Special to The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Some days she rides.
Some days she drives.
It's her call.
But every day, every single day, whether it's bathing or showering, or changing for bed, there is part of her life where there are no choices. Whenever she peers into a mirror and looks over her shoulder, there are reminders of the darkest day of her life.
Nadine Habke, 38, is an outrider at Northfield Park, a driver on the CKG Billings Championship circuit and, more importantly, a survivor.
This summer (June 22) marked 12 years since Habke, near the end of a crumbling marriage, was chased down by her husband outside their apartment in suburban Cleveland and repeatedly stabbed in the back with a steak knife.
The husband, now her former husband, was Walter Case Jr., one of the most successful drivers in harness racing history.
"Had he twisted the knife just a half-inch, I'd be paralyzed," said Habke.
Case was found guilty of felonious assault and was sentenced to five years in prison. He served 41/2 years at the Belmont Correctional Institution in southeastern Ohio, resumed his sulky career briefly, but has been unlicensed the last 10 years.
"I still can't fathom I did what I did. I feel terrible for what happened to (Nadine) her," Case told The Plain Dealer in 2006 from prison. "I'm mad at myself for being that weak."
For the most part, Habke has shooed away her demons, but those reminders in the mirror -- three healed puncture wounds and the remnants of the 25 stitches needed to close the cuts -- are regretful souvenirs from a marriage that went bad in a hurry.
Despite the fact that she could have been killed or confined to a wheelchair for life, Habke doesn't speak ill of Case, whom she says she hasn't spoken to since the incident.
"He had all the talent in the world, but couldn't handle life off the track," she said. "Walter would have been fine if he could have driven horses 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Married in Las Vegas in 2003, the union lasted a little more than a year before unraveling.
"When it started to go down, when the drugs and alcohol took over, I knew I had to save myself," said Habke.
She missed her opportunity by at least a day. Estranged from her husband, Habke returned to their apartment to bring Case a check for horses and a saddle but before long, all hell broke loose.
"He just lost it and began hitting me. I ran outside and he chased after and tripped me. I didn't know I was stabbed. It felt like somebody punching me with brass knuckles."
Habke ended up in Robinson Memorial Hospital in nearby Ravenna in critical condition. In addition to the stab wounds, she suffered a collapsed lung. She was on morphine for three weeks. The lung was slow to recover and she lost 30 to 40 pounds.
But she eventually recovered and today is perhaps the most passionate outrider in pari-mutuel history. Once the bugle sounds for the call to the post and the pacers and trotters step onto the track, Habke's job is to make sure all drivers and horses are safe.
Catching runaway horses and rescuing drivers struggling with broken equipment as a lifeguard on horseback means everything to her. So much so that Habke is becoming a regular on the Billings circuit.
"As a driver, I like the shoe being on the other foot because I want to know what a professional driver experiences. I need to know where they are coming from. My No. 1 priority is being an outrider, but this (the Billings) is a change of pace I needed. Plus, I always wanted to be a jockey but I'm too tall (she's 6-1)."
Born and raised in western Canada in Edmonton, Alberta, Habke fell in love with horses at an early age (a neighbor farmer had stock) and took riding lessons at age 11. Her parents bought her a horse for her 14th birthday.
Soon after graduating from high school, Nadine moved to California. Her love for horses landed her on the backstretch at Del Mar where she became a groom and a hot walker.
From the San Diego track, she headed for Santa Anita where he eventually met David Stratton, who just happened to be an Ohio harness horseman. Habke accepted a job with Stratton and went to work at Northfield Park in 1998. She eventually took a position with Ohio kingpin owner-trainer Virgil Morgan, who sent her to the New Jersey to work with his Meadowlands string.
It was at the Big M where Habke met Case Jr.
"Walter got me my first job," she said, referring to her outriding duties at Pocono Downs, which lasted just one season. Her stay was shortened when she learned that Northfield Park, due to an Ohio State Racing Commission rule that mandated all four state harness tracks employ an outrider, was in need of her services.
She started at Northfield in 2001 and has spent the better part of her career impressing horsemen with her outrider prowess.
"She is completely awesome. I cannot say enough good things about her," said Aaron Merriman, North America's champion dash rider and a regular at Northfield.
Habke is a self-taught outrider. "I never really had someone teach me the job. I think I have developed and earned the trust of the horsemen. I love the work. It's my life."
Northfield races year-round and Habke is often tested in northeast Ohio's harsh winters that usually include several blasts of Lake effect snow.
"There have been nights when I haven't been able to feel my toes until two hours afterwards," she said. "I have winter clothing, but you can only protect yourself so much. I have to be able to maneuver. It's like the mail, I'm out there come rain, sleet or snow."
As for her driving career, Habke acquired her "P" (provisional) license last year and had a handful of drives as a warm-up for this season's C.K.G. Billings Series.
"I drove in my first Billings race at Miami Valley (April 24) and finished third," said Habke. "I was happy with my performance and I'm thankful that (trainer) Frank Harris is giving me the opportunity to drive his horses. Frank and his wife Stacey are my family, my adopted family."
Habke is a racetrack triple threat. In addition to outriding at Northfield and driving on the Billings circuit, she competes in racing under saddle races and has two official RUS victories, both scored on Ohio's extensive county fair calendar.
Meanwhile, Habke will continue to patrol and keep the peace on Northfield's half-mile oval while picking out her Billings' driving dates.
"I'm happy and I'm healthy," she said. "I can't ask for much more."
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