Harness racing has changed, but its people never will

How Sam McKee’s illness is yet another reminder of how great a game this is.

I thought about something this week; something that feels like it is from a lifetime ago.

On various Saturday mornings as a boy in Northern Canada I would find myself bundled up, sitting in the back of an old beater of a pickup, with a half-dozen or so other kids. We were going door-to-door collecting bottles on a bottle drive; the proceeds of which would go to the only church in the immediate area. It needed cash to keeps the lights on, and was always looking for a few dollars to help those in need.

The man behind the wheel of the truck was Father Les Costello.

Father Les was a member of the 1948 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs, but quickly returned home to dedicate his life to his calling. He worked 24/7 for the community and its people, regardless of their religious affiliation. He delivered a donated stove to the 77-year-old lady who was cooking only in a crock pot. He brought food to the family whose breadwinner just lost their job. He started the “Flying Fathers” hockey team to raise money for charity. If you were down and out, he was there.

Perhaps the pinnacle anecdote of Father Les was the fact that we were sitting in the back of an old pickup on this cold and snowy morning not because we had to. No, the community bought him a brand new truck, but he asked if he could sell the vehicle back because others could better use the money.

When Father Costello asked for help, your parents asked you to help. You got in the back of the truck and went to work.

Although a few of us were Catholic — and a couple of those, like in my case, were of the non-practicing variety (i.e. we didn’t go to church much, if at all) — most of the kids weren’t. This hodge-podge assortment – the non-religious, the new East-Indian boy who just arrived in town, the girl whose parents would make a long drive to the United church each Sunday – were all there because as a community that’s who we were and that’s what we did.

Last week I was reminded – for what seems like the umpteenth time – that despite the big changes that have gone on in the world since my bottle drive escapades, today, it isn’t a whole lot different in the sport of harness racing.

When word of Sam McKee’s stroke hit the community, you could hear a pin drop. An entire industry had a sick feeling in the pits of their stomachs. After the initial shock — and answers to everyone’s question, “will Sam be okay?” started to filter in — on came the accolades. If I had a dollar for every time I saw, or heard, “Sam is one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet”, I’d be rich.

Then – as we’ve seen so often in this sport, whether it is barn fires, personal tragedy, sickness, or family trouble – everyone’s question became “what can I do to help?”

A GoFund Me page was created for Sam, and the sharing started. After seeing an initial $1,000 or $2,000 raised, I was happy to see that just a few hours later there was $40,000, then $60,000, then north of $140,000 (where it stands today).

Reading a GoFund Me page tells you a lot about a person, and a community. Some pages are filled with messages so real and heartfelt that if you don’t tear up reading them, you might want to check if you’re still alive. Sam’s page is one of them.

‘I knew you were a Hall of Famer the day you first walked into Raceway Park those 30-plus years ago…. $100’

‘Sam and your beautiful family we are sending you all our prayers….. $150’

‘Get well soon and get back to the track where you belong…. $200’

‘Keeping you in my daily prayers. You have more friends and fans than you could ever know… $100’

‘Wishing a speedy recovery to one of the nicest and classiest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing…. $125’

And on, and on and on.

More than 560 individual donations have been made to Sam, thus far. There are fans and bettors. There are drivers. There are trainers, and those who sweep the shedrow for the trainers. There are OTB owners, and those who take the bets for the OTB owners. There are restaurants and car dealerships. There are breeders, sales services, and racetrack companies. There are track executives, and people who are paid to sweep the racetrack floors by track executives.

It doesn’t matter how much you have in the bank, what races you’ve won or lost, if you’ve just sent five mares to Muscle Hill or if you could never dream of such a thing; each and every one of you is represented.

Harness racing has changed, and there’s no doubt about that. Small mom and pop stables are slowly being phased out while the largest stables grow larger. Tracks are being closed, the stands are less full. Betting handle and the popularity of a track have taken a back seat to how much money the slot machines are bringing in. It’s a completely different world.

But one thing that hasn’t changed about harness racing is its people. Harness racing people – despite their different backgrounds, wealth or stead in life – still climb into the back of a truck for a bottle drive. That’s who they are, and that’s what they do.

Get well soon, Sam. The entire community is pulling for you.