LOV E OF THE SPORT DRIVES THEIR PASSION FOR HORSE RACING
This year marks the 113th season of live racing at Oaklawn Park. The 2017 racing season runs through April 16 on a Thursday-Sunday basis, beginning with a special 12:30 p.m. first post opening day on Jan. 13.
Like most sports, horse racing seems to be a male-dominated pastime. For example, not a single female jockey rode in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
In honor of racing season and woman power, HER caught up with a few of the leading ladies at Oaklawn Park this month to bring recognition to the women behind the scenes at our beloved racetrack.
It’s not hard to understand why horse racing is such a popular sport to watch. The excitement and entertainment it provides mixed with the ease of accessibility and bet-placing are just a few of the elements of horse racing that other sports are lacking.
The fact that thorough research can be done on the horses and jockeys before placing bets, resulting in more predictable outcomes, may also play a big role in the sport’s popularity.
But racehorses aren’t born with their talents. The journey a horse takes to transform from a foal to a moneymaking racehorse is shaped by a talented horse trainer.
Danele Durham has trained horses full-time since 2006, and this is her fifth season on the grounds at Oaklawn Park. She said she has been around horses since the age of 2, as her father owned racehorses and she grew up riding show jumpers.
After suffering an injury in the 1980s that required her to take a few months off work, she began galloping horses at her father’s farm in California and became hooked on the racetrack life.
The time spent with her horses and the relationship she has with them is what Durham describes as the most rewarding part of her job. Between the 24 horses she currently trains at Oaklawn and the additional horses at various training centers and farms across the country, Durham said she
manages a total of more than 100 horses.
When asked to describe her job duties, she said, “To categorize it in terms that most people will understand, I’m kind of like a head coach. I line up all of the people that help make the team complete, which is the veterinarians, the jockeys, the assistant trainers, the horseshoers, everybody like that. I pretty much manage everything that goes on in the barn and make the decisions about which race the horse goes into and make the daily chart, which is the training and says, ‘this horse is going to gallop a mile today,’ or ‘this horse is going to gallop 2 miles today,’ those sorts of decisions.”
The most challenging aspect of the life of a horse trainer is the hours, Durham said, adding that there’s no time clock — it’s a 24/7 job. She sleeps with her cellphone in case of middle-of-the-night emergencies. “You’re pretty much married to your barn,” she said.
Durham gained the experience needed to do her job by tagging alongside hall of fame trainers, in addition to becoming an accomplished horsewoman before ever entering the racing industry.
“I’ve done every job on the backside, so when I ask someone to do something, I’m not telling them to do something I wouldn’t do — I’ve done the job and I know exactly how I want it done,” she said.
Durham said she and her children own 15-20 horses of their own. Her son, Jackson, who just recently graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in mechanical engineering, serves as her assistant trainer, while her daughters, Katherine and Caroline, manage their broodmares and yearling operation.
She lives in Hot Springs during Oaklawn’s race meet and said she almost considers herself a resident here, adding that she hopes to one day be able to run year-round at Oaklawn.
“Since I absolutely love what I do, I don’t feel like it’s a job. It’s a gift to be able to earn a living doing what I love,” she said. “I love horses. I love horses and I love the sport of horse racing.”
If she isn’t watching horse racing, Durham said she can usually be found watching football, adding that her children are all varsity athletes and they are “very, very big into sports in this family.”
Nancy Holthus wears many hats at Oaklawn Park. From being Oaklawn’s media coordinator and paddock analyst to hosting “Dawn at Oaklawn,” Oaklawn Park’s Saturday morning program, and being in charge of Oaklawn’s replay show, “Oaklawn Today,” she seemingly does it all.
This is only her third year at Oaklawn Park, but she has been in the racing industry for more than 20 years and has worked in a lot of different capacities in the racing industry, literally from coast to coast.
“I actually spent the bulk of my adulthood at the racetrack in southern California, which no longer exists, called Hollywood Park. I worked at Hollywood Park and then in my off time I worked at a horse racing channel that is very well known called ‘TVG’ doing on-air work for them as well, so that’s how I primarily got into the television side of things,” Holthus said.
She lived in Los Angeles for 10-12 years before entering a “phase” that led her to begin looking for a life change.
“I always, even when I lived in Los Angeles, would always come home at one point or another during the race meet (at Oaklawn),” she said. “I’d see friends and I always had to come home during Oaklawn’s season. That was kind of the one racetrack where people still come to the races, they enjoy the races, and my folks are still here. And I met somebody here.”
She said she was invited to the Kentucky Derby by her now-husband and the relationship continued after that. She left California to return to Hot Springs to be with him, and the rest, as they say, was history.
“So I wound up living in Los Angeles and dating all the wrong guys, then came back to Hot Springs and married a local. Be careful what you wish for!” she said.
“Oaklawn was my very first track that I ever set foot on, and I actually started working back with the horses, so I do have that hands-on experience. I ended up marrying a trainer and I do own horses that race during the meet, so it’s kind of all come full circle, if you will, which is very cool and I feel very blessed to actually work at my all time favorite racetrack,” she added.
Kathy Howard was a successful female jockey in the 1980s and went to work as a racing official for Oaklawn in the late 1990s. In the fall of 2000, she went to work for Frank Fletcher, a prominent businessman in central Arkansas who owns horses at Oaklawn Park, as his racing manager. She has been doing that for 16 years.
As Fletcher’s racing manager, Howard describes her job as being the “liaison between him and the trainer. I’m involved with buying horses, selling horses, talking to the trainers, because he is so very busy.”
When asked what her fondest memory of being a jockey is, she said, “There are so many. I guess my experience with riding at Oaklawn back in 1980. Back then girls were so in common and I got a lot of press and it just seemed like everybody was rooting for me so much from Hot Springs, and I fell in love with the town. In fact, my husband and I, of all the places we’ve been, we bought a home here on Lake Hamilton. This was our choice after we’d been all over the country.”
Howard is married to horse trainer Tom Howard.
She recalls being lucky enough to have been invited to a competition in Japan for 28 days during her jockey days.
“I think one of the most rewarding things, besides crossing the finish line first — that was such a great rush — but I think the support that the people, especially in Hot Springs, gave me, and rooted for me, it just made me feel so good. Just like when my husband wins a race, it makes me feel so good that we have so many people that root for us. It’s not so much about me, or my husband — of course, it’s all about the horse, but I just get so touched,” she added.
Howard and her husband got married in 2003 and bought their home in Hot Springs six years ago. When she isn’t working, she helps her husband in the barn in the mornings, making sure the “flow of the barn” is going well, walking and galloping the horses and helping with paperwork.
Nancy Holthus, right, interviews Hall of Fame thoroughbred horse trainer Steve Asmussen during her “Dawn at Oaklawn” show at Oaklawn Park during the 2016 live racing season.
Kathy Howard (formerly Kathy MoorE) In tHE InfiELD sADDLInG area before a race in the 198Ms.