Reusse: Arkansas family, and prized horse, in happy residence at Canterbury

·4 min read

Kelsi Harr grew up on a Arkansas farm in Slovak, a dot on the map between the small towns of Hazen and Stuttgart. She graduated from Hazen High School in 2010 and entered the University of Arkansas.

"The big Arkansas … in Fayetteville?" she was asked Friday morning, sitting on a worn bench outside a barn at Canterbury Park.

She gave a self-deprecating laugh and said: "Yeah, that one, and I was plum crazy to be there. I lasted a semester."

What was her proposed field of study? "Nursing," she said, this time with a shake of the head. "I had friends going into nursing, and I decided to follow along.

"Didn't take long to say to myself: 'I don't want to be locked up inside every day working, and on the worst of those days, watching people die.'

"My friends that became nurses, they got good jobs, good careers, and they've enjoyed it, but that wasn't going to work for me.'

"The day after I came back from Fayetteville, I was at the track, hanging out at the barns, doing chores. My mom [JoLynne] was hotwalking horses at Oaklawn Park and that was my goal … to work at the track."

Kelsi's first experience with horses was as a juvenile barrel racer. There were rodeos when her father, Robert, was there as a bull rider on the professional circuit. Her brother Tyler also has been a prominent pro bull rider.

Kelsi met Robert Cline at the track and they became a couple. "We've been engaged for about 10 years," she said, looking at the sizable ring on her left hand.

There's a complication in going through with a marriage ceremony; that being, Robert is a trainer, and Kelsi has been a jockey since 2018, and there are some competitive restrictions on trainer's spouses riding opposing horses in Arkansas.

Oaklawn in Hot Springs is the well-paying, home-state track for the couple. The meeting runs for more than four months and ends in early May. Harr became the first female jockey in Oaklawn history to compile more than $1 million in winnings, during a meeting with her 2022 mounts.

That number takes working for more trainers than a husband. And in the blue-collar life of most race-trackers, you have to pay the bills first and worry about the walk down the aisle later.

Besides, they are one big, happy family at this barn far on the backside at Canterbury: Kelsi, Robert, 10-year-old daughter Lacy Jo, longtime grooms David and Yanet, and their two kids.

Plus, there is Boozie, Kelsi's 11-year-old dog of uncertain breeding, and also Bandit Point, a thoroughbred standing in a place of honor in the first stall on the right in the 30-horse stable.

"I had been galloping horses for several years," Harr said. "I was qualified as a jockey for the 2018 meeting at Canterbury. I kept saying to Robert, 'Get me on a horse.'

"And he kept telling me that my first impression couldn't be a bad one … especially as a female jockey. He said, 'If you ride a long shot and get beat bad, it won't be your fault, but some people will say it was.' "

Finally, the day came — June 17, 2018 — with then 4-year-old Bandit Point, in a maiden special race at Canterbury. "He won for us at 11-to-1," Harr said.

She had another win and an extra-close second in her next two races that summer. Nine total mounts at Canterbury in 2018 led to 154 at Oaklawn and Canterbury in 2019, and now the amount of business should surpass 400 rides in 2022.

Harr, 29, has 95 career wins, six aboard Bandit Point. Success is not the lone reason this fella will remain Harr's all-time favorite horse.

"He's just big old baby, the greatest personality you're ever going to find in a racehorse," she said. "You could put kids on his back and he would just walk around.

"We're probably not going to run him here. He has the advantage of being an Arkansas-bred at Oaklawn, so we ran him hard down there.

"We have to have him around when we're here, though. He's our watch horse."

Excuse us? "Yeah … kids can be running round, no problem, but if it's quiet and some stranger decides to start walking through that door, he will raise all sorts of trouble," Kelsi said.

The visitor suggested that, as an 8-year-old still running, the Bandit probably had been gelded.

"No! No way," Harr said. "There's no reason for that with him. Happiest, laziest guy ever, until you walk him toward the track and it's time to run."

A jockey, a trainer, two loyal grooms, three kids, a dog and a favorite horse. I'd call that a perfect racetrack family.