Tom Archdeacon: A guardian angel in spurs

Jan. 9—LEBANON — "All hell broke loose."

That's how she described the moment she was thrown from her "dream job" into a nightmare situation that left her battered, broken...and bootless.

Ashley Holliday is a 32-year-old outrider at area harness tracks. Her job, as she sits astride one of her retrained quarter horses or thoroughbreds on the edge of the racing surface, is to serve as a one-woman traffic cop, rescue squad and all-around guardian angel in spurs for the drivers and the 1,200 pound horses who pull their sulkies.

After just finishing the four-month run at Hollywood Dayton Raceway, she's now working the winter meet that began six days ago at Miami Valley Raceway. Over the summer she'll be at Scioto Downs.

She also tends to training sessions at Belterra Park, the thoroughbred track along the Ohio River on the eastern edge of Cincinnati.

It's the kind of work she dreamed of doing while growing up, first around Lebanon Raceway and then outside Cleveland, at Northfield Park, where her parents based their racing operations for a while.

That is where she said she got the reputation as "the crazy horse kid" at school. "Everybody was like, 'That's Ashley, show her something about horses...She looooves 'em!'"

At 5-foot-10, she did play basketball at Streetsboro High, but she said she soon learned her athletic endeavors were better realized while on four legs, not just two.

And that's just what had been happening on the steamy morning of Aug. 18, 2020, as she and her gray outrider mount — a former thoroughbred race horse she now calls Steel — were working the last few minutes of the 4 1/2 hour training session at Belterra.

"It was a really a muggy day and everybody was hot and sweaty," she remembered. "There were just 15 minutes left in the session and one last horse was galloping a mile toward the wire as we came jogging nice and easy in the opposite direction.

"I'm not really sure what happened though I remember hearing a clod of dirt or maybe a shoe hitting the rail.

"My horse suddenly stopped dead and then it took off at a lope and started bucking. When I looked down, I saw my saddle had slipped back about 6 1/2 inches.

"If you've ever watched bulls or bucking broncs at the rodeo, when they get a strap pulled across the sensitive part of their bellies, they buck and there's not much you can do.

"You're the enemy and the want you off.

"In my head I wanted to try to ride it out, but the more I looked, the more I felt, 'Man, I just can't get back on top of this. That's when I decided to just do a Hail Mary. I let go and half did a bail and he half threw me off.

"I hit hard and rolled five or six times, but then I jumped right back up. I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I gotta get my horse!'

"Part of it was adrenaline and part was a little embarrassment for being thrown off like that.

"But I realized I couldn't stand straight up and I couldn't really catch my breath. Thank God they make us wear safety vests. Even so, I'd hit with such impact that the zipper broke and the panels in it all warped.

"And both of my boots had been knocked off. One was 50 to 60 yards away in the middle of the track."

Steel had run back to the barn on his own and she managed to walk back to him, feed him and then load him up and start to drive back home to the small farm near Clarksville that she shared with then-husband and still-steady boyfriend, the veteran driver Josh Sutton.

She planned to regroup and then head to Scioto Downs that night to work the race card.

"I got about as far as Mason, but I couldn't catch my breath," she said. "I realized that I was hurt more than I knew and I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to make it home. I literally started having a panic attack. That's when I called Josh and told him what had happened and he sort of talked me through it and got me home.

"But as soon as I started to get out of the truck, he saw the shape I was in and said 'Oh no, we're going to the hospital.'"

Eventually she found out she had fractured three vertebrae in her back and had ruptured three discs.

And that began a saga that sidelined her nearly five months — though she was in constant debate with doctors and track officials as she tried to come back too soon — and once again proved the extremes she'll go to for the horses.

A year earlier she had endured an even more dramatic — and tragic — incident on the track and that time, too, she easily could have perished.

Yet the other afternoon as she tacked up Cojo, another of her outrider horses, before they worked the 14-race program at Miami Valley, she admitted she is more the crazy horse girl than she was as a wide-eyed 10-year-old hoping to one day throw a saddle on her dreams:

"I appreciate it more now — I Iove it more — because I've had it taken away from me a couple of times recently You realize it's part of your DNA and you're missing a lot of the purpose in your life if you can't do it."

In the family

She said her grandmother, a Lebanon school bus driver who'd bought a share of a harness horse, first got her into the sport.

Her dad, Ken "Doc" Holliday has been a successful driver across North America since the 1980s and her mom Sherri was an accomplished trainer when she was married to her dad. Her brother Mickey is a driver, too.

While it's obvious she has the genes for her career, Ashley also had the inspiration thanks to a woman outrider she admired as she was growing up.

"I used to watch a girl named Sis Arnold, wo was an outrider at all the tracks in Illinois," she once told me. "I really looked up to her.

