Leesburg resident Michelle Caldwell and her 2-year-old colt, Heavenly Hope, are making a commotion in their first year of harness racing.
When Caldwell purchased her colt in Nov. 2018, he was a 1-year-old named TC’s Cosmic Wish.
“[My] family sat down and came up with three different names,” Caldwell said. “[My husband] finds it very emotional for them to be saying ‘Heavenly Hope’ and ‘Michelle Caldwell’ when they’re calling the race.”
Harness racing has always been a family matter for Caldwell, however. She grew up watching her grandpa, Charles “Bud” Rudduck, training and driving.
”[My brother, cousins and I] might clean a stall every now and then, but we weren’t really there to do work. We were going there just as kids to play and goof off and hang out with Grandpa,” Caldwell said. “Even today, I probably wouldn’t see my brother and mom as much if I didn’t have this going on because life just gets in the way sometimes. Once I got married and started raising my family and got involved with my career, there was no extra time to be involved with the horses.”
It also didn’t help that her husband, Tim, is allergic to horses.
“We went to my aunt’s, who had a horse, when we first got together. At that point, I didn’t even know he was allergic to them, and then he got a whiff of the horses, and that was kind of confirmation. It just seemed weird to me as a young adult that there’s someone who’s allergic to, you know, a horse. If he wasn’t allergic to the horses, he’d be right out there. His grandpa broke horses,” Caldwell said. “We just take the precautions to make sure that no horse dander is transferred into our house or any vehicles he might get in. He’s very understanding. I think it makes it easier to deal with it now that we have a good colt.”
Caldwell wasn’t able to be involved with harness racing until she quit her job in the medical field, where she had worked for around 20 years. At first, she just helped her brother, Roger Hughes Jr., and mom, Linda Hughes, with caring for their horses.
“I was just going there and cleaning the stalls, helping do what I knew what I could do at that point. As time went on, [I started] showing up more days, going in and helping more. It just led to buying a few colts with my brother and training with him and getting to the point where [I] felt comfortable going and taking a test to get licensed to drive,” Caldwell said. “It was peaceful, it was quiet, it was relaxing. It’s hard work, but you can see the progress.”
Caldwell and Heavenly Hope have raced 13 races. They’ve won three times, placed second six times, placed third twice, placed fourth once, and place fifth once, but every time, they’ve always gotten a check. Harness races involve trotting a mile, and Heavenly Hope’s record time is two minutes and three and three-fifths seconds.
“It’s been really fun. When he gets second, he’s always right up there at the wire, duking it out with them. That’s what makes it even more fun,” Caldwell said. “[The colts] are just like people. They all have personalities. [Heavenly Hope] likes all the attention. He always has his eye on you to know what you’re doing, making sure no one else is getting his attention. He’s a pretty determined colt to go out there and get his job done.”
Caldwell has gotten attention from the U.S. Trotting Association (USTA) for her accomplishments as a rookie, but she told The Times-Gazette that it goes a little further than that.
“There’s not very many women drivers,” Caldwell said. “They do have specific races for the women drivers, but you don’t have to drive just in those. It’s a male-dominant career. You just don’t hear of a lot of women drivers.”
Caldwell and Heavenly Hope have at least three more races this season: an Ohio Buckeye Stallion Series race and two fairs. After that is the Stallion Series Final and the Fair Final, and though Caldwell told The Times-Gazette that she doesn’t expect to make it to the Stallion Series Final, she believes that they have a good chance at making the Fair Final, in which the top nine horses compete. Heavenly Hope was ranked 10th at press time.
“At this point in the game, we’re looking at points. The horses with the most points get into those finals. The last few races kind of determine what we can do,” Caldwell said. “At this point, I have to stop [checking the leaderboard]. That just becomes overwhelming and wastes too much time. I could be doing something beneficial. They update the points every two weeks, and two weeks is sometimes a lot of time to wait. You kind of know what your numbers are as you go, but you don’t know what the other horses have done. It’s a matter of looking to see what they did. It becomes crazy. I need to find something else to do because what’ll be will be.”
In the meantime, Caldwell is keeping busy. Outside the spotlight, she works with Heavenly Hope and the other horses she and her brother own every day to keep them healthy and in top racing condition. Even with the USTA and other newspapers publishing articles on her, Caldwell refuses to get a big head.
“I just had a good colt to start out my driving career,” Caldwell said. “The commotion is overwhelming, and you just try to stay humble. It would be easy to be like, ‘I did this, and I did that,’ when really, nope, you didn’t.”
Above all, Caldwell is grateful.
“[Tim] and I pray together before the races and ask for protection and safety, and we know prayer works, but we’ve seen some really bad things that could’ve happened,” Caldwell said. “We just thank God for the opportunity to try to go out there and be a different horse person, just to go out there and congratulate other people when they do good and to try to be the positive person out there. We thank God for [Heavenly Hope] and the experience we’re having with him and the people we’re connected to through him. He’s our heavenly hope.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.