Karen Jacks, left, and Mindy Willis at Sam Houston Race Park. (Texas Thoroughbred Association photos)
Texas-breds put Mindy Willis, Karen Jacks in spotlight
By Jennie Rees, National Turf Journalist
HOUSTON, Tx. – With a strong and passionate commitment to Texas Thoroughbred racing, trainers Mindy Willis and Karen Jacks have risen in the ranks to become two of the state’s most prominent trainers. Both are currently in the top six in the standings for wins during this year’s Thoroughbred race meet at Sam Houston Race Park.
Willis’ 14 wins place her in fourth in the Sam Houston standings, while Jacks is tied for sixth with 10 wins. Ahead of them in victories this meet are the powerful stables of J.R. Caldwell, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and Bret Calhoun.
Willis and Jacks not only both won a stakes on Sam Houston’s Texas Preview Day on February 18 but each also took second in these wins with a stablemate out of the same mare as the winner.
The Willis-trained odds-on favorite Sunlit Song captured the $75,000 Houston Turf Stakes by three lengths over Truly Danzig. Owned by Carolyn Barnett and Becky Harding, both geldings are out of the Early Flyer mare Fly So True. Sunlit Song was sired by the deceased Valor Farm stallion My Golden Song, with Truly Danzig a son of Etesaal, a $1 million yearling by the legendary sire Danzig.
Three races later, Jacks went 1-2 in the $75,000 Miss Bluebonnet Turf as the 4-year-old filly Imaluckycharm held off her favored stablemate and 6-year-old half-sister No Mas Tequila, who had swept Sam Houston and Lone Star Park’s four-stakes series for Texas-breds in 2022. Both horses are out of the Street Boss mare Foxy Boss, with Carl Moore’s Imaluckycharm by My Golden Song and James Sills’ No Mas Tequila by the late Northern Afleet.
All four horses are expected to run in Sam Houston’s Texas Champions Day on March 25.
“Would I love to be a leading trainer at some point in my life? Sure,” said Willis, who began training in 1982. “But it’s not something that fixates in my brain. Just being up there, and being a woman in the standings, I’d like to be a consistent fixture wherever I try to run. Like when people look through the form and go, ‘Well, you got Asmussen, got Calhoun, got Caldwell and then you got Mindy’ — … a force to be reckoned with. That’s all I want. I don’t want them to blow me off, ‘Oh, she never wins.’ I’m just real serious about my horses.”
Jacks, who is married to veterinarian Dean Jacks, started her Texas-based stable in 2011 with just a couple of horses she owned. Today she trains 44, the most of her career, including about a dozen for prominent owner Carl Moore.
“When we were first getting our feet wet, we’d think, ‘Hey, we beat (Karl) Broberg.’ Or ‘we beat Asmussen.’ We were all proud of ourselves,” Karen Jacks said. “But we don’t really look at it that way now. It’s such a big job, you don’t have time to look at it. Whenever you get five minutes and you’re having a margarita or something you might go, ‘Hey, look. We made it into the standings! This is cool! Look who we’re next to! Isn’t that fun?’ For about a day, then it goes back down to 12th or something. When it’s all over, yeah, you can turn around and say, ‘OK, we’re progressing. That’s good.’
“We just kind of do our thing day to day, put them where they belong, keep them happy. That’s really a full-time job.”
Texas legislation helped spark career-best seasons
Willis has won 40 races and more than $1 million in purses each of the past two years, career-bests for earnings. That also coincides with increased purses in Texas thanks to state lawmakers in 2019 creating the Horse Industry Escrow Account (HIEA), with revenue derived from taxes on horse-related products channeled into supporting racing and breeding.
“That really helped us a lot,” Willis said. “Boy, there were no more appreciative people than the horsemen. We buy a lot of feed and hay and grain. Anything agriculture that we use for our horses, we are getting that back. It was like a big sigh of relief. It really helped supplement our purses. People kind of stopped breeding in Texas for a while. With this, people started breeding back.”
Jacks had a career-best 2022 with 28 wins — six coming in stakes — and just shy of $1 million in purses. She said the legislation did what it was supposed to do in improving racing.
“The state-bred purse money helps a lot,” she said. “When you go up against the Texas-bred 3-year-olds this year, there are so many good ones. It’s not easy.”
Mindy Willis: A very patient trainer – and so are her owners
Willis grew up in Southern California, the daughter of Grade 1-winning trainer Barney Willis, for whom she worked as an assistant before opening her own stable in 1982 with three horses owned by her dad’s client Sam Roffe.
“I got my trainer’s license when I was 18,” she said. “I went training on my own in ’82 at Longacres (then a prominent track in Washington.) I was very fortunate that my dad was a good trainer and I got to be around guys like Charlie Whittingham and Noble Threewitt, a lot of really good trainers I could watch and learn from, (Laz) Barrera. You become a sponge.
“One of the things I decided is that I am a very patient trainer, and you have to have the same type of owners, people who are willing to give horses time to develop and grow up. I don’t push 2-year-olds much. I really liked the way Charlie Whittingham trained. He developed older horses, got them to where they were at their best at 4, 5, 6, 7. I watched how he got horses ready to run off of workouts for long races. You have this mental memory bank that you try to see what works and what doesn’t work.
