“It’s really all I’ve known,” said trainer Robert Cline when asked how about his origins in horse racing. His father Leon was a trainer for years, primarily in Arkansas, and when he passed away Robert’s mother Donna trained as well. “We cut our teeth for years [at Oaklawn],” he said. In those early years it was Louisiana Downs, a couple of hours south, with all the purse money and crowds. Now Oaklawn in Hot Springs is the winter gem of racing in the middle of America. Cline is amazed at the changes as he has been “watching my hometown track blow up. They’re building new barns, a hotel at the seven-eighths pole.”
The make-up of his stable has changed as well since he saddled his first starter in 2015. While he still owns and trains many “Arky breds”, he has new owners, “Really good owners” in his estimation. “When you get horses that can run, it changes things,” he said. In an occupation that requires hands on seven days a week, having a barn of runners makes that work a joy. “It’s hard to look good with a slow horse and hard to look dumb with a fast one,” he says. This summer he has 23 horses in Shakopee.
One of the best thus far is 5-year-old mare Best Kept Secret owned by Tracy Hersman, who recently won the Minnesota HBPA Distaff Stakes, providing Cline and jockey Kelsi Harr, Cline’s fiancé, with their first stakes winner. “That was Kelsi’s first, my first, the owner’s first, the filly’s first. What a great way to start the meet,” he said. The next target for Best Kept Secret may very well be the June 23 Lady Canterbury Stakes.
Cline credits trainer Larry Jones for influencing his career, giving him “a leg up”. He spent a lot of time around many really nice horses and learned much along the way, working for Jones for several years.
Cline has an easy way about him. A smile and laugh that makes a visitor feel welcome in his barn. He speaks with a distinctive Arkansas accent, using colloquialisms and imparting wisdom and appreciation that is rare for a 37 year old. “I like where I’m at,” he said, not necessarily referring to barn D-8 on a humid 90 degree morning but more likely his life path: A fiancé that shares his passion, a 9-year-old daughter, and a stable of fast horses.
When he affords himself downtime, Cline enjoys fishing and hunting in Arkansas where he has a farm in Norman that bumps up against Ouachita National Forest. Days off are to be cherished in the racing business. “I don’t have many but I dream about them,” he laughs.
Lord Dragon closes for Brook Fields victory; Drena’s Star best in Honor the Hero
Weather was no friend on Thursday to Canterbury Park which had three $50,000 turf stakes scheduled. Relentless rain in Shakopee that began in the early morning hours and continued into late afternoon forced those stakes races to be transferred from the soaked grass course to a sloppy main track resulting in numerous scratches in the Brooks Fields, Minnesota HBPA Distaff and Honor the Hero Stakes.
Best Kept Secret and jockey Kelsi Harr led a four-horse field gate to wire in the one-mile Minnesota HBPA Distaff, holding off defending champion Beach Flower. The victory provided jockey Kelsi Harr with her first stakes win. Best Kept Secret is trained by Robert Cline, this was his first stakes win as well, and owned by Tracy Hersman.
“This is a great way to start the meet. We backed off on her after Oaklawn,” Cline said. “I was worried we didn’t have her tight enough. It showed in the last sixteenth [of a mile]. Harr sent Best Kept Secret to the front, setting comfortable fractions early. At the top of the stretch the 2 1/2 length lead began to diminish as Beach Flower gained ground. “She was drifting out and I could hear [Beach Flower] coming,” Harr said. Best Kept Secret had just enough left to hold on to win by a head. She paid $2.60 as the prohibitive favorite.
Lord Dragon took advantage of a quick pace set by favorite Hieronymus and Tut’s Revenge, closing in the stretch to win the one-mile Brooks Fields Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths. Rider Ruben Fuentes and Lord Dragon survived a claim of foul by the rider of Tut’s Revenge, the second-place finisher, after bumping between those two and Hieronymus in deep stretch. The stewards ruled there would be no change in the order of finish. Lord Dragon, trained by Chris Richard and owned by Jason Totaram, paid $9.60.
Drena’s Star, the 3/5 favorite, won the five-furlong Honor the Hero Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths for trainer Robertino Diodoro and owners Randy Marriot, Clayton Weist and Rick Weist. Lindey Wade guided the winner along the rail to victory, returning $3.40.
Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas begins its 57-day race meet on Friday at 12:30 p.m. with a nine-race card featuring the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, a Kentucky Derby stepping stone. Track officials expect full fields and competitive racing, a belief confirmed by the first two days of entries. New this year on the wagering menu are two pick five wagers daily with the first beginning in the opener and the second always on the final five races.