"She has a picture of me on one of her outrider horses when I was maybe just five or six. I have my Mighty Ducks coat on. She's the first person where I said, 'I want to be just like her. I want to be like Sis.'

"Like all little girls, you see a girl on the race track with all those pretty horses. Who wouldn't want to do that?"

She said she was no more than a year old when her parents began putting her on the backs of horses as they brushed them out.

They got her a riding horse when she was 10 and some four years later she proved just what a budding horsewoman she was.

A paddock judge at Northfield Park had a large Holsteiner — used primarily for show jumping — that almost no one could ride.

The horse's name was Land Lyric and, as Sherri once told me: "He had a reputation of being a real jerk He was pretty uncontrollable."

But one day the judge asked Ashley's parents if they would allow her to ride Land Lyric.

Sherri told the guy her daughter wouldn't be able to ride him, but he disagreed.

"He told us, 'Listen, the horse is gonna love Ashley! I can just tell,'" Sherri said. "And sure enough, it was like thy were made for each other."

Ashley formed such a bond with the horse that her parents eventually bought him for her. She showed him throughout high school and won with him at the Ohio State Fair.

Sherri said a veteran trainer who watched all that happen told her: "Don't ever take her off a horse. That girl has a gift!"

Gregg Keidel, the longtime race secretary at Northfield Park — and now the race secretary at Dayton Raceway and Miami Valley — sensed the same thing. And when he took over the summer racing duties Running Aces Racetrack in Minnesota, he need an outrider and, having trouble filling the position, he hired Ashley even though she had no experience.

"I think she was still a teenager," he said. "But I knew she already was an accomplished rider. I gave her the opportunity and she was like a fish in water. She was very good." When Dayton opened in the fall of 2015 and Miami Valley followed that winter, Keidel again offered her the jobs.

Her unabashed love of horses is what makes her good at what she does, but it also put her in severe jeopardy in March of 2018 when a crash in a race at Miami Valley caused several drivers to be knocked from their sulkies, which meant there were several loose horses on the track.

She caught one and had hold of a second until it jerked away and, with its cart still attached, bolted into the large retaining pound in the track's infield.

She rode right in after it, jumped off her horse and started swimming toward the frightened animal, which was working its way into deeper and deeper water.

The horse ended up disappearing and drowning before she got to it.

"I was frantic," Keidel said. "I ran to edge of the pond and was yelling for somebody to give me a lunge line. She was in danger. She nearly..."

He caught himself and didn't finish his thought.

"It was not the most intelligent thing to try, but she absolutely loves horses," he said.

For a good while she would not talk publicly about the incident and when she spoke about it the other day, her voice was flat and not much above a whisper:

"Right then the horse's life is the most important thing to me. All I could think of was that I was out there to protect the drivers and the horses and losing one was not acceptable. That really hurt.

"It still does."

'Some bad things do happen'

Ashley got to Miami Valley about 45 minutes before the 4 p.m. post time the other day, blew into the racing commission's breathalyzer and then began to prepare Cojo for the night that awaited them.

She briefly studied the racing program, going through the entries in each race the way a Major League pitcher might scour the opponent's lineup card to get a bead on any problems that may present themselves.

She knows horses who tend to act up or have certain idiosyncrasies and she makes mental notes to be ready for them.

Much of her work is routine — leading drivers and horses on and off the track, checking to be sure a horse's equipment is attached properly, making sure each horse is lined up in the proper position behind the starting gate — but there's always the threat of something far bigger looming out there.

That point was hammered home in deadly fashion eight nights ago in the rain at Northfield Park. The track was sloppy and dangerous and during the 14th race, a horse in the front of the pack went out of stride causing a chain reaction crash,

Horses crashed in each other and drivers went flying. Three horses were put down and two more were seriously injured. The outrider's horse perished after it was hit head on by another horse.

Veteran driver Ryan Stahl ended up in the hospital with six broken ribs, a collapsed lung and leg, arm and hand injures.

Ashley knew many of the people involved and was still shaken by that and some of the harsh criticism of racing that has followed on social media.

"Some bad things do happen, but there's far more good in our sport," she said quietly. "You just don't hear about the good things, the thousands and thousands of horses who race safely and are taken care of and loved.

"But when something bad happens like it did at Northfield, it really stays with you and eats at you."

That's why last Monday — at the end of the first night of racing at Miami Valley and just two nights after the Northfield tragedy — Ashley sat on the back of her outrider horse and took a photo through its ears as the 14th race ended without incident.

She posted the photo on her twitter account along with the message:

"No greater feeling as an outrider than watching the last few horses of the night make their way off the track safely. Giving my ponies double love and praise lately."

Just as she knows about "all hell breaking loose," Ashley Holliday knows heaven when she sees it, too.