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Justin Van Otterloo ready to make his mark

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Columbus, MN – Justin Van Otterloo, who is ready for his first season with Running Aces as a professional trainer/driver, may have taken a long road to get here, but is now paving his way in harness racing, the sport he grew up in and the sport that is deeply rooted in his family as a tradition.

Trainer-driver Justin Van Otterloo (Nicole Tate Photo)

The charismatic 27-year-old was born and raised in Iowa, where his father, Warren, and uncles Merlin and Nolan are household names in running circles. So does his grandfather Harvey, he is the patriarch of the family and helped inspire the love of sports in many branches of the family and Justin said his grandfather instilled in him that when something breaks, like an appliance, you can’t just do something throws away. If you take it out, it can be fixed, useful and great again.

The Van Otterloo name has been a major presence in the sport for decades, not just in Iowa, but stretching across the upper Midwest and certainly into Minnesota.

So it’s no big surprise that Justin is starting to make his mark in that same sport today. What makes the story interesting are the ups and downs, detours and wrong turns he may have taken along the way.

Van Otterloo is quick to admit that he hasn’t always taken the right route, or even the recommended route, but he now has the presence of mind to take the lessons learned to heart and now focus on achieving his goals and dreams in harness racing.

As I sat down with Justin for this story, it became clear to me that a sincere and humble young man was sitting in front of me.

Sure, he grew up around the tracks and shows all over Iowa, Minnesota and beyond, so he’d picked up the basics of the business as a youngster and teenager. He knew it was hard work, he had certainly mucked more than his fair share of stables in his youth.

Places like Prairie Meadows and Running Aces were magical places for a kid who grew up racing in these parts. He began idolizing local star drivers like Nick Roland, Rick Magee, Mooney Svendsen and many more. He once wanted to sit behind the wheel of the horses himself. In his teens he did just that, competing in fairground races whenever he could. He even bought a mare that then gave birth to a foal, My Muddy Buddy, which he eventually sold.

In his early twenties, he, like anyone else, wanted to make his way in the world. Was hard racing the right path for him, he wondered. While he wanted to experience other things, he eventually pursued a career as a truck driver, and ended up doing that for a few years. In the end he didn’t find what he was looking for. What he was looking for might be what was in front of him all his life.

Justin decided that if he did indeed want to race, he would do it right and gain the necessary experience to have a chance at success. Sure, he had worked for many people over the years as a groom and helper, but now he was ready to learn, really learn everything he needed to know.

In the fall of 2020, after the Running Aces season was over, Van Otterloo was given the opportunity to go to Kentucky and work for trainer Justin Anfinson. It was a great experience for him because he really got to know the workings of a large stable.

They had a very successful meet in Kentucky that fall, with Anfinson taking home the title of leading trainer. Van Otterloo worked with team Anfinson for another full year in 2021 before deciding to go home and take a break to decide his next move.

After some rest and reflection, Justin knew he wanted to start navigating to get more and more track work and time on the jog cart, bicycle and horse riding. In 2023 he took the opportunity to work for DanJer Farm and trainer Dan Roland. Dan had fewer horses than Anfinson and that might give him more opportunity to focus on track work and riding skills.

While working for DanJer he was able to complete some more fair rides and qualifying rides and once he set his mind to it, it didn’t take long for him to obtain his provisional driver’s license and his full trainer’s license.

After a very successful meeting with DanJer in which they had two state champions, Van Otterloo considered his next move.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the opportunity arose to take a few horses from Iowa to train and race (for owner Wilda McDanel) and head to California for the Cal-Expo meet. It didn’t take long before Justin decided to take a leap of faith and go for it.

Justin had taken the time to learn the necessary lessons, and he had worked hard at them. Now it was time to put it all together and show what he could do with it – and that’s exactly what he did.

Things didn’t start out gangbusters for Justin when he began his journey as a professional trainer/driver, but they didn’t start badly either: a fourth, a third, a few more fourths, a second, oh… but then came race ten on February 2 2024.

A race he will never forget. He sent his charge, Anita’s Red Rebel, straight to the front from post five and they never looked back, going from gate to wire and winning by more than three lengths. Everything stopped at that moment and all the hard work and trying to learn what he needed to learn all the time had all paid off.

I could see the excitement in his eyes and feel it in his words as he related the experience to me. “I always wanted to get my first (pari-mutuel) wins at Running Aces because that’s my home track… but I was so happy with the win and it was just amazing, so I was so grateful that I just made it happen . ”

Just 8 days later he teamed up with the same horse to win again and make it 2 in a row, while also giving the 4-year-old pacer a new lifetime mark.

Justin racked up a few more wins and several seconds and thirds over the next few months and said it was so satisfying to get compliments on some of his motivations. A wonderful feeling and it gives me the feeling that the hard work is paying off.” He also set small goals for himself, such as finishing on the board, getting checks and reaching a certain profit limit, and said it “feels really good to achieve those goals.”

He also said he was fortunate to receive a lot of driving advice and guidance from Nick Roland during the fall and winter in California, adding that all the experienced drivers were helpful and willing to give advice or answer questions.

Van Otterloo said cheerfully: “These are the guys I have seen as great idols and now I get to race with them on the track and ask them for advice, that is really great.”

“I’m still learning, and I still have a lot to learn… I don’t think you ever stop learning in this game, so I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to work and learn for great coaches , and to be able to ask these guys for advice or their opinions… it’s just great.”

He also added, “the knowledge and skills I learned from Justin (Anfinson) and Dan (Roland) have also given me the confidence to take the next step.”

He also said he is grateful for the opportunity to train the horses he has and for the catch drives he has been given.

Justin is excited to see what the 2024 Running Aces season will bring, but most of all, he is happy to be here at his home track, ready to continue making his mark. He has two horses, including Anita’s Red Rebel, and trotter Omaha Storm Chaser that are ready to go into the box. He has a 2-year pacer from Minnesota on the way and hopes to add another.

Van Otterloo is nervously waiting for his first race of the new season, but is certainly ready to write the next chapter. He is at home where he has learned so much over the years and he is ready to show what he can do.

There is no doubt that there is a large cheering section here at Running Aces and across state lines to Iowa for Justin. We wish him a great 2024 season at Running Aces and much success in his future.

Through Darin Gagnefor Running Aces