Trenton, NJ — Just three years shy of age 70, Jim King Jr. is coming off a 2019 season that could make him the subject of an AARP magazine cover story.
The popular trainer conditioned two Dan Patch Award winners in pacing mare Shartin N and 2-year-old female pacer Lyons Sentinel, and Shartin N is one of the favorites for Horse of the Year, which will be announced Feb. 23 at the Dan Patch Awards banquet in Orlando, Fla.
The King Stable, where Jim trains alongside wife Jo Ann Looney-King, won a career-record $4.27 million in purses last year, smashing its previous mark of $2.88 million set just one year earlier. He also had a career-best 168 victories and notched career triumph 1,000 in early December at Dover Downs.
And in late December, King was named winner of the U.S. Harness Association’s Good Guy Award, which his wife had won previously in 2015.
Again, this all happened at age 67.
“It’s almost unbelievable,” King said. “These things don’t usually happen to old men; I’ll be 68 next month. Usually that’s on a downwind. And heck, outside of the age number, it doesn’t look to be like it’s going to be anything any different for a time to come.”
The reason he’s sticking around is not just because of his recent good fortune. King will be in the barn as long as it’s feasible, no matter how few or many wins he collects.
“This is what I always wanted to do to start with,” King said. “(Success) doesn’t want to make me do it any more or less. It doesn’t change anything about me, except I probably smile a lot more.”
And this from a guy who is known for smiling a lot. He’s a good-natured, good-hearted soul who people enjoy being around, and he is proud to be known as a Good Guy.
“That’s one of those awards that I don’t think the name suits the award,” King said. “It doesn’t sound like as much as it really is. It’s quite a thing to win that award for what it means. Of all the people that could possibly be chosen, I was, and my wife was in the past. I think that’s kind of special.
“It’s a lot more than talking to reporters. The reporters get info from other people as well. It’s more than just I took the time. It’s that that other people in the business had good things to say about us. I think that plays into it. We always care about that sort of thing.”
They also care about the sport itself, which is why King feels it’s important to serve as an ambassador. Then again, his general character make-up is being nice to those beyond the Standardbred business. He likes people in general.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Sometimes my wife teases me about talking to total strangers about the business. She says, ‘They don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I say, ‘That’s OK, some day they will maybe.’ But anything that will catch a person’s ear and make them pay attention to it helps. I think it’s important to be a person that’s approachable, to be outgoing to people in and out of the business. It kind of lays out the way I like my lead my life. It’s not always about the gain. Sometimes it tends to be, but it’s not about the personal gain.”
If the gain comes along, however, King won’t argue. With his dynamic duo of Dan Patch Award winners, opportunity knocked with a couple of heavy hooves.
“Those are really nice horses, top quality, no doubt,” he said. “I don’t know if it took a genius to get the accomplishments done with them. Fortunately, I got to go along for the ride. They’re just really good horses. With a little luck, maybe we’ll do it again.”
He had a known commodity with Shartin N, who had another outstanding season on the heels of her 2018 Dan Patch Award-winning campaign. Shartin N won 15 of 19 races last year at age 6 and earned $982,177 on her way to her second honor as the sport’s top older female pacer.
She finished second to pacing stallion McWicked in the voting for 2018 Pacer of the Year and Horse of the Year and is in the hunt for both awards again for 2019.
“I was kind of disappointed she didn’t get it last year for whatever it’s worth, but she didn’t,” King said. “It’s hard for a mare to do; it’s got to be even harder for a foreign mare to do. Statistically I felt she had it last year, statistically I feel like she had it this year. I guess it’s not all about the numbers. I’ve never had anything like her before. There’s nothing like having something like her and owning part of a horse like her.”
Then there was the newcomer, Lyons Sentinel, who surpassed expectations according to her trainer. She won nine of 14 races, was never off the board, and earned $801,809 to lead all 2-year-olds.
“She didn’t just jump out as being the big dog, or being the best,” King said. “But each time I’d race her I would see traits that are very likeable. She liked to race, she’s not necessarily a run-off-and-leave-them type of girl, but she likes to win. Her will was just tremendous along with her ability.”
And while that’s all in the recent past, it’s enough to keep King fired up for the immediate future as he is looking for another big year from the two of them and, hopefully, a few other horses who could make names for themselves.
“They’re both a year older,” he said. “I’m hoping they both come back just somewhere close to where they were. At present time they both look real good. I’ve started them both back up and they’re very likeable. They kind of put themselves back together after a long year.
“I don’t feel like I have any other horse the caliber of those two, but I’ve got a pretty nice bunch of horses as far as the stable goes. It’s exciting.”
To hear King talk, last season’s excitement bordered on the sublime.
“Things happened you just never felt could possibly happen,” he said. “It’s almost like the sky’s the limit. It’s amazing what you can do in this business. My wife and I lived in a tack room some years ago and then we go and win the Breeders Crown. I like to say I’ve walked every street.”
Whether it’s another smooth street or a rocky road this year, King will continue to be a good guy and Jo Ann will remain a good gal. In fact, maybe the two of them should be the AARP cover story. They can safely be termed the “Good Couple” of harness racing.
“I guess we are,” King said. “We’ve been together for 44 years now. It’s a real team at the stable. I’ve got quite a crew around here, and the support of my family (including Standardbred TV luminary Heather Vitale). It’s just kind of special. There is no such thing as Jim anymore. It’s Jim and Jo Ann. That’s the way it’s written, and it is definitely by choice.”
A choice made by two good people.