MINDY WILLIS ENJOYING A SUCCESSFUL REMINGTON PARK SEASON, A LONG WAY FROM RAKING OATS INTO HER DAD’S SHEDROW AS A LITTLE GIRL
Longtime Remington Park trainer Mindy Willis grew up in her Dad’s barn on the West Coast and has been a winner in every way except one.
“When I was a little girl, just a brat, I used to love to pour the horses’ oats out on the shedrow in my dad’s barn and rake them into cool patterns,” she said with a laugh. “I just loved the way it looked. My dad used to get so mad at me and yell, ‘You HAVE to stop doing that.’”
Willis stopped doing that as she grew older and became an licensed trainer in 1982. She has been at Remington Park training horses since Opening Day here in 1988 and is always a fixture among the most competitive conditioners. This year has been no exception to the rule. At one point last week, Willis had moved into second place, only four wins behind 17-time training title winner here and the all-time winningest trainer in horse racing history – Steve Asmussen. Through racing at the end of September, Asmussen sat atop the trainers’ standings here with 16 wins to Willis’ 12.
After racing on Wednesday, Oct. 4, Willis stood in fourth place among Remington Park trainers with 12 wins. Asmussen led with 18 trips to the winner’s circle. He won two Wednesday night with Jackie Flash in the fourth race, jockey Luis Fuentes up, and with Camaraderie in the sixth, Harry Hernandez booting her home.
Willis said it’s a tough game when you try to upset the Asmussen apple cart.
“I have a lot of turf horses that get wins for me,” she said, “and the turf course will be closing probably in early November. But it’s tough to keep up with an endless string of horses when you only have so many to draw from.”
Going into this race meet, Willis stood third in all-time wins for female trainers at Remington Park, trailing only Kari Craddock (357 wins at Remington) and Lynn Chleborad (317). Craddock was 12th on the all-time list regardless of gender and Chleborad 13th. Willis, who left Remington Park for a few years in the 2000s, portion of her training career, was in 37th place with her 177 trips to the Oklahoma City winner’s circle.
Craddock has increased her Remington Park total to 364, Chleborad to 318 and Willis to 189.
Willis was born in California and most of her early career she trained on the West Coast in both the Golden State and in Washington State.
“The only reason I was born in California is that my dad was there rodeoing,” she said. “He quit the rodeo after I was born and it wasn’t long after I was in the barn.”
A story she had read about a new track in Oklahoma was being built and would open in 1988 – Remington Park.
“Mr. (Everett) Lowrance was a big, influential part of that,” Willis said. “I wrote him a letter and said I was very interested in Remington Park and he wrote back saying, ‘We’d really love to have you in Oklahoma.’ It was pretty amazing.”
She has bookended her career here with two of the top turf horses to race at Remington Park – Merlin of York, who got the ball rolling in 1988, and now Sunlit Song, the gray horse that is hard to beat as one of her favorites all time.
Merlin of York won 17-of-96 starts for $259,875, racing from 1984-1992. He was a turf monster at Remington, winning the Crossroads Handicap, the Edmond Handicap and the Remington Park Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap. Those races came on March 12, March 26, and April 16, 1989. It has been almost 30 years for Willis to train her next lawn monster – Sunlit Song, a multiple stakes winner on the grass at Remington Park and other tracks. That 8-year-old gray gelding won the Remington Green Stakes on Sept. 24 at Remington Park. Sunlit Song has raced 42 times with 18 wins, 12 seconds and four thirds for $731,018 for owners Carolyn Barnett and Becky Harding of Pollok, Texas. Willis started with Sunlit Song in 2018 and Barnett wouldn’t even enter the paddock before races with her horse.
“When I first got him, you couldn’t even handle him in the paddock,” Willis said. “He was really bad. He was terrible. The poor lady (Barnett), she would stand way on the outside of the apron; wouldn’t even go into the paddock because he was wild. I told her that would never happen again and we just lived with him in the paddock (schooling). It finally got to the point where she could come into the circle, but she still wouldn’t go near the horse.”
Now, since he has matured, as long as Sunlit Song gets his favorite foods, sweet potatoes and carrots, he is as sweet as a sugar cube.
“He loves to be petted now,” said Willis.
The key to his success?
“He loves what he does,” she said. “Just like (Remington’s leading jockey) Stewart (Elliott) said after winning the Remington Green, ‘He knows what he wants to do. I just got to put him in the right spot to do it.’ And my job is to keep him sound.”
The question does arise as to how much longer an 8-year-old can go.
“You know, every horse is different,” said Willis. “The horse he ran second to by a head here, Spooky Channel (2021 Remington Green winner), is running in this year’s Breeders’ Cup and he’s 8 years old too. Mrs. Barnett asked me, ‘What do you think? How long do you think it’s going to be before he can no longer go?’ I said, ‘He’ll tell us. He’ll tell us.’ When he does, he’ll retire.”
Remington Park racing continues Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 5-7. The first post nightly is 7:07pm-Central.
Remington Park has provided more than $331 Million to the State of Oklahoma general education fund since the opening of the casino in 2005. Located at the junction of Interstates 35 & 44, in the heart of the Oklahoma City Adventure District, Remington Park is home to the Oklahoma Classics, the top night of racing in the state for Oklahoma-breds, on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. Remington Park presents simulcast racing daily and non-stop casino gaming. Parking and admission are always free. Must be 18 or older to wager on horse racing or enter the casino gaming floor. Visit remingtonpark.com for more information.