For Clarence Martin Jr., harness racing is a family affair, and his family is a well-oiled machine.  Together with wife Mary and daughter Lisa, he runs a successful stable of horses and Martin’s Starting Gates out of Honesdale, PA.  The former driver, now trainer and Starting Gate Judge, was around horses since he was a child, working with his father, Clarence Martin Sr.  “It’s all I’ve ever known,” he says, about the harness racing business. His father was leading driver at Pocono Downs in 1966, the second year of the track’s 55 year history. Two-year old World Champion Pacer of the Year Temujin was one of their top horses in 1981.

While working for Bill “Bones” Vaughn at Vernon Downs in 1982,  Clarence met Mary, who also hailed from a racing family, and they both worked with him; after that, they took a position with Continental Farms, the biggest Swedish stables at the time. Inevitably, it was soon time to break out on their own, and they did in 1988. “I got lucky”, Clarence remembered. “I met some guys from Alabama who had some horses racing at Vernon Downs, and one brother gave me a few to train, and then I hooked up with Bill McCord, and he ended up being my biggest owner.”  From there, they stabled at Yonkers, eventually relocating their home base to Honesdale and stabling at Pocono Downs in 1994. In Honesdale, Clarence formed a strong partnership with local businessmen Jeff Firmstone; Dave Gelatt; Roger Dirlam; Steve Mackle; and the Bethany Stables, all part of the Wayne County Fair. This partnership helped the Martins get on their feet in Pennsylvania, and from this came strong friendships and a cheering section for every race!

Lisa has always worked at the barn, just like both of her parents, and was taught at an early age by her mom “you have to work if you want something”. Even though Clarence tried to steer her away from harness racing because it’s such a tough business, she has persevered and stuck with it over the years. “I’ve left the business a few times now and gotten a 9-5 job, but it just isn’t my thing,” she said candidly. “I love the horses so much and harness racing that I could never really give anything else my all”.  She added that she was always trying to help out at their stable even when she was living away from Pennsylvania. “I just love the fact that you can always come home and come back to harness racing”, she said, getting a bit emotional. She has excelled at just about every job in the stable, from charting and clerking for fairs; to training and jogging; stocking supplies and getting equipment ready to ship; to managing six horses on her own at the Meadows for one summer. Her dad laughingly said she can do whatever he throws at her, and he’s now teaching her to drive the gate with the possibility of going toward being licensed to be a starter in the future.

Adding Martin’s Starting Gates to the family business started as a conversation with former PHHA Executive Director Ron Battoni and President Earl Beal Jr. in 2009, when Clarence mused that he might want to cut back on his horses and be the Starter Judge for the fair races. Before he knew it, he was riding with former Pocono Starter Judge Bob Moran to learn the ropes.  In 2010, he worked with the Fair Horsemen’s Association and presided over half the races for that year, and the following year he found out he was the proud owner of the Jeep Starting Gate for $1, and with that came all the responsibilities of owning the vehicle. Ten years later, he owns four gates, and employs four starters and five drivers. Of the 5 drivers, Mary drives the majority of the races, often referred to as one of the best in the business. They cover the fair circuit from PA to New York, and recently, the Shenandoah Fair in Virginia and the Shenandoah race meet.

All three of them work closely together to keep the stable running efficiently and on-track. While

Mary and assistant starter Buster Martin, the Springer Spaniel.

Clarence keeps a schedule of their races; which fairs for the starting gates; and where daughter Lisa or wife Mary will be charting;  Mary handles the expenses; stakes payments; entries; broodmares and their foaling schedule; and often travels to the sales to purchase yearlings. When the fair race season starts to slow down in the late fall, they’ll make their way to their winter stable in Georgia.

Like so many in the racing industry, this year has been challenging.  As 2020 winds down, the tight-knit and successful Martin family will continue to work hard and be thankful for their strong family bond, and Lisa has this advice to harness racing families; “Stick together!  It’s truly a blessing to live this life”.

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