Horse players, regardless of their circuit of choice, will find familiar trainer names on the overnight as conditioners converge at Oaklawn to chase the lucrative purses. The roll call includes Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss, Karl Broberg, Brad Cox, Robertino Diodoro, James Divito, Jinks Fires, Jerry Hollendorfer, D Wayne Lukas, Mike Maker, Peter Miller, Mac Robertson, Don Von Hemel and Nick Zito to name a few.
One jockey gaining popularity with those trainers and with racing fans is Kelsi Harr. No longer an apprentice, she lost her bug at Canterbury last summer, Harr looks for the season, and race riding for her, to begin. In 2020 she saw her mounts more than double over the previous 365 days and her wins triple as Harr earned her connections more than $1 million in purses. Her business was picking up at the end of the 2020 Oaklawn meet and that momentum carried forward to Canterbury where she finished the meet as the seventh leading rider.
“I wanted to progress on ,” Harr said. She did. So with just one mount each of the first two days this week, Harr was “a little disappointed. It always tough. It’s Oaklawn.” The 28-year-old looked down the list of saw some very accomplished professionals including Ramon Vazquez, David Cohen, Ricardo Santana Jr., Joe Talamo, Florent Geroux, Calvin Borel, Jareth Loveberry and Francisco Arrieta.
Harr trusts her agent “Big Steve” Krajcir, an Oaklawn fuxture, and knows business will pick up, just as it did last year. With a meet like Oaklawn often times a rider’s mounts are entered but the races don’t go. Patience is essential.
When Harr left Canterbury in September she returned home to Arkansas. She rode a few times at Remington and a day at Fair Grounds but took more time off from daily galloping than usual, leaving her ready to get back into the action. She’s been getting on horses at Oaklawn since mid November, many for longtime friend and trainer Al Cates who has been there for her since her career began.
“He helped me along tremendously,” Harr said of Cates for whom she has galloped, and was for a short time an assistant trainer, for a decade. “I credit him with any success I have had.”
Harr will get on at least seven horses every morning, some for fiancée and trainer Robert Cline who has 17 stalls at the track as well as babies at a nearby farm.
One of those horses is Bandit Point, Harr’s first mount as a professional jockey in 2018. That first mount saw Harr and Bandit Point end up in the winners’ circle at Canterbury Park on a Sunday afternoon in front of a large Father’s Day crowd.
Now six, the Arkansas-bred Bandit Point is still in training. He has not raced since May 1 of last
year. He trained at Canterbury but Cline did not enter him, preferring to give him time off. He has five workouts since Dec. 16. “We hope he hasn’t forgotten how to run,” Harr said with a laugh. She expects Bandit Point, a winner of $294,910 in his 30-race career, to be entered as soon as a race fits him.
Galloping and working horses is fine, but race riding it what she looks forward to most. Race riding is what will allow her to continue the upward trajectory.
Goals for Harr? “My goal is to get better,” she said. “Not get complacent. I don’t want this to be the best I ever am.” So she works at the craft. Watches riders; gains knowledge and most importantly confidence. She wants to finish stronger. She is hesitant to give advice to other younger riders when asked, not because she views them as competition, but because she feels she too needs to improve and it might be better to ask and watch others with more accomplishments. That young riders do ask Harr for advice may suggest she is underestimating her own accomplishments. She has made an impact at Oaklawn, something many a new rider is hoping can happen for them as well.
The Oaklawn meet runs through May 1 with racing Friday through Sunday in January and Thursday through Sunday February through the end of the season.
Smarty Jones draws field of seven
Friday’s Smarty Jones attracted a field of seven including Mac Robertson trainee Martini Blu owned by Novogratz Racing Stables. Martini Blu debuted and won a maiden special weight route at Hawthorne on Dec. 27. Arrieta has the mount. Likely favorites are Cowan, second in the BC Juvenile Turf Sprint and subsequently second in the Springboard Mile at Remington. Caddo River trained by Brad Cox broke his maiden at a mile at Churchill. The Smarty Jones, which offers 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby points, is race eight on the card.
Kelsi Harr‘s first mount was her first win. It came at Canterbury Park on June 17, 2018 aboard Bandit Point. It was Father’s Day. “It was a very special moment,” Harr said then. “My dad was here cheering me on and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my riding career.” It
was her father that gave Harr her first horse when she was five. That sparked a passion that lead from pleasure riding to barrel racing and eventually to a profession as a racehorse jockey.
She’s come a long way since that summer afternoon and last Thursday earned her 40th win which meant losing her ‘bug’, her apprentice rider weight allowance.
Harr started slowly in 2018, learning the tricks of the trade. “When I first started I wanted to ride horses I rode in the morning,” she said. “I wanted to get comfortable and get my feet wet.” She rode mainly for her boyfriend Robert Cline at Canterbury. Nine mounts, two wins and in the money another three.
