Remembering Sam McKee
Published: March 9, 2017 2:53 pm ET
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It is impossible to put a figure on the number of lives touched by Sam McKee. Whether through his race calls, studio interviews, work at horse sales, or personal interactions, McKee left an indelible mark on harness racing and the people in and around the sport.
And it would be difficult to find a person more respected and universally liked than McKee. When news of his passing at age 54 due to complications from a stroke suffered in early February filtered through the industry Wednesday, the outpouring of admiration, love and support to his family on social media and beyond was a testament to McKee’s ability to make, as harness racing writer Dave Briggs wrote on Harness Racing Update’s Facebook page, “everyone feel like the biggest person in the room, when in truth, it was always him.”
Ken Warkentin, McKee’s colleague at the Meadowlands Racetrack and fellow announcer, spoke for many when he said, “This is undoubtedly one of the saddest days in the sport in a long time. Many like myself are in shock, devastated, in a state of disbelief and just plain sad. Sam was the modern day Mr. Harness Racing. It seemed like he knew everybody and everything about the sport.
“And Sam could do it all. He was talented, passionate, positive and an inspiration to all. And everybody knew it. He was so much fun to work with. He just made people and everything around him better.”
Hall of Fame driver John Campbell, who has called the Meadowlands home for decades, echoed those sentiments.
“We were so fortunate that Sam chose harness racing,” Campbell said. “With his talent, personality and knowledge, he could have been an announcer in any sport, whether it was NASCAR, football, or whatever. We were very fortunate that he turned his talents and abilities toward harness racing. He was such a shining light.
“He just had that bubbly, exuberant personality for what he was doing. When he was doing interviews, I think it rubbed off on a lot of people. I know it did me. He was always very upbeat. The interaction I had with Sam, whether it was on camera or off camera, was always fun and it was always something I felt good about. It was genuine. His enthusiasm for harness racing and people was right from his heart.
“The most important thing was the friendship I had with him. He was a very good friend.”
A native of Michigan, Sam’s interest in harness racing and announcing can be traced to his earliest days, virtually from the time he could speak. His family raced Standardbreds as a hobby at the county fairs and small tracks. Sam more than once told the story about being four or five years old and ‘calling races’ with toy horses that had numbers taped to them.
When he was 10, McKee began writing letters to horsemen and others in the industry. He began a letter-writing friendship with legendary announcer Roger Huston, who became instrumental in helping launch McKee’s career behind the microphone. Huston invited McKee to The Meadows, where Sam had the opportunity to call qualifiers and a junior driving championship. After hearing McKee’s work, Huston persuaded Bobby Williams, the speed superintendent at the Clinton County fair in Ohio, to give the then-14-year-old McKee a job announcing races there.
“I was just flabbergasted at how good he was,” Huston told hosts Mike Bozich and Mike Carter last month on a ‘Post Time with Mike and Mike’ podcast. “He had the voice of a 13-year-old, but he was seasoned even without ever being on the PA system. He was born to be an announcer, there’s no question in that. The amount of advice I had to give him was very minimal.
“It’s very seldom that somebody at the age of six determines what they want to do in life. He made it happen. He knew what he wanted to do and we were just so happy we had a part in getting him started.”
When he learned of McKee’s passing, Huston posted on Facebook yesterday, “A part of me will never be the same.”
A day after graduating from high school, McKee was hired as the track announcer at Saginaw Valley Downs and later Sports Creek Raceway. From there he moved to Raceway Park, where he called races and worked as director of group sales in addition to being involved in the publicity and television departments. A stint in the publicity department and announcing booth at Ladbrokes Detroit Race Course followed and in the early 1990s he served as director of operations at Northville Downs.
In the late 1990s, McKee was hired at the Meadowlands. He shared race-calling duties and soon added the role of TV coordinator at the track. In 2007, he also became the director of simulcasting.
