In Thoroughbred racing, it is not uncommon for one to take on many different roles in many different positions, and Nancy Ury-Holthus is certainly a great example of that truth. As a third generation horsewoman, she has gone from hot walking her family’s horses to being instantly recognizable as an on-air analyst and commentator. Nancy, a native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, currently works as the paddock host and analyst at Oaklawn Park and Indiana Grand. Alongside her husband, trainer Paul Holthus, she also operates N P H Stables.
With her contagious smile and vast experience, Nancy is truly an inspirational woman who has become one of the most respected women in the sport. It was a pleasure to learn more about Nancy and her roles and experiences in the world of Thoroughbred racing.
As a fourth-generation racetracker, did you always know you wanted to be in the racing industry?
I think I knew fairly early on that horse racing was my path and my calling. I didn’t know exactly what aspect of the sport or even where I’d wind up, but I knew I had to be involved. My grandfather and father were both jockeys and trainers. I was told that my great-grandfather was involved in harness racing. The industry has kept food on my family’s table for four generations now, and I’m very thankful for that.
How did your career in Thoroughbred racing start?
My first job was walking hots at Oaklawn Park the first meet after I graduated high school – and I loved it! A friend’s dad owned horses and hooked me up with a job. I quickly thereafter made connections to get a job in the Racing Office at Birmingham Park for the summer. That started the ball rolling.
What path ultimately let you to be an on-air host and analyst?
I proudly consider myself a “Jill of many trades”… you really have to be in the industry. I have done a variety of things in racing: pee catcher (yes) and office manager in the test barn, program coordinator, placing/patrol judge, and clerk of the course in the racing office. One of my favorite jobs was stable superintendent at Hollywood Park for about 10 years. I was also a Steward in California.
I started my on-air work while working in the racing office during my years on the Chicago circuit. Management at Hawthorne approached me about co-hosting their replay show. I figured it would be something fun to do and a great addition to my resume. When I moved to California, I was roommates with Caton Bredar – our dads were childhood best friends. TVG was looking for freelancers, and I submitted an audition tape. The rest is history.
What are some of your favorite – and least favorite – parts of being an on-air analyst?
I actually prefer being in the paddock and seeing the horses up close. At Oaklawn, it can be a little tense at times, given the tight quarters. If something happens, I’m there to report what’s going on – good, bad, or ugly. Obviously, equine injuries are always something that are difficult to address, but necessary. I also enjoy doing post-stakes interviews at Oaklawn. It’s great talking to connections after a big win.
What are some of your most memorable moments at the track?
The first one that comes to mind was running my first horse as an owner. I washed out so bad!! It was Friends Pro at Saratoga of all places. She ran for Maiden $75k as a 2 year old – and ran 2nd first time out. It was surreal. I also had to cool her out myself. I’m pretty sure I’m the only owner to ever cool their own horse out at the Spa!
Another was seeing American Pharoah win the Rebel and Arkansas Derby and go on to win the Triple Crown. I think he was 6F in during the Belmont before I starting crying. It really is something I’ll never forget.
Who have been some of your friends and mentors over the years?
One of my dearest and closest friends in the sport is Jim Miller. He is the “Jack of all trades” at Hawthorne and very respected within the industry. He’s been an amazing sounding board for me throughout the years. Dawn Conklin, paymaster at Los Alamitos, is the sister I never had. She has been there for me through thick and thin for years. Jim and Dawn both came to Indianapolis to be with me on my 40th birthday.
Another close friend andmentor for many years when I was out in California was Brad McKinzie. He was a longtime executive at Los Alamitos. He passed recently, and I was so blessed to have been able to call him a friend.
Who are some of your personal favorite racehorses?
I grew up being a big Secretariat fan. I remember being a big Cigar fan – following every one of his races was so exciting. Zenyatta was very special as well. She was stabled at Hollywood Park when I was Stable Superintendent. John (Shirreffs) and the Moss’ were so gracious with her, making her accessible to fans. To call her majestic is an understatement.
I’m spoiled working at Oaklawn, as I’ve “fangirled” over several horses who’ve competed the last several years: Close Hatches, Untapable, American Pharoah, Stellar Wind, Gun Runner and so many more.
Your husband, Paul Holthus, is a Thoroughbred trainer. What are some of the benefits – and challenges – of working in the same sport?
Paul has been known to purchase a horse without telling me. I’ll show up to the barn and there will be a new face staring back at me. I consider that a challenge!
I work at the barn in the mornings doing Magnawave therapy on our horses, so we’re probably together more than the average married couple. Working together definitely presents its challenges, but also has its benefits. You get to see your hard work first hand. And it really is great seeing Paul in his element.
You have worked at racetracks around the country. Are there any you consider your personal favorites or new ones you’d like to see?
I love Oaklawn. It’s in my backyard. Paul’s family has loads of history there, mine does too. Hollywood Park will always have a very special place in my heart. I’ve never been a track oversees, but I’d love to visit Meydan. It’s on my bucket list.
Tell us a bit about your current projects at Oaklawn and Indiana Grand.
I’m currently the paddock analyst at Indiana Grand and write the occasional story/news article. Once the meet is over, I head back home to Arkansas and gear back up for Oaklawn where I’m also paddock analyst and host of “Oaklawn Today”, the replay show. I’m also very proud to host “Dawn at Oaklawn”, a Saturday morning show during training featuring sit-down interviews with top horsemen.
As an experienced handicapper and horsewoman, what are things you look for in a horse heading into a race?
There are a multitude of things I will look for. For example: if a horse is taking a drop or a step up in class, if they got in trouble in their last start, equipment change, sprint to route or vice versa, same jockey and if jockey switched to different mount, claimed last out. I factor in all of those things.
What advice would you give to women looking to get into the industry?
I don’t really think it’s a “male-dominated” sport, like it was decades ago. Advice? When someone with more experience tries to help you, listen. Have a thick skin and a good sense of humor. If horse racing is truly a woman’s passion, then don’t take “no” for an answer.
You already have an impressive resume, but do you still have some goals or dreams you would like to fulfill?
Absolutely! If you don’t have goals ordreams, you stop living. The last couple of years, I’ve started doing more charity work within the industry by hosting and emceeing events. There’s no shame in my game when it comes to raising money for a good cause.
Lastly, are there things you would like to see horse racing change in order to grow and succeed?
There has been so much growth in the last several years thanks to technology and social media. Thanks to Twitter, trainers and jockeys can connect first hand with the public and horses even have their own fan pages. I see even more advancements on the technology and media fronts.
On the racing side, I’d like to see the bigger days – like Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup, etc. – be more affordable for the everyday fan. I’ve been employed in the industry for 24 years and have sadly worked at 5 tracks (off the top of my head) that no longer exist.
We need to stop closing doors if we want to the industry to live.
Thank you so much, Nancy Ury-Holthus for taking the time to give us a look inside your life and career – it was truly a pleasure.
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