When Ed Ross Hardy first started dabbling in horse racing, he never expected to make a living in the sport. Two decades later, as he ponders what else he might have done with his life, the quarter horse trainer draws a complete blank.
It's impossible now for Hardy to imagine himself anywhere other than at the track. Since he earned his first career victory at Canterbury Park in 1995, Hardy has come to dominate the quarter horse meets in Shakopee, winning 10 training titles and more than three times as much money as any other trainer. He's also gaining national stature with back-to-back victories in a $1 million race at Oklahoma's Remington Park.
Hardy has spent much of this summer in Oklahoma and New Mexico, training two of the top-ranked quarter horses in the country. But he still holds a special affinity for Canterbury, where his wife, Kari, oversees a 25-horse stable -- and where Hardy will become a member of the track's Hall of Fame on Saturday. It's all a little overwhelming for a guy who started training his dad's horses during a break from college, with no idea he was about to discover his life's calling.
"I had a passion for it, but I never in my wildest dreams considered it as a career," said Hardy, 36. "Then I had some early success, with one of my first big stakes horses when I was 21 or 22. Most people my age were still trying to develop what they were going to do in life, and I was already on my way to a career.
"At my age, you don't even think of getting an award like this. I'm just trying to support my family, enjoy myself and do the best I can. I'm very flattered. It's a great honor."
Despite Hardy's relative youth, his numbers at Canterbury made him a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. His horses have won 239 races, 118 more than the next most successful trainer, Jerry Livingston. He has won the track's quarter horse training title in each of the past nine seasons. The Hardy stable has amassed purse earnings of $2,164,713 -- far outpacing Livingston's $678,893 -- and has won more than 50 stakes races.
Though he grew up in Texas horse country, Hardy didn't become acquainted with his future trade until high school, when his parents decided to buy some riding horses. At the time, Hardy said, he was mainly interested in playing football and chasing girls. But one of the horses was bred to race, so his father, Bob, put it into training.
When his father began to have some success in the game, Ed started spending weekends at the track, then entire summers as he got jobs cleaning stalls and grooming horses. Eventually, he began training his dad's horses. In 1995, Hardy was assisting another trainer at Iowa's Prairie Meadows when he started looking for a place where he could strike out on his own. He chose Canterbury, which had just reopened after a two-year closure, and won the first two races he entered.
Hardy's success story in Shakopee might not have played out the way it did had it not been accompanied by a love story. Kari Wilmes, a barrel racer from Le Sueur, met Hardy when she was looking to buy a horse; they married in 2002, and her expert horsemanship helped develop the barn into a powerhouse that wins more than 27 percent of its races at Canterbury.
Her parents, Art and Sharon Wilmes, also help out with the operation and with looking after the Hardy's two children, Jordan, 5, and Austin, 2.
"Probably the biggest factor in our success is that Kari and I are a team," Hardy said. "We really work together, and her parents are invested in it heart and soul, just like we are. It's a family deal."
Hardy's Canterbury champions include stakes winners One Rare Bug, Stolis Kool Chick and Seis It Fast, who in 2010 became only the second quarter horse to be named Canterbury's Horse of the Year. His two superstars are Givinitaroyaleffort and High Rate Of Return, who have expanded his fame.
Givinitaroyaleffort won the $1 million Heritage Place Futurity in Oklahoma last year as a 25-1 long shot. High Rate Of Return won the same race this spring, taking home $432,581. In mid-August, High Rate Of Return will run in the trials for the $2.4 million All American Futurity, and Givinitaroyaleffort will run in trials for the $1.3 million All American Derby.
To win either of those races would be the stuff of dreams. Hardy already knows how it feels to see them come true, courtesy of all those Canterbury summers that will be remembered this weekend.
"I never would have believed I could make a career out of this," he said. "Things just came together, and it turned out to be something very good."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org