Remembering my friend, Sam McKee

A tribute to the incomparable legend penned by his friend, long-time co-worker and fellow Hall of Famer Bob Heyden.

by Bob Heyden

The harness racing world lost Sam McKee on Tuesday (March 7), just 17 days before his 55th birthday. Words cannot accurately express the feelings, the outpouring, the sadness and the loss we – and the industry — collectively feel. For those uninitiated, here are a couple of Sam McKee facts as we remember our cherished friend who leaves behind his wife, Chris, and three daughters — Meagan, Lindsey and Melissa.

Many commented on their relationship and dealings with Sam through the years.

Meadowlands mutuels manager Stu Berman: “The best guy ever. Nobody was better to work with. An unbelievable loss for the industry. He was well-respected all over — in the States, in Canada, overseas — Sweden especially — and Down Under too, in New Zealand and Australia. He also did a lot of things behind the scenes that nobody ever knew about.”

A Michigan native, Sam worked at Saginaw, Sports Creek, Raceway Park, Detroit Race Course and Northville Downs in the early days, as well as on the fair circuit. He made his way to the Meadowlands in 1998 on a part-time basis that turned into a full-time job in 1999. Along the way, he also worked with thoroughbreds, calling the 1991 Michigan Mile — a Grade 2 event — with Black Tie Affair winning it prior to taking the Breeders’ Cup.

Sam’s passing, five weeks after a massive stroke, has left a void of unimaginable proportions. It has left us, certainly for now, searching for meaning, yearning for comfort, begging for this somehow not to be true; reaching for the phone to call someone, anyone, to see if the unification of our grief can somehow make it a touch better. For Sam’s family, there’s not a lot we can do or offer at the moment, but we can cushion the path ahead. We, as Sam’s co-workers and friends, are extended family. Sam saw to that.

Trainer Paul Kelley: “Sam was so much more than just a race caller. He was universal — known all over. Those fortunate enough to know him, to see him smile, always upbeat, left feeling better when they were around Sam. I knew he had an uphill battle ahead of him — somehow I thought he’d fight it and win — but I also knew he had some issues leading up to this. He’ll be missed in all aspects of the game as a person and a friend. He brought a lot of joy and will never be forgotten. Right now, I’m going to find some of his best race calls and sit and listen to them.”

I’ve worked with Sam the past 16 Harrisburg sales and for 18 years at the Meadowlands. Ken Warkentin has been right there also in the announcing booth alternating with Sam. I had a long-standing joke — mostly based in truth — that goes something like, “I never knew how much work I did at the Meadowlands between 1984-1999 until Sam and Ken showed up.” It is true.
Misty Miller, wife of Hall of Fame driver David Miller: “One of a kind. Always had a smile on his face. A nice way about him.”
Trainer Julie Miller: “We’ve lost a great man. What a class act. An ambassador. An honest and decent man for sure.”

Sam had a well-deserved reputation for doing it all. In a sense, he donned a Superman cape — willingly —and never did take it off. Consider the 15 hours or so a week of commuting from Blairstown to East Rutherford, barrel racing with his girls on weekends, cleaning stalls every morning, going to Red Mile and Delaware, Ohio every year, driving 11-12 hours each way to see his father in Michigan — you get the picture. Remember that guy on the old variety shows who used to keep the plates spinning on stage for the entire act? That was Sam, but he did it smiling, and always asking if he could do more.

Like he did with John Emmons, a real harness fan and friends with Eric Ell of J L Cruze fame. “Around the time the New Meadowlands opened, my friend Gary and I got there one night around 4:30 or 5:00, and we saw Sam,” Emmons said. “I said, ‘Hey, Bob Heyden said you’d give us a tour if we saw you.’ He dropped everything he was doing and showed us all around the new building — and I mean everything. The sky boxes, the restaurants, he couldn’t have been better. The few times I stopped by the set, he was always willing to talk and appreciate the fact that I was a big fan and followed it closely.”

Paul MacDonell best known for driving the outstanding colt Somebeachsomewhere: “I’m devastated by this news. He was the ultimate positive guy. Seems to me he went out of his way to get to know as much as he could about the horses. A positive guy who, in my opinion, was head and shoulders above the rest as far as calling a race. During the years of Somebeachsomewhere, we had a great rapport. Totally positive. He was totally impressed by Somebeachsomewhere and a complete backer of the horse. We stayed at the same hotel a couple years after Beach at Lexington. We’d walk over to the track together occasionally. He loved the sport— every bit of it.”

