BY JIM WELLS
She stood there in the barn with her arms crossed defensively, the only way a 15-year-old girl knew how to protect her feelings.
He didn’t know quite what to make of it, but he knew on the spot that he liked her, even though she was five years younger and still in high school.
He was from South Austin, Texas. She was from Le Sueur, Minn.
The girl and her mother, a former Texan herself, had gone to the barn, hoping to find a horse that would make a good barrel racer. The mother recognized immediately what had happened to her daughter. “It was an instant crush,” she says.
Years later, after the love-struck youngsters started dating, the mother would reveal to him that her daughter had been harboring a crush for a long, long time.
So, in fact, had he. Today, seven years after their marriage, Ed and Kari Hardy talk freely about those early days when they developed a passion for one another and for racing quarter horses.
The love that took flame in a barn at Canterbury Park in 1996 is still flourishing in the barn as they begin another season of racing here. Ed Ross Hardy is the first to tell you that he knew as much about racing as he did about flying a spaceship when he first arrived at Canterbury. He had a head full of dreams and a heart full of passion but very little else to go with it. After winning six straight quarter horse training titles, seven overall, in Shakopee, it is clear that Hardy knows a great deal more than he did as the 20-year-old who showed up at Canterbury in 1996, hoping to find a place to launch a young man’s ambitions.”I’ve been lucky, real lucky,” Hardy said. “I’ve got a lot of good people around me. I’ve had good owners and good horses, and a lot of people who were willing to teach me what I didn’t know.”
Hardy acknowledges his wife and everyone around him for the success he’s had in Shakopee and elsewhere. His mother-in-law, Sharon Wilmes, and her husband, Art, help out in the barn. They ran the Wilmes Feed business on the backside from 1985 until the track closed in 1992. Hardy’s father, Bob, handles the bookkeeping for the stable.
Sharon was grooming a horse outside the Hardy barn the other morning as she recalled some of those early days at Canterbury. Kari was four years old. Her older brother, Corey, went to work for Vic Padilla, who had Kari bandaging the legs on horses by the time she was five years old. Later, Vic, Jr., taught Kari to gallop and break horses. Corey and his brother, Kelley, worked in the Doug Oliver barn at one time as well. The Padilla and Wilmes families became friends and the passion for horses continued, although down different avenues.
Kari got into barrel racing and competed in local shows and in the high school rodeo while at Le Sueur-Henderson High School.
Meanwhile, Ed Ross Hardy was growing up in South Austin. He played football, baseball, ran track and swam. “He can swim like a fish,” Kari says.
A long-distance relationship of sorts was nourished each winter when the Wilmes family headed to Waco, Texas, to celebrate Christmas with Sharon’s family.
“They would stop by where I lived to see me,” Hardy said.
He was a good athlete, good enough to get a partial scholarship to the University of Texas as a wide receiver, defensive back and long snapper. If you grow up in Texas, a passion for football seems to be a birthright, but Hardy’s ambitions at UT were short-lived. He injured a knee and lost his scholarship.
Bob Hardy had purchased a couple of horses in the late 1980s, a colt and mare. Ed took the mare on trail rides and did some roping with his buddies. Then, Bob Hardy decided to try the colt at the races. The seed was planted, but Ed never imagined he would wind up as a trainer, even after his football career ended.
“I had never really found anything else I was interested in,” he said. “Besides the race track.” Bob Hardy bought a couple of horses and put them in Ed’s name at Manor Downs, and Ed wound up as the leading owner there one year.
By then, the family had purchased 10 acres in Manor, Texas, and relocated from South Austin. Ed kept hanging around the track. “I decided to give training a try,” he said. His father provided him with a couple of horses, and Ed headed to Prairie Meadows Racetrack in Iowa.
“I was working for a guy up there,” Ed said, “and we had a falling out. I was in the track kitchen one day, feeling kind of frustrated, and a woman told me there was a track that had been closed but was reopening about four hours north.” Canterbury Downs.
“I called my dad and told him there was track up here reopening and they were going to run quarter horses,” Ed said.
Bob Hardy was a on a plane the next day. “I remember walking into the racing office and everybody was real friendly,” Ed Hardy recalled. “We told them our situation and they said they’d love to have us.”
The Hardys returned to Iowa that night and arranged to have a trailer haul their horses north. Ed Hardy has had nothing but success at Canterbury ever since. His first two starts as a trainer produced the first two wins of his career. “Eddie Cervantes was my jockey and he won with Cat Bacardi and Filled with Cash,” Hardy said.
Hardy’s resume includes two world champions. He trained One Rare Bug, winner of the 2002 Canterbury Derby, and Lett Her Zoom. His first stakes win came in the 2002 Northland Futurity with Capones Vault, who truly distinguished himself by winning the Texas Classic Futurity that year at Lone Star Park, the first million dollar horse race in the state of Texas. Hardy expects to have 30 horses in his barn this meet, although the most recent addition to this family operation was missing the other morning during chores. Kari and Ed have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Jordan. Kari and Sharon were too busy in the barn to attend to her. “It’s just killing both of us,” Sharon said. “We had to take her to day-care.”
Not to worry. This family love affair with quarter horses is assured of moving on to a new generation some day just the same. Little Jordan can apply names to several of the horses in the barn and has been on most their backs.