A couple of years ago, I received an email from an announcer, right out of the blue. I was struck by the email, because this man – a wonderful race caller – asked me (not an insider, but a paying customer) what I was looking for in his calls. He wanted to get better at his craft and he wanted to chat with an everyday horseplayer.
I humbly answered that me — as someone betting hard-earned dollars — wanted first and foremost, accuracy. I also wanted our announcers to have a good idea what was happening in the race, with a special attention on the favorite, since most of the money was bet on them. Detailing other happenings, like horses who are live, or others who are struggling, were important to me as a bettor, too.
Today, as I think about that conversation, I was describing Sam McKee.
It goes without saying Sam was accurate. He was like an accountant that never transposed a number wrong. But, more broadly, I’ve never heard an announcer (for as long as I’ve been watching harness racing) who was so in-tune with what was happening during the race itself.
Sam watched everything and had a keen eye for race flow and in-race dynamics. Along with his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, it was a powerful exacta. He knew exactly who was live, who was struggling on the turns, which horse was locked and loaded, or who was prematurely tipping three high with spinning wheels. And he knew it before a lot of us did. Most races I half-expected Sam to blurt out which horse needed a murphy blind or a set of spreaders at the half. He’d have probably been right.
Sam was that good. And I can say without equivocation, we as customers of this sport appreciated every second of it.
I’m convinced Sam was this perfect at his craft because he was so passionate about harness racing. When people are passionate about a subject, the studying, the handicapping, the honing one’s skills, is not work. It’s something that’s just happily done.
I think that was very apparent when Sam called races, and I don’t think I’d get too many arguments. But I think it was also front and center when he handicapped.
Some time ago I shut down work early to do some handicapping. I wanted to play the Friday night card at the Big M and was scanning the program, looking for some prices. I came across a sneaky looking horse in one of the later races that rung a bell — but which bell it was I simply could not remember. I watched replays, dug into the horse’s lines and it dawned on me that I seemed to remember this horse racing once at the Meadowlands a year or two or three earlier. I dove into a database and saw just that — the trainer had shipped the horse to the Big M, landed a top driver, and the horse was super-live, just missing at long odds.
It took awhile, and some work, but I had my sneaky price horse to focus on.
An hour or two later, while chatting with a friend, mentioning that I liked this ship in, he blurted out, “Sam loves your horse.”
I flipped on the simulcast feed and sure enough, there was Sam, “this horse was here a couple of years ago and…”
That man had a mind like a steel trap, and he could handicap. What took him 10 seconds took me a half-hour.
If the above was only one instance, I could chalk it up to serendipity or coincidence. But over the years it happened frequently. He’d find these strange horses that most of us couldn’t find with Sherlock Holmes as our handicapping partner. He was just that good.
Last year I found myself in need of information for a column here at Harness Racing Update. Justin Horowitz suggested I give himself and Sam a call at the Big M, and they’d be happy to answer a question or two. I had never spoken to either of them in real life, and I was looking forward to it; I like Justin, and Sam was always like a warm harness racing blanket. I felt he was an old friend, even though he didn’t know me from Adam.
I called and Sam answered. Three minutes into the call I learned something everyone else already knew. Sam was everything everyone said he was; warm, happy, engaging and fun. I had the information I needed for my column in about two minutes, but the call went on and on and on as Sam and I spoke about harness racing, like two old friends sitting on a back porch. Poor Justin could not get a word in edgewise.
I’ll never forget the joy Sam gave me as an everyday horseplayer. I’ll fondly remember his calls, the big races, and his sneaky, obscure handicapping angles. And I’ll never forget last year’s phone call, where I learned he was not only great at his job, but was everything I hoped he was.
I feel for his wife and daughters at this difficult time. I thank them for sharing their husband and father with us, for all too brief a time.