by Mike Henry


Clerk of the Course Judy Clark, seated, is surrounded by her co-workers (left to right): Association Officials, Ed Cantlon, Diana Pimental and Catherine Dimino; Stakes Coordinator, Gerry Stanislawzyk; Association Official, Jennifer Moore; Assistant Racing Secretary, Stanley Shina; Paddock Judge, Lindsey Delano; and Racing Secretary, Allison De Luca 

As she approaches retirement on May 12 after 30 years in the Racing Office at Tampa Bay Downs, Judy Clark keeps wondering what all the fuss is about.

“I just do my job – that’s it,” said Clark, the congenial Clerk of the Course who turns 75 on May 14. “I enjoy my job and I enjoy working, but it’s time, that’s all.

“Of course,” she adds with a smile, “I’ve already threatened my friends here if we don’t get together now and then. But I’m sure we will.”

Clark, who has been married to retired Thoroughbred trainer E.T. Clark for 56 years, was originally hired at Tampa Bay Downs as the secretary to late Racing Secretary Bob Clark (no relation).

Her duties as Clerk of the Course include registering each Thoroughbred’s foal papers, taking entries for races, dealing with horsemen and jockeys’ agents and brewing the morning’s first pot of coffee.

“I just roll with the punches,” said Clark, who looks forward to spending more time with her husband, reading (“I’ve got a new Kindle”) and landscaping and gardening around their Clearwater mobile home.

“Having such a good crew has made my job so enjoyable. Really, there is nothing in particular I can think of that is very challenging. We all help each other, and it just moves right along.”

Even though her co-workers are fully supportive of her decision, they say her departure will create a void that will be next-to-impossible to fill.

“She is kind of the glue that holds this place together, and it’s going to be very hard to replace her,” said Allison De Luca, the track’s Racing Secretary. “This can be a stressful environment, but in the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve never heard Judy say anything unkind to anybody. She treats all the trainers and backside workers with respect.

“Somebody will take her job, but it won’t be like having Judy here. She is the consummate professional,” De Luca added.

Even as technology has continued its rapid advance, rendering some of the machinery and procedures Clark first worked with quaint or obsolete, she has kept up with every innovation.

“It’s really not a question of what she does,” said the Assistant Racing Secretary, Stanley Shina. “It’s, what doesn’t she do?”

“I don’t think anybody can fill those shoes,” said Diana Pimental, a Tampa Bay Downs Association Official. “I’m always asking her for advice. We’ll start getting frantic looking for something, and she’ll say ‘Relax, we’ll find it,’ and there it is.”

A native of Ravenna, Ohio, Clark and her husband found their nirvana in Oldsmar, where E.T. Clark was consistently among the top trainers at Tampa Bay Downs from 1976-1986. In 1982, E.T. Clark, who finished his career four years ago with 777 victories, won with nine consecutive starters at Tampa Bay Downs. “His next starter was a maiden that ran third, then he won two more races after that,” Judy Clark recalled.

He also enjoyed success at Mountaineer in West Virginia and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania.

“He trained horses for 43 years and was pretty darn good at it,” she said. “He was more of a claiming trainer who had a lot of good, hard-knocking horses.”

The Clarks married in 1959, when she was 18. He worked with show horses before gravitating to the Thoroughbred game. The couple first arrived at Tampa Bay Downs in 1972, when the track was known as Florida Downs; current Association Official Ed Cantlon, a jockey at the time, was “just a youngster,” Judy recalled.

The Clarks had a daughter, Danene, who died suddenly from myocarditis eight years ago. They have four adult grandchildren who live in the Akron, Ohio area – Brittany Peyton, Chelsey Ritchey, Cody Wood and Jacob Wood – and four great-grandchildren from ages 1-14.

“Those grandchildren keep me going,” Judy said.

From 1972-1982, when the Clarks spent their summers in Ohio, Judy worked as a probation officer for Portage County. That experience gave her a perspective that still serves her well in dealing with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds.

“What I mostly learned is that people are people,” said Clark, who also spent many seasons helping her husband around the barn. “Someone might have been arrested or gotten in trouble with the law, but they had another side if I took the time to look for it. You’re going to have bad folks, but when you learn about people, I think you find out just about everybody is pretty nice.

“I love people, and it upsets me the racetracks get a bad rap sometimes from the outside. There are so many good people here who work hard to make a living, and they take wonderful care of their horses. And the racetrack is a place where if you need help, somebody back here is going to help you.”

Clark insists she has no worries about not working for the first time in more than 60 years (she worked at a drug store in Ravenna that had an old-fashioned soda fountain when she was in high school).

“We’ve made a lot of friends at our mobile home park, too, and they have a clubhouse with all kind of activities. You can do as much or as little as you want,” she said.

“I’m one of those people who can always find something to do. If I don’t have anything else, I’ll pick up a book or work with my plants and flowers. We are homebodies. My grandchildren have been trying to get me to do this for a long time, and it’s time for me to just hang out.”

Undoubtedly, though, her ears will start burning come next November, when another Opening Day is approaching and someone in the Racing Office is looking for a misplaced form or seeking guidance about how to deal with a horseman’s request.

“People come and go in every job, but Judy Clark is irreplaceable,” Cantlon said. “Just who she is, the way she treats people. When I think of class, I think of Judy Clark.”

“She calls herself our ‘Florida grandma,’ ” said Jennifer Moore, also an Association Official. “She is always checking up on us in the summer when we aren’t together to see how we’re doing.

“I’ve learned so much from her. She just kind of takes everything step by step. I’m going to miss her a lot.”