Van Otterloo may not be a household name in harness racing, but they are a fixture at the Harrisburg Sale. Watching hundreds of horses enter the ring, keeping an eye out for that special opportunity. They don’t own a massive operation or spend millions for elite bloodlines. Instead, they’ve found success working from the ground up and having fun with the game.
How did you get involved in harness racing?
I’m a third generation harness racing owner, trainer and enthusiast. My grandpa started doing it when he was early in his twenties. I think he bought a horse, he told us for like fifty bucks back in the day. Now it’s been in my family since. Everybody on the Van Otterloo side of my family really enjoys it. We like to say that it’s in our blood now. One of the highlights each year is coming out to the Harrisburg yearling sales. It’s a real highlight to take such well bred horses back to Iowa, so it’s really fun for us.
What’s been a highlight for you personally?
When I trained. I trained at the Running Aces racetrack in Minnesota the four summers of my college years. So I had an awesome summer job. It probably culminated in the summer of 2012 when I had a stable of nine head by myself and lived and trained up at the racetrack. It was awesome. It was exhausting, but great memories. I’m really thankful for that.
Nine horses by yourself is a lot of work.
Yes it was. It was a lot of late nights and early mornings. But I had my family’s support behind me and I really, really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
As a young person in harness racing what’s the draw to you, aside from your family connection?
I love the uniqueness about it. When I tell somebody that I own like fifteen horses it catches them off guard and it gets a lot of attention. So I love that it can be our thing. My family’s thing. I love that it’s a family affair all the way from raising the babies to training and selling a good horse. It’s a lot of fun to do.
I also just really like the thrill. Sitting behind a racehorse, going thirty miles per hour is a lot of fun to me. It’s fun to try to search out that next champion and to try to get a good horse.
Is there a horse in your past that you have learned a lot from?
Absolutely. Her name is Little Tootsie, she is a Minnesota bred that we bought at the beginning of her two-year-old year. The only reason we got her was that we bought her as part of a package deal with a yearling we wanted. We expected nothing from her. The yearling actually bowed both of her front tendons and this horse turned into a Cinderella story. She was a champion in Iowa and Minnesota at two and three, and she beat the Open Mares at Running Aces at age three and she set the track record at age four there. I still, my heart starts racing and I get excited when I think about how much fun I had with her. I think some people in Minnesota, they still perk up when hear her name too. It was a great ride with her.
As a young person, what do you think that harness racing needs more of?
In the Midwest, we need more owners. We need more people to get excited about it and to spread the word. It’s a very rare hobby or business out in Minnesota and in Iowa. We really need to spark enthusiasm and get hype going. I think from those already involved we have to do the service aspect. We have to get involved and do a really good job of advertising and marketing what we have to show that it’s a great hobby and it’s fun to be a part of.
When you’re looking for your next Cinderella story what are you looking for in a yearling?
We call ourselves “The Bottomfeeders.” (laughs). We come here and try to get a good deal for four or five thousand. In recent years, with the sales, we’ve had a hard time doing that. We spent just around $10,000 on a yearling, which is a lot for us, but we’ve got the foal of a two-year-old Breeders Crown winner whose already produced a NY Sires Stakes champion and a two-year-old whose paced in 1:51. So we feel really confident about that and that’s great to take back to Iowa. That’s huge for us.
So you guys specialize in doing your homework and picking up some of the things that other people might miss?
Yes we do. That’s exactly it. We have our spot in the back paddock (at Harrisburg), we watch all the videos, and we look at as many as we can, because you never know which one is going to go cheap. That’s what we try to do, to find value.
What advice would you give to someone coming into the business brand new?
You need to surround yourself with people that you can trust and that you can glean advice from. I love coming to the Harrisburg Sale and looking at which horses the top trainers and top owners are buying and trying to determine what about that individual they might love. I also did that same thing at the racetrack. I knew who were the top trainers and I could easily tell who were the people that I respected, their training methods etc. I would go ask them for advice and I would say over 90% of the times they asked they were willing to help me out, and I know that I would be willing to do the same thing for someone. There are a lot of people who will offer advice, give you suggestions, to help you succeed.
Interview by Allison Conte, USTA