Keith Clark knew immediately that something was wrong. Something very wrong. “I was line driving some colts last month and I was huffing and puffing. I don’t run but I’m in decent shape - or so I thought. I usually line-drive one colt for 15 minutes and then take out a second one, a third one and so on. But I had to keep sitting down in between. I was played out and that isn’t me so I knew something was haywire,” said Clark, who said he also was having some chest pain which he initially assumed was just gas or heart burn.
“So I drove myself to the doctor for some tests. The next morning the phone rang at 8 a.m. and the doc asks what I’m doing. I told him I was working.” That’s when the numbing news came through the phone line. “The doc told me I had to go to emergency. Immediately.”
Five days later Clark was given an angiogram - X-rays taken during the injection of an iodine dye to detect blockages in the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart. The results were as chilling as the phone call.
“They told me I needed a quadruple bypass,” he said of the surgery where blood vessels from another area of your body are used to repair the damaged arteries - rerouting or bypassing blood around the blockages. “One artery was 100 per cent blocked. Another was 80 per cent blocked. A third was 70 per cent. The fourth one wasn’t as bad but it needed a bypass too."
“Obviously this had been coming on for a while. I was lucky. Real lucky. I got a second chance. If I didn’t go to the doctor that day I could have easily had a massive heart attack,” said Clark, 65, who, after a three-week stay, got out of the hospital on Monday.
“Everything went really good. They were all happy with the operation and told me in a few months I’ll apparently be a new man. I never smoked. I thought I took decent care of myself. But a bad heart runs in my family. My dad, Lorne, died of a heart attack."
“I’m a fast healer. I fractured my shoulder twice. Both times they told me it would take six to eight weeks for the sternum to heal but after one of those surgeries I was back driving in three weeks. I just put magnets over the damaged shoulder and went about my business.”
But then Clark, tough as they come, has always been in a hurry - mostly to get to the finish line first. Winning well over 6,000 races, Clark was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2009 and was named Canada’s Horseman of the Year in 2004. Name a top Alberta harness horse and Clark’s name is usually associated with it. But in just about any account, As Promised is at the top of the list.
Exceptional on and off the track, As Promised, who was purchased for just $16,000 at the 1990 Kentucky Standardbred Sale by Clark, Blaine Dickson, Robert Cardwell and Charles Campbell, won 71 races and then sired the winners of more than $14 million. As Promised once won 18 straight races. Another time he won 17 in a row. One of the 71 wins came in the 1992 Western Canada Pacing Derby which will be contested again on Oct. 13 at Northlands.
The Derby is a race Clark has won so many times that he has lost count. I remember sitting down with him after he won the Derby two years ago with Appellate trying to name them all. It was a struggle.
After As Promised, who won in a then-track-record 1:52 1/5 and who took a lifetime mark of 1:50 2/5, came That’ll Be Me, who would go on to win the 1995 Breeders’ Crown at Northfields Park in Ohio. That’ll Be Me earned over $750,000 with 42 wins in 126 starts.
Then there were horses like Just Doodlin (1996), who won $706,270 including 58 wins in 134 starts; Spry Ty, who upset heavy favourite Conditional in 1987, Sky Hagler, Neal Dominique, who he catch drove for Lance Ward in 2008; Clinton’s Cigar (2000), a horse that won 21 of 99 starts; Shouldhavebeensam, and Artful Hanover. More recently, there was Bettor In The Bank in 2012, Sharkalucci in 2013 and, in 2015, First Class Horse. “How many is that? Twelve?,” said Clark. “And I’ve probably missed one or two.”
Even that litany doesn’t include some of the other great champions that came out of Clark’s barn. He had three mares that won the Northlands Filly Pace: Ron’s Girl, Sippin Time and Ma Belle Hall. A daughter of As Promised, Rons Girl earned $576,458 and won 29 of 52 starts including the 2000 Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Sippin Time won 37 of 128 starts; Ma Belle Hall won 19 of 41 races and finished second in the 2001 Nat Christie.
“Harness racing is the only job I’ve ever had,” said Clark. “I made a good living at it. I’m home and I’m happy. I’ll cut down on some numbers and take it pretty easy. I know what could have happened. Like I said, I got lucky.”
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