Editor’s note: Martha Claussen, served as publicity director at Sam Houston Race Park for ten years. She is a member of Turf Publicists of America and continues to be active in writing and racing publicity in Texas, Louisiana and other regions in North America.
By MARTHA CLAUSSEN
May 12, 2017-Houston is a sports town, and for the most part, embraces its star performers. You would have to live under a rock to not know who JJ Watt is, and love him or hate him, who in the city is not talking about about James Harden?
But one star, who was honored as the nation’s top performer in his sports profession, gets virtually no attention. That guy is Quarter Horse trainer Judd Kearl.
Kearl finished 2016 as the #1 Quarter Horse trainer in the country, besting his competition from all regions in North America. He finished on top of both races won and money earned, beating out 14-time leading trainer Paul Jones, who runs a massive operation in California and New Mexico. On January 21, he was honored by the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) as 2016 champion trainer. Normally stoic, he was moved to tears during the presentation.
It was a huge achievement for the 42-year-old horseman, who grew up in Tremonton, Utah, learning the ropes from his dad, Steve.
“I remember ponying a horse when I was six,” Kearl recalled. “My dad had a construction company, but growing up, I knew that was not what I wanted to do.”
So with deeply rooted instincts for horses, Kearl began his training career in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. He won his first stakes in 1996 with a chestnut gelding named Fatherhood. Bred in California by Ed Allred, Fatherhood made 19 starts and set a new track record at Pocatello Downs on June 9, 1996. He ran his last race in June, 1998, and still remains with Kearl.
“He’s about 22 now and one of my owners, Mickey Tiner has a grandson who rides him,” said Kearl. “He’ll be with me forever. That’s the way I am. You can go to my farm, past the training track and there’s a pasture full of my retired racehorses.”
He made his move to Texas in 2004 and operates a farm and training center in New Waverly, Texas. He won his first Sam Houston Race Park title in 2006. When the current racing season wraps up on Monday, May 22, he will set a new record with eight titles; the late Steve Van Bebber dominated from 1994-2000.
It’s the perseverance and passion of Kearl that attracts and sustains a solid core of owners. They trust him in their daily care and well as identifying prospects in annual yearling sales.
He is deeply appreciative of each owner for their support.
“They put their trust in you to do what the horses need to do,” said Kearl. “So far we have done well and they have confidence in us.”
Kearl relies on a skilled crew on the backside and his childhood Utah friend Jimmy Padgett as a trusted assistant. He credits his team, including James Lackey, who oversees the Remington Park string and jockeys, Rodrigo Vallejo, Noe Villatoro and Jose Alvarez for their efforts.
Rodrigo Vallejo is the first call rider for Kearl; the native of Jalisco, Mexico, is one of the most underrated jockeys in the game today.
“He doesn’t speak Spanish; I don’t speak English, but it works,” states Vallejo. “We make a pretty good team.”
Training race horses is far from a 9-5 job! Most days, between morning training, barn and vet work, owner consultations and race preparations, it’s not unusual to put in 18 hours a day. Currently, Kearl is running in Houston, Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana and Remington Park in Oklahoma City. There are countless hours on the road and evaluation of young horses, still on the farm taking the preliminary steps to prepare for their racing careers. Oh, and what about preparing for the annual yearling sales in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico? Most catalogs average 300 head of horses, so horsemen begin with a glance at breeding, narrow their prospects down and make evaluations in person before the horse enters the sale ring.
Not too much down time, by any means!
The hard work would be worth it if there was a modicum of support for racing in Texas. Sadly, once again, the Texas legislature has convened with no movement to allow expanded gaming, which would boost not only horsemen, have a positive economic impact for the state. That is a failure that is beyond disappointing for Kearl.
“Probably six years ago, after Oklahoma approved casino gaming, I took a photo of a billboard right on the Texas-Oklahoma border. “It said $14 million had been contributed for education. These idiots in Austin complain about funds shortages, but won’t budge on anything that has been proposed to help our industry, which would also fund schools, roads and much more for Texans. Simple truth is that most of the politicians want racing to disappear completely.”
Every year, major Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse breeders and horsemen have pretty much done that; relocating to Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Kearl, is heavily invested in the Lone Star State. He operates a 100-acre farm and training center in New Waverly and owns a home in Spring, just minutes from Sam Houston Race Park.
“When I left Utah and headed for Texas, I felt that the sky was the limit,” acknowledged Kearl. “The economy was booming, Sam Houston Race Park was running five days a week and when we went to Austin, lawmakers were listening. Dan Patrick, who was a radio host back then, even attended a reception at the track and swore he would support our industry! Once he got into office, it was a different story, and it’s hard to put into words how much we despise the son of a bitch and others who have stuffed their pockets instead of helping horsemen in Texas.”
That part is frustrating, but Kearl is far from down and out. He will have a sizeable stable this summer at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico and hopes to top a huge accomplishment from last year. He qualified four finalists to the $2.4 million All America Derby (G1). EC Jet One scored the victory, which was the biggest win of his career. To further put an exclamation mark on the remarkable afternoon, two of his other 3-year-olds completed the superfecta.
“It was huge, but I’m hungry for more,” he admits.
There are just two more weekends left for the Sam Houston Race Park meet. Come out for the races if you can. It’s very likely that even if you know nothing about racing, if you bet a couple bucks on a horse trained by Kearl, you will make some money!