsistent this season but was strong in victory last week as Stark aggressively moved the four year old out to the early lead, a lead the speedy trotter would not relinquish. Xcuseme’s win time of 1:56.4 on Monday was just a fifth of a second off of his career-best time set last year in a qualifier here at Saratoga. Stark co-owns Xcuseme with Tom McTygue of Saratoga Springs as well as David Smith and James Giannuzzi who are both from the Syracuse area.
On a Wednesday evening card that saw about half of its races be of the NY Sire Stakes variety, Stark had three drives. Though he didn’t compete in the stakes races, he did have a strong night. Two year old trotting filly Credit Income has had a nice season for trainer Maureen Salino in Sire Stakes competition and the freshman raced at the Spa on Wednesday for the first time since winning her lifetime debut in July with Stark in the sulky in an Excelsior try. The filly was a beaten favorite last week but has now finished first or second in four of six tries in her freshman campaign en route to over $39,000. Stark got back in the win column Wednesday when he guided his JNR Express to a career-best score in 1:56.1. It was the second win in three starts for JNR Express since the addition of lasix for the four year old who joined the Stark stable late last year. Stark wrapped up his night with a second-place finish behind a two year old trotting filly named Sister Meg who was making just the second pari-mutuel start of her young career.
Though Stark has had plenty of success with pacers in his illustrious career, the veteran conditioner seems to be thriving more with trotters in recent seasons. A horseman who was stabled at the Spa for nearly two decades, Stark now runs his barn from off of his farm. Stark moved his operation to his new farm a few years back, a place that he and his family call home. The daily routine at the Stark stable is a family affair. John’s wife Danielle is integral into the day-to-day operations and their daughters Randi, Ryan and Nikki not only contribute at the barn but also can be seen in the winner’s circle when Stark trainees record victories as they paddock the majority of the Stark horses. And while he may not have the kind of power in his stable that he did from 1999-2006, a stint that saw his trainees earn over $1 million in seven out of eight years, Stark continues to add wins to his better than 1,500 as a trainer. While the Saratoga Hall of Famer doesn’t do as much catch-driving in recent years as he used to, the former Spa driving champ does have more than 4,300 lifetime wins in the sulky in a career that was highlighted by a $2 million campaign as a driver in 2006. One of the most familiar names to Saratoga Harness racing fans of the last few decades, John Stark Jr. is in the midst of a bit of a hot streak as he is still producing winners at the Spa.
Live racing is on a brief hiatus with racing set to resume on September 14th with action scheduled for Mondays and Tuesdays through the remainder of September. First post for each matinee will be 12 Noon. Until a couple weeks from now, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!