McKee also worked the Grand Circuit meets at the Delaware County Fair, where he hosted the Little Brown Jug week simulcast, and the Red Mile. He was elected to the Michigan Harness Horsemen’s Association Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2012, he received the sport’s highest honour when he was elected to the Communicators Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.
Mike Tanner, the U.S. Trotting Association’s executive vice president, first met McKee when he was working at Detroit Race Course. Tanner was an intern at the time.
“It was my first front-side job in racing, and I was kind of in awe of him,” Tanner said. “He was a terrific announcer, even back then. But he was so kind, encouraging, and down to earth, and we became friends. When I got hired there on a full-time basis the next year, he might have been happier for me than I was for myself. That’s just the way he was.
“I can’t think of anyone in our industry better liked or more respected. I feel badly for anyone that never had the chance to meet him, and worse for those of us that did, because we know what we’ve just lost. He was special.”
The stories of McKee helping others, encouraging others, are countless. Gabe Prewitt, the executive secretary of the Kentucky Harness Horsemen’s Association and a multiple-track announcer, first heard Sam calling races at the Red Mile in the early 2000s – Prewitt’s introduction to harness racing – and acknowledged McKee’s role as a mentor, “so supportive of me from Day One,” on last month’s Post Time with Mike and Mike podcast.
McKee’s influence stretched beyond the announcer’s booth, Prewitt said. “Just on a personal level, his kindness, his class, how he treats everyone; I learned as much from him on a personal basis – just by observing him for that matter – as I have professionally.”
Jason Settlemoir, the chief executive officer and general manager at the Meadowlands, told Mike and Mike that Sam always had the ability to sense when someone was having a bad day. And he was always there to discuss the situation and help in any way possible.
“By the time the conversation was over you always felt enlightened by him,” Settlemoir said. “You’d walk out of talking with him being much happier.”
Meadowlands broadcaster and statistical guru Bob ‘Hollywood’ Heyden, who was inducted to the Communicators Hall of Fame with McKee, recalled seeing Sam several years ago helping a lady who had fallen in the parking lot following a snowstorm during a Saturday night card at the Big M. Because the snowstorm hit during the card, the parking lot was not yet plowed. Heyden later found out that McKee had fallen several minutes prior to helping the woman, who was a waitress at the track, and injured his back.
“The only way I found out was by seeing the pills he was taking the following weeks,” Heyden said. “He didn’t say anything, and wouldn’t, because he was once again Sam being Sam.”
Beyond the racetrack, McKee was an accomplished horseman (see sidebar following this story) and a go-to choice as a pedigree reader at the industry’s horse sales, where his knowledge, expertise and demeanour made him a natural.
“Sam had an exacting job – make a good impression for the horse in 15 seconds or less, give current update information about the horse with perfect accuracy, and be ready to jump back in at any moment if the auctioneer decides to pause the auction for emphasis,” said Russell Williams, the newly elected president of the U.S. Trotting Association as well as chairman of both the Standardbred Horse Sales Co. and Hanover Shoe Farms. “Sam’s work in this area was virtually flawless, and he did it with that wonderful voice of his.
“We at Standardbred Horse Sales Company have lost a great announcer, but we’re conscious now that we’ve lost a cherished friend. We offer our condolences to Sam’s family. You will be in our thoughts.”
Sam’s surviving family includes his wife Chris and daughters Meagan, Melissa and Lindsey.
“He was an amazing family man,” Warkentin said. “He was a true Hall of Famer; a great person, honest and pure. A true friend to many and a real gentleman.
“When I first heard of his passing I said it couldn’t be possible. And the first thing I thought was he wasn’t going anywhere. He’s always going to be here with us in so many ways. We will never forget Sam McKee.”
McKee was a part of so many of harness racing’s greatest moments and biggest events. Here, we remember him with a few of our favourite McKee moments, and some that were his favourites as well.
