Tiny Slovak, Ark., is having a big impact on the jockey standings this year at Oaklawn.
Kelsi Harr, raised in the unincorporated Grand Prairie farming community 55 miles east of Little Rock, had five victories through Saturday to lead all apprentice jockeys at the 57-day meeting that is scheduled to conclude May 2.
Harr, 27, grew up around horses, flirted with becoming a nurse and spent approximately seven years as an exercise rider before riding her first race professionally June 17, 2018, at Canterbury Park in suburban Minneapolis. That mount, Bandit Point, was also her first winner. At 19 victories and counting, overall, through Saturday, Harr led Chel-c Bailey (two) and Charles Roberts (one) in the race for leading apprentice this season at Oaklawn.
“That would be a great goal,” Harr said Friday afternoon. “It’s a high goal. But that would be great.”
Harr said she began riding when she was 5 after her father purchased a Quarter-Horse, and “Biscuit” became her babysitter, and constant companion, after she got off the school bus. That led to the Central Arkansas Little Britches Rodeo Association (CALBRA), where Harr spent weekends running barrels and poles.
“Grew up doing the rodeo deal,” Harr said. “My dad rode. My brother rides bulls. Rode my horse every day. That was my fun time.”
Harr said as a child she would tag along with her family on trips to Oaklawn to watch the races, but never dreamed about becoming a jockey. Her first introduction to the racetrack came through her mother, who began walking hots for Hot Springs-area trainer Rick Jackson roughly 11 years ago. Jackson’s marquee runner at the time, Louisiana-bred Superior Storm, would retire a millionaire and 13-time stakes winner.
“I would come over on the weekends, spring break, or whenever I was out of school and hang out there at the barn,” Harr said. “He let me help around the barn. I thought I was a big shot because I got to help with the big horse. I was just hot walking then. I got a taste of the track and kind of realized that’s where I wanted to be and knew that I could make money riding horses. You can make a little money rodeoing and barrel racing, but it’s kind of a hobby sport. You’re not going to make a living unless you’re dang good at it. I said, ‘Man, they pay you to ride horses over here?’ Sounds like my kind of job.’ I was still in high school, but I came over every chance I got.”
Harr graduated from Hazen (Ark.) High School in 2010 and attended the University of Arkansas for “about a semester” before leaving to pursue an equine education. Harr eventually landed a job as a groom for Tim Martin and then began getting on babies for the Hot Springs-area trainer. Harr drifted to the Mid-Atlantic region after meeting her now-fiancée, Robert Cline, and began working as an exercise rider for Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Michael Matz at famed Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Harr has spent the last eight years as an exercise rider for trainer Al Cates of Hot Springs.
“Awesome,” Cates said of his tight-knit relationship with Harr. “She’s so loyal. She’s been with me all that time. She’s a big, big part of our operation. And, she rides a lot of ours. I can’t speak highly enough of her. I love the way she sits on a horse. She’s the one that gets them all ready.”
Harr hasn’t ridden a winner for Cates at the meeting, but she has two victories aboard top Arkansas-bred Bandit Point for Cline – now a trainer – and two victories for Cline’s mentor, trainer Larry Jones. Harr scored her first career riding double Feb. 17 and her most lucrative career victory to date aboard Bandit Point in a state-bred allowance sprint March 12. The race carried a $92,000 purse. Bandit Point is being pointed for the $100,000 Nodouble Breeders’ Stakes for state-breds March 28, Harr said.
Harr, who normally rides with her long, dark hair in a ponytail, said she’s still evolving as a jockey.
“I figure I’ll be doing that for a long time,” Harr said with a laugh. “I feel like I get out of the gate good – good gate rider. I feel like I sit on a horse fairly well. Horses seem like they run for me. My weaknesses would be down the lane and using my stick. I’m working on that, for sure. But, I still feel like even without the stick, as much as some of these guys use it, my horses finish for me and they’re running. Just try to keep soft hands and keep the horse comfortable.”
Harr said she will return to Canterbury after the Oaklawn meeting ends. She rides with a 7-pound apprentice allowance. Harr won two races last year at Oaklawn.
A (Not) Long Weekend
Trainer Tom Amoss called Long Weekend “an interesting horse” before the $90,000 Gazebo Stakes. He is calling Long Weekend a stakes winner after his sharp 4 ¾-length victory in Saturday’s 6-furlong race for 3-year-olds.
Long Weekend, the 6-5 favorite, rocketed to the lead under Joe Talamo and turned back a challenge from Little Menace turning for home en route to the most lopsided victory since the Gazebo was inaugurated in 2012. Rockshaw was a four-length winner in 2017.
Covering the distance in 1:09.77 over a fast track, Long Weekend ($4.60) won for the third time in four career starts to boost his earnings to $133,928. He has been scratched from two other starts.
Amoss said Long Weekend was kicked by a pony warming up last fall at Keeneland, then fell and tossed his rider after being spooked because of activity on the rail from a red beans and rice-eating contest Feb. 8 at Fair Grounds. The contest was won by noted competitive eater Joey Chestnut.
Long Weekend isn’t chestnut, but he still ate up the competition in the Gazebo.
“He’s a very athletic-looking horse and that stands out about him,” the Fair Grounds-based Amoss said after watching the Gazebo from his Louisiana home. “His quickness from the gate comes from that athleticism. I thought today’s race was good on a couple of accounts. No. 1, he reaffirmed his last race. No. 2, he did it against better company. Really, really pleased with his race.”
Long Weekend was coming off a front-running 6 ¾-length victory in a first-level allowance sprint Feb. 19 at Sam Houston and he also led at every point of call in winning his career debut by five lengths June 23 at Churchill Downs. Long Weekend – in his only other start at 2 – finished sixth in the $200,000 Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) Aug. 10 at Saratoga.
“I think I threw too much at him,” Amoss said. “He came from the 2-year-old training sale and we put him in a race, then we shipped him all the way to Saratoga. It was a bad experience for him. He showed mentally that he needed a little bit more time.”
A $225,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sales’ April 2-year-old in training purchase, Long Weekend is campaigned by BCWT Ltd. (Barbara C. Webber, David Webber & William T. Webber III). He is by Majesticperfection, a 10 ¾-length first-level allowance winner April 1, 2010, at Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Majesticperfection, who ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.65, was runner-up for an Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter of 2010.
Amoss said Long Weekend will be considered for the $100,000 Bachelor Stakes at 6 furlongs April 25.
“I think a race like the Bachelor, being right there, certainly is something we have our eye on,” Amoss said.
Finishing fourth in the Gazebo was Beau Oxy, who was exiting a 14 ½-length first-level allowance victory Feb. 8 at Fair Grounds. Long Weekend, who was scratched from the race, reducing the field to two, beat Beau Oxy by 11 lengths in the Gazebo.
Serengeti Empress emerged in good order from her victory in the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares March 14, trainer Tom Amoss said Saturday afternoon, adding the 4-year-old returned to her Fair Grounds base a day after the race. Serengeti Empress is pointing for the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 18. “She’s doing great,” Amoss said. “She’ll be back up there in mid-April. Really looking forward to that. It’s such a prestigious race.” … Notable half-mile works recorded over a fast track Saturday morning included Grade 1 winner Whitmore (:48.40) for co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs, Grade 1 winner Knicks Go (:47.40) for trainer Brad Cox, Razorback Handicap winner Warrior’s Charge (:49.60) for trainer Cox and Honeybee winner Shedaresthedevil (:47.80) for Cox.