Sam just automatically seemed to spread good will. Here, overseas, Canada, Down Under. I could tell by the visitors from all over the world who came to the set mostly to see Sam. His gracious presence was boundless.

Bloodstock agent Bob Boni, part-owner of Always B Miki: “Very, very sad. Sam was extremely thoughtful to everyone and in everything he did. However limited your exposure to Sam was, he always had a good nature about him— a natural, for sure. On a personal level, I had a joke with him the past few months of 2016 into this year about getting his call of 1:46 world record for Always B Miki as my ring tone. I was told that they played that tape for him in the hospital and he smiled. I think I have to get that done.”

Trish Sheppard worked on many Jug telecasts with Sam through the years. She said: “Genuine. So enthusiastic to be around. Loved on the job. He was enthusiastic with a certain glow. A gentleman. Classy.”

Ellen Taylor, the executive director of the Harness Horse Youth Foundation (HHYF) had a suggestion following Sam’s passing that might catch on. Because of Sam’s upbeat personality and constant smile, she suggested a “Happy Fund”, one that could raise money and sponsor those doing things that make them happy. I suggested “Happy Campers” concerning the 12-18-yer-old campers that travel during the summer with HHYF.

Four-time Hambletonian winner and Hall Of Famer Chuck Sylvester has known Sam longer than most of us. “I met him at Raceway Park (Toledo). My cousins owned the place, and I talked to him a few times there. That goes way back. There’s nobody I know as enthusiastic and who studied the sport the way he did. He remembered everything. He talked to everybody. There was never enough he could do for you.”

Wendy Ross had her television debut at the Meadowlands in 2012 and worked with Sam for the next four seasons. “He made me better. He just cared so much. And he’d fight for you, too.”

Sam was so unique. Ask yourself this question: How many people do you know were doing the same thing at age 14 and age 54 and excelling at it all along? Sam was, calling races as a youngster at the fairs — helped along by his early mentor Roger Huston — and his energetic enthusiasm never waned from 1976 to 2016 into this year.

Trainer John McDermott: “How heartbroken can you get? I was going out on the track this morning (March 8) and heard the news and went right back, put the horse away and called my wife. I couldn’t believe it. The classiest person. The last time I talked to him, I had just been asked by Mike Posner to qualify my old horse, Stormin Rustler, and I did. I came off the track and Sam starting joking with me. You see, I didn’t have the proper footwear, and he kept yelling over, ‘New boots?’ What a fun guy to be around.”

Sam was humble, almost to a fault. In 2006, after I had done the eulogy for Stanley Dancer at the end of 2005, we put together a video tribute as 2006 would be the first Stanley Dancer Memorial. With Sam directing the ship, and with Marjorie Roman’s outstanding assistance, the video won the year-end awards and one of the judges called it “The best video I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been judging these for years, it turns out Marjorie and myself were named on the plaque, and we went to Atlantic City in February of 2007. Needless to say, Sam shied away from any of the credit, or the spotlight, and was more than content to let others reap the awards. If you had a room with 75 people in it, Sam would be more than happy being #72B.

Ted Wing the leading driver at the Meadowlands in 1978: “I didn’t know Sam that well, but when I did see him, he always made me feel special and remembered the title I won and everything. He made me feel right at home. This is horrible, horrible news. A rare guy.”

Per Henriksen won the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands 13 years before Sam arrived there full-time, but that wasn’t about to stand in the way of their being good friends. “A gentleman and a good friend. If you only heard his voice, you’d have missed something special. Such a good guy with unbelievable talent.”

Some people are born good. Sam was. It’s as if he was on a life’s mission to make everyone else’s better. Well, mission accomplished. Everybody mattered to Sam — caretakers and stakes-winning owners. He’d jog with you in the morning, he remembered everyone’s name, he’d have a present for your daughter’s birthday and would haul in your mail if you were showing signs of slowing down a touch. He made what was good better. There was no need to fancy up or doctor your bio around Sam, it was the person that mattered. He ignored any and all class distinctions. He’d take the seats in the mezzanine so you could sit closer. He was the guy who’d bring you coffee after not seeing him for a few months — don’t even ask how he knew how you liked it.

Connie Hochstetler goes way back with Sam to the fairs. “I know him from way back at the New Adrian County Fair. I was 16, and I think he was 10. Around that time, I found a cologne that I thought (my husband) Homer would like called Cool Water Cologne. So that was the joke through the years between us and every now and then you’d hear Sam mention it in a race, or the winner’s circle. We’ve lost a very special person; one who left a lot of memories.”