Sam McKee was as accomplished on top of a horse as he was skilled behind a microphone. He often competed in speed events, such as barrel racing, with his retired Standardbred Whos Your Buddy, or simply, ‘Buddy.’ Helene Gregory, the vice president of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of New Jersey, recounted the following story about McKee and his competition with renowned equine advocate and author Alex Brown:
“One year Sam was at the National Standardbred Show with Buddy and I had my retired Standardbred JB (Jambalayabar Man) there as well. My friend Ellen Harvey had earlier approached me asking if a friend could get on JB. He was an exercise rider for some Thoroughbred racing trainers, but had never been on a Standardbred before. His name is Alex Brown and not only has he ridden thousands of Thoroughbreds, he is also an author of a book (Greatness and Goodness: Barbara and His Legacy) and had a big social media following. I thought it was a great idea because it would bring some attention to our Standardbreds. So we entered Alex and JB in the ‘Ride a Buck’ class, which is ridden bareback with a dollar bill under the rider’s knee.
“The riders then have to follow the commands of a judge – walk, trot and canter (if they get that far). It was a big class, always a fun class to watch. One by one the riders lost their dollar bills, but two riders were not giving up. Sam had just interviewed Alex the night before at the track about his book and less than 24 hours later they were facing each other in what quickly became a two-man contest.
“They were battling it out, Sam joking with Alex to please give up because he couldn’t hold on to his dollar much longer and Alex saying he would never give up. The audience was cheering them on and the judges gave more and more commands, turn right, turn left, trot, turn without stopping and go the other way, to try to force them in to a mistake. Finally they got up to a canter and Sam’s dollar floated to the ground, while Alex’s was right where he put it. JB and Alex were victorious, but Sam was grinning from ear to ear. It was a joy to see these two grown men have fun and laugh like little kids.
“This was what Sam was, always a good sport, always smiling and always had kind words to everyone he met. Whenever I would see him he always stopped for a few words, didn’t matter if he was on the run, in the TV studio at the Meadowlands or anywhere else. He always made time to listen. He will be deeply missed by the entire harness racing community.”
The following anecdote, recounted by Ellen Harvey, the director of the USTA’s Harness Racing Communications division, further demonstrates Sam’s ability, knowledge and thoughtfulness:
“In 2011, the World Trotting Conference came to the U.S. and the USTA was host for leaders of harness racing from all over the world. They visited a variety of farms in New Jersey in between meetings and I was asked to put together a demonstration of Standardbreds in other disciplines showing off their athletic ability.
“I asked Sam if he would show off his ex-racehorse Buddy’s skill in barrel racing and he very nicely obliged. Sam and Buddy were the last team in the demo; they screeched around the barrels and came to a full stop, kicking up a spray of dirt, right in front of the audience, from a dead run.
“When they got over their shock and horror at being nearly run over, the audience gave him a big round of applause.
“My then-86-year-old dad, Harry Harvey, lived near the site of the demo – at the Standardbred Retirement Foundation’s facility. I invited him and my mom to come see the demo and they were tucked away in chairs in a corner of the ring, watching. Walking on an uneven surface was hard for my dad by then.
“After Sam was finished greeting the guests, I asked him to bring Buddy over and show dad that he had controlled that horse at maximum speed with no bit – he used a bitless bridle that put pressure on the horse’s nose, not his mouth.
“Sam brought the horse so close he was almost in dad’s lap. Dad struggled to his feet to watch intently as Sam explained all the things he’d tried to control Buddy, how he finally arrived at the bitless bridle and showed dad every part of it and the mechanics of how it worked. My father was transfixed – learning something new about training horses at age 86. He talked about that day for months afterward.
“The next time I saw Sam at the track, I thanked him for taking the time to show my dad this new gizmo for riding horses. His response was typically modest, ‘I couldn’t believe that I was teaching a Hall of Fame trainer something about rigging a horse.’”
This story courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, visit www.ustrotting.com.