Michelle Caldwell is pictured winning with Heavenly Hope at the Shelby County Fair. It was her first win. (Courtesy of Conrad Photo)
Michelle Caldwell is pictured winning with Heavenly Hope at the Shelby County Fair. It was her first win. (Courtesy of Conrad Photo)
Harness racing drivers are often heard to say their profession is fun, intense, a rush and things of that nature.

Then there is 50-year-old rookie Michelle Caldwell, who finds it “relaxing” to maneuver throughout a pack of horse-driven sulkies at high speeds.

Which gives one a pretty good idea of how stressful the medical profession might be, as Caldwell worked as a medical assistant for 20 years.

“Driving is really fun. That’s what drew me to it,” she said. “It’s relaxing compared to what I was doing. I was in a doctor’s office where you’ve got to try to please everybody. The goal is just to take care of a patient, and sometimes they won’t let you do that because of the rules and all that. It’s a lot of stress.”

The Leesburg resident was anything but stressed on the night of July 24 at the Shelby County Fair in Sidney, Ohio. That’s when she got her first career win while driving 2-year-old trotting gelding Heavenly Hope, who she owns and co-trains with her brother, Roger Hughes Jr.

“I started in the three hole, got away second, and then Markie Winters took over at the three-eighths mark,” Caldwell said. “We regained it, and we were taking the lead back and forth. It was fun. We were duking it out down the stretch.

“We won by a neck. I was pretty confident we got that one because of the position. I knew who the driver was beside me and knew where I was at. It was a big adrenaline rush, that’s for sure. Plus, Markie Winters, we know him — he’s a longtime friend — so that made it even better.”

Caldwell wasn’t stopping there. A week later she won again with Heavenly Hope at the Greene County Fair in Xenia, and on Wednesday, Aug. 21, the dynamic duo got its third victory in the second division of the Dr. H. M. Parshall Futurity at the Darke County Fair in Greenville.

Since starting her driving career in late June, Caldwell has three wins in 19 starts with 12 top-three finishes.

“I’ll take that,” she said. “I’m definitely happy with how it’s going.”

Did she ever think it would even start going at this stage of her life?

“No, absolutely not,” Caldwell said. “There were a couple times I thought, ‘I guess I’m not supposed to do this.’ But I find once you get out there and actually drive, sitting on the sidelines and watching people do it actually becomes more nerve-wracking than being out there. I don’t know if it’s because you have more control or what it is.”

Caldwell’s introduction to harness racing came as a kid when she, Hughes and other family members would go to see their grandfather, Charles “Bud” Rudduck, race at the old Lebanon track.

“We played horse,” she said. “I wasn’t there to do anything with the horses other than just play; we’d be trotters and pacers. We were just kids having fun there.”

After graduating from Greeneview High School, where she played volleyball and softball, Caldwell went to school and embarked on her medical assistant’s career, which she still does on a part-time basis in private homes.

Hughes, 46, is a full-time facility manager at an aluminum die cast plant, but he began to dabble in harness racing and is now a part-time driver/trainer. He conditions his small stable at the Clinton County Fairgrounds in Wilmington, and in his spare time, he designs and paints helmets for fellow drivers and trainers under the banner of Helmet Designs.

“That’s my brother,” Caldwell said. “He has a full-time job and still manages to do all the other stuff, the training and all that and the helmets. He shoes, he does everything. He’s definitely a big influence on me.”

For the first part of her adult life, Caldwell avoided the horses since she was working and raising an athletic family. Her son Trevor is a high school junior who swims and plays soccer. Daughter McKenzie, who played soccer and softball, recently graduated college and just took a reporting job at a newspaper.

As her children began to get older, Caldwell found herself drawn to Hughes’ stable about seven years ago, and like so many others, caught the bug.

“I can’t even put into words why I did it, but I started helping my brother and mom out, and it gradually evolved to this,” she said. “My brother had two colts, and he said, ‘You have to train.’ I was like ‘What! I have to train?’ So now you’re out there jogging and you can’t stop it at that point. It’s in your blood.”

She got her training license, and for several years the siblings talked about Caldwell getting her driver’s license, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. That is when she began to think it might not happen, but over the past year Caldwell got her qualifying/fair license and finished third in her first start at the Putnam County Fair in Ottawa, Ohio, on June 25.

“In that race, it was just kind of waiting to see how things unfolded,” she said. “You try not to think about it too much except for trying to stay safe. The track was deep, my mom and brother weren’t there. The main thing was stay safe. That’s the goal. I went with some suggestions from people and kind of went with that, and it all worked out.”

Caldwell mainly drives horses that Hughes trains due to her familiarity with them. She hopes to eventually get her P license but is not making any exorbitant long-range plans.

“At this point, it’s kind of like one race at a time,” Caldwell said. “I try not to look too far ahead. My husband tries to predict the future — he looks 20 years from now. I don’t like to do that. I just want to go day to day, race to race. Just keep on having fun.”