by Doug McCoy
Kerwin “Boo Boo Clark is back at Delaware Park this season, riding first call for Larry Jones while still basking in the thrill of the most prestigious win of his career aboard Lovely Maria in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks. His story…
When Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark and Lovely Maria swept past the leaders down Churchill Downs’s long stretch to capture the 2015 Kentucky Oaks, it marked the pinnacle of a riding career that has spanned more than four decades and featured more twists and turns than a Louisiana bayou.
That victory also gave the general public a glimpse into a story of loyalty, one in which where substance overcame vanity, glitz and glitter.
Boo Boo Clark, 56, has been at home astride horses for as long as he can remember. His father, former jockey Presley Clark, recalled his son (who was given his nickname by his grandfather) climbed a fence on the family farm to get on the family’s black mare when he was five. By the time he was eight or nine, Clark was breezing quarter horses. By the time he was 11 or 12, the rider said he would hide his saddle in the back of his dad’s pick-up truck on Sundays, and the pair would head off to race in match races at the bush tracks of Louisiana.
“My mom didn’t want me riding, but dad knew I was ready,” Clark recalled. “Dad would say, ‘It’s our secret,’ and we would head off. Sometimes we’d go to three of four different tracks in one day, and I’d ride my dad’s horses and other trainers’ horses, as well.”
Clark rode his first thoroughbred winner in 1975 at Evangeline Downs and won 126 races the next year. He moved to Nebraska and rode there until the mid-1980s, when he moved to the Chicago area. He enjoyed a good measure of success in the Windy City, winning 219 races in 1990.
But by the late 1990s, the physical and mental rigors of riding had taken their toll.
“I was just burnt out,” the rider admitted, “I just had to get away from racing.”
Clark actually accepted an offer to ride in Dubai for a time but quickly became homesick for Louisiana and returned to the U.S.
Clark took a job supervising a construction crew for his brother and didn’t ride a horse in 1999. Even though he’d hung up his tack, he was never far away from his first love.
“My sister-in-law trained horses, other people around me were in the business so I was never far away from racing,” said Clark. “Finally I decided to go back to riding. But I’d decided to stay in Louisiana, make a decent living and just ride off into the sunset.”
It was at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans in the fall of 2013 when fate intervened in Clark’s life and career.
“I’d met Larry and Cindy [Jones] the year before because my agent had another jockey who was riding for them,” Clark recalled, “I was at the barn one day and Larry was talking to an agent about a horse he was going to run. The agent told him he already had calls in the race with two other trainers and he’d have to be third in line. Larry said he didn’t think he needed to do business with someone where he was third in line, not with the horses he had. He asked me if I wanted to ride the horse, and I said sure.
“The horse was Albano.”
Clark won that race and three others aboard Albano (who has now won $690,000), including the Grade 3 Pegasus. Soon, he had the call on many of Jones’ better horses. Last spring the trainer asked Clark if he wanted to come to Delaware Park and ride first call for him. “That was a no-brainer,” the rider said. “Who wouldn’t want to ride first call for Larry Jones?”
Jones is known as a hands-on sort who exercises many horses himself. Clark says that that enables the pair to collaborate on just what is needed in terms of training, equipment and the like.
“I’ll give you an example. We have a filly over there named Divine Dawn, and if you take the least bit of a hold on her she tucks her head down and it looks like you’re really throttling her down when you’re not,” Clark explained. “I rode her one day, and after the race Larry wasn’t happy because he thought I’d taken too much hold of her. I told him it was her tucking her head and not me taking a hold. A couple of days later he took her to the track and when he came back he said, ‘I see what you mean.’ And we worked to get her out of that habit. That’s how having a trainer who can get on horses and assess them personally makes a big difference.”
This spring Jones brought not one but two outstanding three-year-old fillies north for possible starts in the prestigious grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, I’m a Chatterbox and Lovely Maria.
Clark had been aboard Lovely Maria, who is owned by former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, for all six of her races prior to the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland. Yet, though he put in a solid ride aboard Lovely Maria to capture the Ashland, the first Grade 1 win of his career, the questions from the press to the training Joneses and owner Brereton Jones still surfaced
“Are you going to move to a big name rider for Lovely Maria in the Oaks?”
And just as quickly came the response from Larry and Cindy Jones.
“We’ve got a team that works well together,” Jones responded. “We understand each other, we communicate well, and we get the job done. Why would you change that?”
And straight-talking Cindy was even more direct. “She told the reporters, ‘He (Clark) brought us to the dance,’” the rider recalled. “’Why would we dance with somebody else now?’”
“I can’t tell you how much having the Joneses’ and Mr. Brereton Jones’ loyalty and steadfast commitment has meant to me,” Clark said, “Loyalty in this business isn’t what it used to be, but these folks never wavered, they’ve stuck with me, and words can’t describe how much that’s meant to me.”
On the first Friday in May, that loyalty paid its biggest dividend yet. With his wife Toni, and his mother Shirley and dad Presley at Churchill Downs, while his 29-year-old stepdaughter Lacey, who has cerebral palsy, watched with family back home, Clark guided Lovely Maria to a victory in the Oaks and then, tearfully, guided her to the winner’s circle.
He had a simple description for it then — “the greatest day of my life” — but it’s a life, and career, that’s still getting better, too.
Clark is currently eighth in the Delaware Park jockey standings, and on June 3, he and trainer Larry Jones teamed up once again, this time to win the Our Mims Stakes with White Clover. If all goes according to plan, her next stop will be the Grade 3 Delaware Oaks on July 11.