Van Otterloo Is Ready To Make His Mark 

Justin Van Otterloo
Published: May 14, 2024 10:54 pm EDT

Justin Van Otterloo, who is set for his first season at Running Aces as a professional trainer/driver, may have taken the long route to get here, but is now making his way in harness racing, the sport that he grew up in and the sport that has deep roots as a tradition in his family. 

The charismatic 27-year-old was born and raised in Iowa where his dad, Warren, and uncles, Merlin and Nolan, are household names among the harness racing circles. His grandfather, Harvey, is too as the family patriarch who helped inspire the love for the sport into many branches of the family. Justin shared that his grandfather instilled in him that when something breaks, like a piece of equipment, you don't just toss it out, it can be repaired and be useful and can be 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 most definitely into Minnesota. 

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

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

Sure, he grew up at the tracks and at the fairs all over Iowa, Minnesota and beyond, so, the very basics of the business he had picked up as a youngster and teen. He knew it was hard work; he had certainly mucked more than his share of stalls while growing up. 

Places like Prairie Meadows and Running Aces were magical places for a kid growing up around racing in these parts. He came to idolize local star drivers like Nick Roland, Rick Magee, Mooney Svendsen and many more. He wanted to be in the driver's seat behind the horses someday himself. In his teens, he did just that and drove in races at the fairs when he could. He even bought a mare who then had a foal, My Muddy Buddy, who he wound up selling. 

In his early 20s, like anyone else, he wanted to find his way in the world. "Was harness racing the right path for him?" he wondered. And while looking to experience other things, he wound up pursuing a possible career as a truck driver and he wound up doing that for a couple of years. In the end, he hadn't found what he was looking for. What he was looking for might just be the thing that was right in front of him all of his life. 

Van Otterloo decided that if harness racing was indeed where he wanted to be, he was going to do it right and get the necessary experience to have a chance at success. Sure, over the years he had worked for many people as a groom and helper, but now he was ready to learn, really learn everything that he needed to know. 

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

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

After some rest and thought, Van Otterloo knew that he wanted to start to navigate towards getting more and more trackwork and time in the jog cart, the bike and driving horses. In 2023, he took an opportunity to go to work for DanJer Farm and trainer Dan Roland, who had fewer horses than Anfinson and that might afford him more opportunity to concentrate on the trackwork and driving skillset. 

While working for DanJer, he was able to get some more fair drives in and get qualifying drives, and once he set his mind to it, it did not take him long to get his Provisional driving license and his full trainers license. 

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

Somewhat unexpectedly, an opportunity came up to take a few Iowa-based horses to train and race (for owner Wilda McDanel) and head out to California for the Cal-Expo meet. It didn't take long for Van Otterloo to decide to take the leap of faith and go for it. 

The  genuine and humble young man had taken the time to learn the necessary lessons, and he had put in the work. Now it was time to put it all together and show what he could do with all of it -- and that's exactly what he did. 

Things didn't start out gangbusters for Van Otterloo as he began his foray as a professional trainer/driver, but they didn't start out bad either -- a fourth, a third, a couple more fourths, a second, oh ... but then came race 10 on Feb. 2, 2024. 

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

"I always wanted to have my first [pari-mutuel] wins at Running Aces because that is my home track ... but I was so happy to get the win and it was just amazing so I was so grateful to just get it done," beamed Van Otterloo as he recounted the experience. 

Just eight days later, he teamed up with the same horse to win again and make it two in a row, while also giving the five-year-old pacing mare a new lifetime mark. 

Van Otterloo picked up a couple more wins and several seconds and thirds over the next couple of months and shared that it was so gratifying to get compliments on some of his drives, "to have people telling me that I did a good job out there is just a wonderful feeling and it makes me feel like the hard work is paying off." He also set small goals for himself like finishing on the board, getting cheques and passing a certain earnings mark and shared that it "feels really good to meet those goals."

He also shared that he was fortunate enough to get a lot of advice and mentoring about driving from Nick Roland over the fall and winter in California, and added that all of the veteran drivers have been helpful and willing to give advice or answer questions. 

Van Otterloo cheerfully stated, "These are the guys that I grew up idolizing and now I get to be out on the track racing with them and asking them for advice -- that's truly amazing. 

"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 for great trainers and to learn, and to be able to ask these guys for advice or get their opinion ... it's just great." 

He also added, "The knowledge and skills that I learned from Justin [Anfinson] and Dan [Roland] are also what helped to give me the confidence to take the next step."

He also said he's thankful for the chance to train the horses he has and for the catch-drives that he has gotten. 

Van Otterloo is excited to see what the 2024 Running Aces season will bring, but more than anything, he's thrilled to be here, at his home track, poised to continue to make his mark. He has two horses, including Anitas Red Rebel and trotter Omaha Storm Chaser, that are ready to go in the box, and has a two-year-old Minnesota-sired pacer on the way and is hoping to add another as well. 

Van Otterloo waits with nervous anticipation for his first race of the new season, but he's definitely ready to write the next chapter. He's home where he learned so much over the years and he's ready to show what he can do. 

There is no question that at Running Aces and extended across state lines to Iowa, there is a big cheering section set and ready to go for Van Otterloo. 

(With files from Running Aces)

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