A conversation with Ohio racing troubleshooter extraordinaire Amy Hollar

by Murray Brown

What is a track representative and what does she or he do? I asked that question of Amy Hollar who has been a track representative for the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association for the last 32 years. Her territory covers Northfield Park and some of the numerous fair tracks that have harness racing in the Buckeye State. Her comparable colleague in the southern part of the state is Brett Merkle who handles the job at Scioto Downs, Miami Valley, Dayton Raceway and the fairs in that area.

What is it that a track representative for the OHHA does?

“When asked to describe what it is that I do I suppose in one word it might be that I am a troubleshooter. I look upon myself as a liaison between horsemen and track management. I think that I not only need to help out in getting all sides together when a problem presents itself, but also, perhaps more importantly, to identify possible problems and help to try to nip them in the bud before they even become identifiable. Most of what I do takes place in and around Northfield Park. I’m there just about every day and almost all racing nights. I like to think of myself as a people person. I make it a point to know every person’s significant other’s name and to get to know their children as well. I think that the number of people with whom I cannot get along are few and far between. I like to think that of all the pari-mutuel tracks in North America, there are very few, if any, that have a better rapport between management and horsemen than what is found at Northfield Park. Most of the time we get along without any negative issues. On the relatively rare occasions when they come along we get together and solve them.”

I find it rather interesting that Northfield and Yonkers are both harness tracks owned by the casino behemoth MGM. At least on the surface, it appears that Northfield seems to get along rather well with its horsemen, while in New York one cannot always say the same about what goes on.

“I don’t know. Maybe at Yonkers it’s just growing pains with MGM. Here at Northfield, we’ve been together for much longer, I guess so to speak, the kinks have been worked out. I sense those in management here might have a better feel for racing and its needs and wants. This just comes from guessing but I hope Yonkers horsemen and management can work out their issues.”

You have been doing this for 32 years. How did you become a track representative?

“I was born into harness racing. My grandad operated a pony ride at Ohio fairs in the late ‘60s and he started our family’s racing history. My mom raced horses in Toledo at Raceway Park, Scioto and of course many Ohio fairs. We are a harness family. My daughter and her fiancé, Todd Luther, employ our youngest son and of course my middle sister Jennifer is married to Brian Brown. I graduated from The University of Toledo after meeting my husband and transferring from Kent State with a degree in journalism. I never really practiced it at all though. In the late ‘80s not many jobs were being found at newspapers. My roots in racing just attached themselves to me. In retrospect, I can’t imagine myself being more happy and satisfied with what I do.”

What is it that you do on a day to day basis?

“I look upon myself as primarily being, for lack of a better term, a horseman’s helper. If someone at the track has an insurance problem, he or she can call me. If someone needs help with the racing office I’ll try to help. If help is needed with paperwork regarding the USTA or the Racing Commission, I’ll try to help and make an issue easier on someone. If I mess up, I really take it to heart and I do mess up.”

How do you look upon what I and many others call the recent renaissance in Ohio harness racing?

“Isn’t it great? Every phase of our business here in the Buckeye state is on an upward swing. It wasn’t all that long ago that we might have been described as being on death’s door. The breeders were starving. The horsemen were just barely making a living — if that. The breeding industry here in Ohio is thriving as never before. There was a time when more mares were bred in Ohio than anywhere else. Through the years it kept diminishing to the point where we became an also ran. It now has regained its stature and then some. I truly admire the folks with long histories in Ohio like Hickory Lane and Midland Acres who rode out the tough years and are now benefitting. Joe McLead and Billy Walters at their Sugar Valley Farm are now standing several top stallions, especially the stud I’m personally partial to — Downbytheseaside — already among the best pacing studs in the world.

In a few phrases, let’s talk about several famous Buckeye horseman:

Gene Riegle — “I can only speak with reverence about Mr. Riegle. I’m sure the same applies to most Ohio people. He was arguably the greatest horseman ever from Ohio. He was a great trainer and driver and a great factor in the progression of the breed both in and out of his native state. Can you imagine having trained Artsplace, Western Hanover and Life Sign in subsequent years? Not only a great horseman but a great family man.”

David Miller — “The Buckeye. As with most great drivers, he is a natural. He has been great and is a great asset to harness racing wherever he has been. He is the king of Delaware, Ohio among other places. But it’s at Delaware where his light has shone the brightest. He has won more races at Delaware, most of them stakes, than anyone ever.”

Brian Brown — “I’d say the same of him even if he weren’t my brother-in-law. He is one of the finest people in Ohio. He works harder than most men that I’ve known besides my father. He paid his dues learning from his father and he honed his craft with another great Ohio horseman Ivan Sugg. Through Brian’s success on the Grand Circuit I’ve been able to travel to tracks and meet people I never would have just by staying in Ohio.”

Aaron Merriman — “I don’t know how he does it with the schedule he keeps. He is consumed with driving. You asked me why he hasn’t tried the so called ‘big time.’ I think the answer is twofold: 1. He loves Ohio and I think it would take a huge carrot to get him to leave. 2. With the good purses in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, I think that economically he feels he’s at a comfort level staying where he is rather than going to explore new territory where he might not feel comparable satisfaction. I think he’s driven by the fact that someday he might get the chance to be number one in wins, even ahead of Dave Palone. He almost certainly can get to number two maintaining this same schedule. It wouldn’t be easy to do that racing two nights a week at The Meadowlands. He’s Hall of Fame bound for sure.”

Terry Holton — “Big T was one of the great Buckeyes. He is terribly missed and loved by all who knew him. One thing that stands out about him is that there was not a jealous bone in that body of his. He loved to see others do well.

Jerry Knappenberger — “Another guy who is terribly missed. He lived and breathed Ohio harness racing. He would be so pleased with the inroads the sport in Ohio has made since he left us. No one had a bigger heart for Ohio harness racing than Knappy.”

Brett Miller — “I love Brett. He has an extraordinary great disposition. This world would be a greater place if we had more people like Brett.”

Ronnie Wrenn Jr. — “A great talent. I like to refer to him as my third son. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my two actual sons, Carson and Aaron, and my daughter Toni Dale and of course my husband of 30 years – Calvin. I often make Buck the butt of my jokes, deservedly so, but I’m very proud of his ability to train horses and support our family through very lean times. My family and the Wrenns are very similar which is probably why Ronnie and I have become so close since he moved to northeast Ohio.”

Don Irvine Jr. — “In my opinion in terms of talent he’s a great driver and as a horseman he’s one of the best. Donny will be one of the first to say his demons got in the way many times, but for a man in his early 70s he still seems to be at the top of his game. I know by looking at his stable and the condition of his horses, it’s evidence to his great horsemanship.”

Roger Huston — “There is nobody like our Roger. He just turned 80 years old. I don’t know any 60 year olds who can accomplish as much as he can. I’m 54 and don’t look upon myself as a straggler, yet I can’t come close to keeping up with Roger’s schedule. He loves people, he loves horses and he loves harness racing. That constitutes a great combination.”

Where do you see harness racing in the near future?

“In Ohio, I believe it has a great future. Horsemen and women do not forget about the struggle it took to get us to where we are. I do worry about other states and hate seeing any racing opportunities disappear. I believe one of the biggest virtues of harness racing in Ohio is our numerous county fairs. Families with kids get to be up close and personal with racing and horses. Without kids becoming fans our sport will disappear and what a loss it would be.”

Have a question or comment for The Curmudgeon? Reach him by email at: hofmurray@aol.com