“The first two horses I started I won,” she continued, joking that it made her – very briefly — think, “‘You know, that’s easy!’ Then I slowly grew and grew…. (Fellow trainers) know now that they can’t mess with me. Most of them respect me because they know I work hard. I tell them, ‘Look, you might not like me. That’s your own business. All I want you to do is respect me for the effort and time I put in and the job I try to do.’”
Willis, already at Remington in Oklahoma, added Texas to her circuit in 1994, the year Sam Houston opened. She said she has access to “65-70” horses, including babies not yet at the track and that she wouldn’t want to train more than 50 horses because it would hinder her hands-on style.
“Over the last few years, I’ve had very, very – and I’m underlining that – very good clients who totally believe in me,” she said. “They leave the decision-making process to me. I tell them what the options are. I always lean toward the preservative, conservative. I’m proactive, not reactive.”
A case in point is the 8-year-old Sunlit Song, whom she gave 6 1/2 months off to let his hooves grow out from a quarter crack. Upon his return last September, he finished second in the Remington Green by a half-length and has been unbeaten in three starts since, including winning the Houston Turf for the first time after three seconds and a third in four attempts.
“When he came back, he’s been just awesome,” Willis said. “He loves to race, and he’s been very, very honest.”
Sunlit Song marks the fifth generation in a line that started with Barnett’s first horse, the stakes-placed filly My Sunlit. Barnett sent Sunlit Song to Willis in 2018 after the horse had acted badly in the paddock and at the gate in its first two starts.
“I’ve been in this business 47 years, therefore I’ve had a lot of trainers,” Barnett said. “…. I told her how bad he was. She worked with that horse more than any trainer I’ve had. She took him to the paddock I don’t know how many times and the starting gate.
“She’s been fantastic for me,” Barnett said, noting that Willis trained Truly Danzig to a victory last year off a seven-month layoff. “I just can’t say enough about her patience, determination. I mean she works at this. Her whole life is these horses. I’m sure she was raised in a barn….
She has really climbed up in the ranks here lately, so I think more people will start watching her better.”
Karen Jacks: A serious business, but ‘if it’s not fun, we’re not doing it’
Jacks, whose parents Gordon and Mary Shankland owned and bred racehorses, grew up in Maryland and Illinois, her family buying a farm not far from Arlington Park. She graduated with a B.S. in equine science from Southern Illinois University and began training the family’s horses. Her first winner in 1992 at Arlington Park was her dad’s homebred Decimate, who paid an even $100 to win.
Among the Shanklands’ prior trainers was prominent Chicago horsewoman Christine Janks. When young Karen asked her dad what her job was, “He said, ‘Your job is to observe everything because eventually you’ll be a trainer,’” Jacks recalled. “I used to pout, and he said ‘go to Ocala and put your license in.’ He hand-walked me down there. He was there when I passed my trainer’s test at Calder. But I aced it and went back to Arlington and started training. The next year he got killed in a car accident.”
The death rocked the family and pretty much ended the racing stable. Jacks worked in Ocala and eventually came to Texas, where she met her husband.
“Then I just gathered up one horse and started building my stable,” she said. “We’d just buy cheap horses. We’d have like three, then five. I remember when we had eight, we thought we had a big stable. Now we’re neighbors with Carl Moore because we bought a house near his farm. (Dean) was his vet for a long time. So that’s how I ended up training for Carl.”
Now at 44 horses, the most she’s ever had, Jacks said that while “it’s turned into a serious business now,” she and her husband keep their motto that “‘If it’s not fun, we’re not doing it.’ We want it to be fun for the horses, fun for us and fun for Carl. All our crew is still the same. It’s grown, of course, but I still have my original gallop boy. But everybody we had to have when we had eight horses still works for us. It’s like a family.
“You keep it light-hearted; you want the horses happy, and they’re spoiled rotten. Everything seems to go well when you’re not under the gun. So that’s the way we like to keep it… I do love it. I never get sick of it. When you’re here every single day, as most of us are, you better love it.”
Dean Jacks pays his wife a compliment about her success the past couple of years. “He calls me Little Mindy,” Karen Jacks said. “I like that. I’ll take that.”
Willis and Jacks are now targeting the next big day of racing at Sam Houston: the Texas Champions Day on March 25 featuring seven $100,000 stakes for Texas-breds. Willis will attempt another half-brothers’ exacta with Sunlit Song and Truly Danzig back in the Richard King Turf (won by Sunlit Song in 2021). Jacks will have the half-sisters Imaluckycharm and No Mas Tequila (last year’s winner) squaring off again in the San Jacinto Turf, Stans Hookin Bull (third in the Houston Turf at 20-1 odds) in the Richard King and Sam Houston debut winner Cajun Eddie in the Texas Thoroughbred Association Derby.
Jennie Rees is a five-time Eclipse Award-winning journalist and member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor. The Louisville resident specializes in publicity, communications and advocacy in horse racing, including working for the Kentucky and National HBPA and Kentucky Downs, following 32 years as The Louisville Courier-Journal’s turf writer.