Nine years after he was released from prison for stabbing his wife with a steak knife, Walter Case Jr. will be back in the stirrups Saturday at Scarborough Downs for an afternoon of harness racing.

A legendary career that began 40 years ago at the Bangor Fair and totaled more than 11,000 victories came to an abrupt halt in 2004. Case was convicted of felonious assault after stabbing his estranged wife in a fit of jealous rage fueled by drugs and alcohol.

The woman survived her injuries; Case, 56, was sentenced to five years at Belmont Correctional Institution in Ohio. He was released from prison in the fall of 2008, six months early for good behavior. In three subsequent years of probation, Case completed all required testing and counseling for alcohol, drugs and anger management.

“He’s a different person,” said Luanne Case, who married Walter Case in 2009 and trains horses with him in Ohio, where he moved in 1999 after being banned from tracks in New York and New Jersey. “He’s calmed down a lot. The only spits and spats we’ve had are about whether a horse’s equipment is right or not.”

Walter Case Jr. Photo by Luanne Case

Last week, the Maine Harness Racing Commission approved a provisional one-year license for Case, a Lewiston native who had been turned away by similar boards in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Massachusetts since being released from prison. By a vote of 2-1, the Maine commission reversed its ruling of a month earlier that had confirmed a preliminary denial of Case’s application.

The basis for that preliminary denial was because the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission rejected Case’s 2013 license application – noting he had made “good progress in his rehabilitation since his release from incarceration,” but that his “experience, character and general fitness is not consistent with the best interests of the public, or with racing generally.”

Pennsylvania also imposed a five-year waiting period before he could re-apply. The rules in Maine say that the commission “shall refuse to license or shall suspend the license of any person whose license is currently refused, revoked or suspended in another jurisdiction.”

Evan Fisher, Case’s Augusta-based attorney, argued that Maine’s rules provide a maximum suspension of one year, so the state should not abide by Pennsylvania’s five-year ban. He also pointed to a Maine rule allowing an applicant “to show cause as to why such a penalty (from another state) should not be enforced against him/her in this state.”

Four people familiar with Maine harness racing spoke on Case’s behalf at his Sept. 22 hearing, including a racing judge, a track announcer, a horse owner and a trainer. “They said Walter deserves a second chance,” Fisher said. “They said he’s changed, he’s living a quiet life, he’s rehabilitated. Nobody spoke against him.”

Because one of the five positions on the commission was vacant, four members heard the appeal on Sept. 13. A procedural error led to one member’s recusal. Of the remaining three, Bill Varney, the Bangor businessman and horse enthusiast who chairs the commission, motioned to approve Case’s application.

Nobody seconded. The vote went 2-1 against Case.

Because of the procedural error last month, Varney asked that Case’s appeal be added to the agenda for the next meeting, on Oct. 13. This time, the vote went 2-1 in favor of Case.

“I think it was a matter of fairness and a matter of rules,” Varney said this week. “At least two of us felt he had served his time and he should be given an opportunity to drive again. I think he should be able to make a living and do what he’s done all his life.”

The commission granted Case a one-year conditional license that can be revoked if he has any serious violations or problems. In a career that includes more than 43,000 races at tracks throughout the Northeast and Ohio, Case accumulated 757 incidents, rulings, infractions or suspensions from 1984 through 2003, according to U.S. Trotting Association records cited in the Pennsylvania decision. He served a 10-day jail sentence in Ohio in 2003 for violating a restraining order Nadine Habke had against him. Case and Habke had married in Las Vegas that year.

Now 39, Habke did not return a phone call seeking comment on Case’s return to racing, but last summer she was interviewed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer about her work as an outrider at a harness track in Northfield and her recovery from the stabbing. She said she hasn’t spoken to Case since the incident, but does not speak ill of him.

“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.”

In a 2006 interview from prison, Case told the Portland Press Herald of his remorse.

“I feel ashamed and terrible for doing what I did to her,” he said. “I’ve never been a violent person. I never picked up a gun or knife in my life until that point. It’s something I’ve got to live with for the rest of my life.”

Earlier this week, Case brushed aside questions about life before his release from prison.

“I really don’t want to harp on the negative stuff that’s behind me,” he said by phone from Ohio, where he had spent the morning putting eight horses through their paces at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Lebanon. “I did my time. I’ve been a model citizen ever since I left (prison) and I never plan on going back.”

He handed the cellphone to his wife because a call from another trainer had arrived on his flip phone. She apologized.

“He’s a little standoffish about phone interviews and interviews in public,” Luanne Case said. “He’s timid by nature. I’m the opposite. That’s why we get along so great.”

They met in a barn in Mount Hope, New York, where Walter Case had gone to live with his brother Tim while on probation. It was the dead of winter, late in 2008, and they struck up a friendship.

“It was really cold,” Luanne said. “He saw I had a few more horses to get on the track and jog. He said, ‘If you’d like, I’ll jog those last two.’ He said, ‘I’m from Maine. The cold doesn’t bother me.’ He’s just a kind-hearted person.”

The next summer, they got married. The marriage is the third for both. They lived on a farm in Pine Bush, New York, and spent their first winter in Florida two years ago. Last year, Luanne’s parents mentioned two new tracks that had opened in Ohio and suggested they consider moving back to the Midwest. They did so in May and now live in Springboro, Ohio.

Life outside the track has not always been easy for Case, who despite his long absence from the track remains eighth on harness racing’s career victory list.

“He’s the greatest driver I’ve ever seen on the racetrack,” said Mike Sweeney, the Scarborough Downs announcer. “I grew up watching him. We’re overjoyed we’re going to have an opportunity to come through for Casey this weekend.”

Luanne understands not everyone will be thrilled about her husband’s return to the limelight.

“A lot of women hate him,” she said. “I feel their pain. I went through a very violent marriage before I met Walter.”

Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, doesn’t know Case but she does know that he took a steak knife in hand and used it to stab another human being.

“That’s a profoundly violent act,” she said. “He nearly killed a person.”

Stark said she’s not interested in testimony about Case’s character. She would like to see evidence of what he’s done to repair the damage he caused.

She’s all for rehabilitation and second chances, but said, “I do think it’s simplistic to say, ‘He did the crime, he did the time, let’s move on.’ ”

Sports pages include regular mentions of athletes charged with domestic violence, with football’s Ray Rice and boxing’s Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather bringing attention to an issue that all four major professional leagues are under pressure to address.

“In the athletic world, this is something people are really wrangling with,” Stark said. “That gives me hope. Because when people think deeply about these things, change can happen.”

This weekend’s races will be Case’s first in Maine in nearly 20 years. The season continues at Scarborough Downs through early December.

“Take him for what he is now,” Luanne Case said of her husband. “He’s a great horseman. He takes care of the animals. He terribly regrets what happened, but he also knows what’s done is done. We are always harder on ourselves than people can imagine.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH