Kerwin Clark says about 15 years have passed since he stared reality in the face and came up with a vision for his twilight years on the racetrack.
The Louisiana native was already established as a journeyman rider with a respected presence in the jockeys' room. He had steadily added to a career win total that now sits at more than 2,800. But as far as getting on marquee mounts and being a fixture on big race days? Clark recalls thinking that ship was going to sail without him — and he had made peace with that.
"I'll be honest, 15 years ago I thought I'm just going to ride out my career in Louisiana, make a good living and be happy," Clark said at Keeneland this past Saturday. "Because realistically at my age, I didn't figure I was going to be riding these kind of horses again."
Fourteen days before his 56th birthday, Clark was reminded why Thoroughbred racing routinely mocks those who try to plot too much. He had just climbed off the filly who will go into the books as his first career Grade I winner and was being asked to digest the national stage he is now set to be on come May 1.
The pinnacle moment of a career that began 40 years ago at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, was proudly declared by track announcer Kurt Becker to a Keeneland crowd of 26,357. In guiding Brereton Jones' Lovely Maria to a 31/4-length victory in the Grade I, $500,000 Ashland Stakes, Clark proved there is no statute of limitations on when success can manifest.
Clark admittedly didn't sleep much going into Easter morning.
In winning the Ashland, her third victory in seven starts, Lovely Maria is poised to head to the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 1 where she and her stablemate, I'm a Chatterbox, are expected to be among the top contenders.
"About 2 in the morning it kind of set in," Clark said Sunday morning. "We take it one day at a time but I tell you what, I wouldn't switch (Oaks) mounts with anybody, not at this point. I always knew (Lovely Maria) had the ability. I just didn't know how much."
It's not as if Clark had stopped pursuing such achievements. If anything, it was his commitment to putting himself in a position where he could still prevail that led to him getting the opportunity with Lovely Maria.
After several years of riding primarily in Chicago, Clark opted to return to his Louisiana roots. Consistently one of the top 10 riders at Fair Grounds, Clark can still work the track's lengthy stretch as well as any — something trainer Larry Jones took notice of a couple winters ago when he found himself in need of a jockey for a couple of his good horses.
"I'm so blessed we got together with him," said Jones, trainer of Lovely Maria. "He was a great rider — I don't want to say 20 years ago — but 20 years ago I knew him and he was riding with Pat Day and Craig Perret and those guys and holding his own. It just took me that long to get a horse he would ride.
"The talent has always been there. I'm tickled to death for him."
Among the horses Jones legged up Clark on were Albano, whom he guided to victory in the 2014 Grade III Pegasus Stakes, and graded stakes winner Cassatt.
Clark said he was getting on I'm a Chatterbox in the mornings at Fair Grounds this winter but opted to ride another filly in the Silverbulletday Stakes in January. When I'm a Chatterbox went on to win the Grade III Rachel Alexandra and Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, Clark was ready to chalk it up as another set of circumstances not falling in his favor.
"I thought I lost my Oaks filly this winter at Fair Grounds because I had to take off Chatterbox ... and she turned out to be a monster," Clark said. "But Maria made up for it.
"Larry and his owners have been a godsend. They've put me on some nice horses, and this is the result. We get along so well. We're about the same age, and he never tells me how to ride."
Less than 24 hours after the Ashland Stakes, Clark was back at Jones' Keeneland barn ready to do his part and get on the slate of horses they had lined up for him that morning.
One race, one win isn't going to change Clark. But it sure is nice that four decades into his career, he can say he has a mount that could be his game-changer.
"It was 40 years in the making, how about that," he grinned. "It just goes to show you're never too old to win a Grade I."