Archdeacon: Celebrated harness racing career serves as best cure

Driver Brian Sears leads McWicked to a 2014 Breeders Crown win at the Meadowlands Racetrack. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Driver Brian Sears leads McWicked to a 2014 Breeders Crown win at the Meadowlands Racetrack. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“I was on fire!”

That’s Casie Coleman talking about the most indelible moment of her harness racing career, one that began as a groom and then a driver and now has made her one of North America’s top trainers.

But she wasn’t referring to the seasons in which she always seemed to end up in the Winner’s Circle – just 38, she’s won 2,322 races and $56,758,328 in purses – nor was she talking about particular racing moments.

Not when she became the first woman to win the O’Brien Award as Canada’s top standard-bred trainer (she’s now won five.)

She wasn’t talking about becoming the first woman trainer to win the Little Brown Jug (she’s now done that three times in the past six years.)

And she wasn’t talking about Friday, when she brings 2-1 favorite McWicked, the7-year-old McArdle stallion, into the $150,000 Dayton Pacing Derby at Hollywood Dayton Raceway. That Grand Circuit race and the $150,000 Dayton Trotting Derby also on the card are the marquee events of the season at the half-mile track off Needmore Road.

No, Coleman was referring to an incident that is forever seared into her mind and, quite literally, her skin.

It was early on a Saturday evening in 2000. Coleman was a 19-year-old groom for trainer Bill Davis at Sandown Park on Victoria Island, British Columbia. She was getting ready to rub liniment on the legs of her own horse, Southside Pride, before putting him away.

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The pine tar solution she favored had to be turned into a liquid before it was applied. With the lighting preventing her from seeing a small flame still on a previous tin of liniment she had burned down, she tried pouring more from a gallon bucket and suddenly the whole thing exploded and there were flames everywhere.

Her horse was panic stricken and ripped itself free from the crossties.

“I’d heard stories where horses were on fire and they ran until they died,” she said. “That’s why I grabbed (the halter) and wouldn’t let go. But he was so frightened, he ended up dragging me down the shedrow.

“I thought he was on fire, but really it was me. I didn’t realize it, but I was on fire and he was trying to run away from me. He wanted to get away from the flames.”

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The horse finally veered into an empty stall and by then other horrified barn hands and trainers were running toward her. Someone threw a bucket of water on her. Others wrapped her in towels and blankets to smother the flames.

Before the shock set in, she looked at herself and saw her arms and leg covered with blood and hanging skin.

Fearing Coleman was about to die, Davis put her in his truck and raced to the hospital, where it was determined she was burned over 22 percent of her body, including her legs, right arm, neck and face.

She was moved to the burn unit at Royal Jubilee Hospital, where doctors had her parents sign a consent form should they have to amputate her badly burned right leg.

The leg was saved, but she did go through numerous skin grafts and surgeries as badly charred muscles and ligaments were rebuilt. There were blood transfusions and she was on morphine night and day to deal with the intense pain.

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After nearly three months in ICU, she was eventually allowed to go back home with her parents, both of whom are in the horse business themselves.

There was one proviso though.

“I was told to stay out of the barns for two years because of the risk of infection,” she said, then laughed: “I was back at the barn the day after I was released from the hospital.”

Her mom had hidden the keys to her truck, but she found them and, even though she had no feelings in her legs, she managed to drive herself to Fraser Downs outside Surrey.

Her parents tried getting her back home, but she refused. She told them she wasn’t leaving and she hasn’t since. She’s now a top trainer, a woman, standing tall in a sport dominated by men.

She grew up in the horse business in which her dad was a trainer and driver and her mom the stable manager.

By the time she was 16, Coleman had her trainers license and wanted to quit school to work with horses.

“I hated school and wanted to bail out, but my parents told me I had to graduate,” she said. “So I looked for classes I liked, took all the cooking and chef classes I could and found out I was really good at that.”

She was offered a $10,000 scholarship to go to culinary school but turned it down.

And when she had a chance to make the national fast pitch softball team in Canada, she turned that down, too.

“All I wanted to do was train horses,” she said.

Eventually she relocated to Cambridge Ontario, and 13 years ago began to build an operation that would mushroom to some 120 horses and stables in Ontario, New Jersey and Florida.

She had several top horses – American Ideal, Sportswriter, Betting Line, Betterhancheddar – and won most of the sport’s top races.

Recently she scaled her operation back – down to 38 horses – but she never has backed away from using her platform to help those in need.

In 2009 she returned to Victoria to headline a fund-raiser for the burn unit at Royal Jubilee Hospital.

When the devastating fire swept through Lebanon Raceway that same year – killing two grooms, 43 standardbreds, two miniature horses and financially ruining several racing stables – she sent donations to the horsemen there.

Each year the Dayton Pacing Derby and Dayton Trotting Derby bring many of the top older standardbreds in North America – and more of the top drivers – to town. Will Take Charge with Tim Tetrick in the sulky is the 5-2 morning line favorite in the Trotting Derby, which has a 10:13 p.m. Friday post.

The Pacing Derby – which has a 9:55 p.m. post – has a nine-horse field with a combined 215 victories and $13,997,574 in earnings.

A substantial chunk of that purse was collected by the favorite McWicked, who has won $3,267,876 in his career and earlier this month used a first-over move to surge past Lazarus N at Woodbine Mohawk Park and win the $600,000 Canadian Pacing Derby.

In many ways McWicked – scheduled to be driven by Brian Sears – has defied the odds. While many horses slide when they get to his age, Coleman said “he is racing better now than when he was as a 3-year-old. And I hope he stays that way a few more years.”

As for her, she married fellow trainer Mark Herlihy two years ago. She continues to reconfigure her stable and, she admitted, there is one other thing still out there she’d like to try.

“Part of my bucket list is to win a (World Poker Tour) Tournament some time,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been playing forever and I know one day I’ll finally enter one of those tournaments. To win there would be pretty cool.”