In 2019, she began the year in her home state of Arkansas at Oaklawn Park and continued at Canterbury with 154 mounts in all. Same schedule this year but with many more mounts, 285 thus far. At Oaklawn, a very competitive meet where top jockeys from around the country converge, she got an agent. “That helped me get into barns I would not have otherwise,” she said. Barns like those of Larry Jones and D. Wayne Lukas. She also credits access and success to hard work and “being there every day”.
She’s enjoyed what she’s earned. Riding in stakes races, and riding well. Highlights? “Getting to ride for bigger barns, earning their respect,” she said. Goals? “I’ve won two in one day. I’m looking for a triple.”
Harr’s become a student of the game, watching and learning from other riders.” All the jocks here and at Oaklawn have been helpful.” They provide constructive criticism while she watches and learns continually. “Some I watch and wonder how they do that,” she said, which causes her to work harder at her craft each day.
Harr has become a respected rider and a fan favorite with the trademark ponytail flowing from the back of her helmet and her affability with race fans, especially the young ones. This is a demanding sport. Athletically for sure but mentally as well, when meeting the expectations of owners, trainers and bettors is at times unrealistic. She tries “not take everything to heart. I like people to like me. You try to do the best you can by everybody. I try to ride my race.”
She must also balance her career with her responsibilities of being the mother of an 8-year-old daughter who spent the summer in Shakopee. The third grader recently returned home to begin school, and Harr is grateful for the help of her mother and friends while she remains away, acknowledging that it would be very difficult without that assistance. Parenting in the COVID-19 pandemic has become even more challenging. Harr recalls early spring at Oaklawn when schools were suddenly closed. “I was getting on horses in the morning and running back to the tack room to make sure [my daughter] gets on Zoom.”
Harr begins serving a three-day suspension Monday for a careless riding infraction, returning to the saddle Thursday. She’ll have to shrug that off, maybe accept what one rider told her – ‘If you haven’t gotten a set of days you haven’t started riding yet’ – because it is clear from the progress in her career that Kelsi Harr indeed has started riding.
Growing up around horses, Kelsi Harr had always “dreamed of becoming a jockey,” but she always saw that idea as being “a little far-fetched,” she said. After her father purchased a horse for her when she was just 5-years-old, Harr took every chance she could to work with and ride horses. She later took up barrel racing at local rodeos. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” Harr recalled.
Harr’s mother was walking horses at Oaklawn Park when Harr began attending college in 2010. She was invited to hot walk and work with the horses part-time. Enamored with the atmosphere, Harr made the decision to change her career path and take on the job full-time that winter. It was at the track that she met her now fiancé, Robert Cline, a horse trainer at Canterbury Park. She continued to take on various jobs at Oaklawn over the years before making the decision to begin her professional riding career weeks ago at Canterbury Park.
Her first career mount also brought Harr her first win while riding Bandit Point on June 17, Father’s Day. “It was a very special moment,” Harr said. “My dad was here cheering me on and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my riding career.” The 25-year-old rider credits her father for piquing her interest in horses and says it “all started with him.”
Being new to Minnesota, Harr says she enjoys the area and finds it a good place for her daughter, Lacey (6) to be. “Everything I do is for that little girl,” Harr said. Harr plans to stay riding at Canterbury for the meet and then head back to the family’s home in Arkansas when school starts up for Lacey.
Having the ability to work with the horses before riding them is something that Harr believes gives her an advantage. “By working in the barn and being around these horses as much as I am, I really get to know them,” she said.
In the days leading up to a race day, Harr says that there is a lot of excitement while things come together in the barn. “It really gives you something to look forward to,” Harr commented. “There is a lot of energy in the air as everyone anxiously hopes that the horse does well.”
Since receiving her first horse Harr has had a “love for the animals and a passion for riding,” she said. “It took me a while to realize that this could all be a reality, but I am sure glad that I did.”
Jockey Kelsi Harr made her career riding debut a winning one when she guided Bandit Point to a one length victory in the third race on Father’s Day for trainer Robert Cline.
The 25-year-old from Arkansas positioned her charge just off the pace and swung into action in the stretch to challenge the favorite, R H Smoakem, who quickly folded as Bandit Point, at 11 to 1 odds, pulled away. Harr was greeted in the winner’s circle by other members of the jockey colony who, as is the tradition when a rider gets her first win, doused Harr in water and talcum powder.
One race after Harr won, a very familiar face to long-time Minnesota race fans also found the winner’s circle: Mike Ziegler. Ziggy was a fixture on the scene here from 1995 through 2007. He returned to Canterbury this season primarily to gallop horses, knowing he would pick up an occasional mount as well. His first such mount was a winner on Andrea’s Halo for trainer Joe Merrick. Sunday’s win was the 377th at Canterbury for Ziegler, 52, and the 2,501th in a career that began in 1987.