“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.