Homer Hochstetler: “You won’t be able to replace that voice and his knowledge of the game. One of a kind. Maybe there’s a youngster out there right now who’ll grow up and be Sam McKee. Let’s hope so.”

When Sam first started at the Meadowlands, I was talking four-to-five times a week with Stanley Dancer — as I had done for a decade or so and would continue until late in 2003. Sam was fascinated by this. He grew up idolizing Dancer and never thought he would get the opportunity to know him. So, needless to say, I got the two of them together and Sam was a kid on Christmas morning. What Sam never did get, or figure out, was that by this point Dancer was happy talking to Sam. It was Sam’s race calls that Dancer was listening to at night and he was just as happy to be chatting with Sam.

Trainer Mark Harder: “I feel like I just got punched in the gut. Our careers kind of intertwined. (Sam started full time at the Meadowlands in 1999; Harder went on his own as a trainer in 2000 — and by 2001 had both Camcracker and Rair Earth, two claimers that would go on to million-dollar careers). Sam meant everything to the sport. I’m around the same age as he (55). It makes you feel that sometimes nothing matters. No matter how good you take care of yourself, how you eat, how you exercise, there are times you wonder what it all means. To lose a man like this, it really hurts.”

Richard Silverman, at one time the youngest driver to ever win a million-dollar race, the 1990 Woodrow Wilson with Die Laughing at age 25. “There’s not a nicer guy in the business. He did everything, he did it correctly with incredible personal knowledge. There’s not a person anywhere who’s got a single bad word to say about him. The industry has lost an unbelievable person. I’m heartbroken here. The loss of a true gentleman. He was a friend and a horseman. The business has lost an icon — one that can never be replaced. It’s devastating.”

It was amazing what a presence Sam McKee had become. A devoted husband, a father to three wonderful girls, a calming presence just when you needed one, a steady and sturdy presence when that was called for. In 2013, when he and I were inducted into the harness racing Communicators Corner of the Hall of Fame, in my speech I made a point to mention something that not everyone knew. Sam was the single most versatile person to ever set foot at the Meadowlands. I never knew anyone who could do as many things well as he could. Ever. Anywhere. Willingly.

Trainer Chris Ryder: “A super friendly guy who filled up the room. Great guy. There’s pretty much of a lost feeling right now. He pulled everybody and everything together. I have nothing but admiration for him. Five-to-six weeks ago we all went barrel racing and I remember we were all in the parking lot afterwards taking pictures. A nice way to remember him.”

Irish Joe Hanney: “It wasn’t the race calling that made him stand out. That was his job and he was good at it. It was meeting you, shaking your hand, making you feel like you really were a part of the action. He had a way of making you feel better about yourself.”

There has been talk — right from the first flash of news — about tracks naming a race in Sam’s honor. Let’s all hold off for the moment on that. Somehow, at least in this corner, that seems insufficient. The enormity of his presence and impact would be more suited into the naming or re-naming of a race-TRACK.

Trainer Ross Croghan: “I loved the guy. Everybody knew the guy. He’s the greatest race caller in the game and I’ve said that for some time. You close your eyes and listen and it’s like you were right there. So precise. His demeanor at Lexington helped make the meeting there better. In the post parades, he’s giving out yearling prices and breeding information. He really did make it a better place.”

A couple of years after Sam McKee established his presence at the Meadowlands, I used to joke, “I thought I was a good guy, until Sam McKee started here.” Proud of it then, and now.

Hall Of Famer Dave Magee, who was favored in his lone Hambletonian drive in 2000 with Dreamaster (fifth). That would have been Sam’s first full year in East Rutherford: “My condolences. I didn’t have that many dealings with Sam. He was always welcoming when I did come into the area. His calls are embedded forever. Clear and concise. Descriptive. You could visualize the race.”

Nobody wanted a future that did not include Sam McKee. Yet all of us have been bolstered by his 54 plus years, a time in which he gave totally and unselfishly towards making our lives better and easier and more fulfilling. A time of making our lives more defined.

Finally Joe Hurley, the breeder and part-owner of Always B Miki: “Sam was my primary contact at the Meadowlands. I remember the feeling when I first met him, that it was like we were old friends. He had this acceptance, this openness, this goodness and decency. Instantaneous. A one of a kind guy. And I’m not an easy guy to make a first impression on. You kind of have to prove yourself to me first. I never said this, but he would have made a great politician.”

Little did us East-Coasters know in 1999 that the McKee was heading our way. Certainly we had no clue of the impact he would have on both the sport and us individually — that it would benefit us more than him.

Thank you McKee family, and please promise us that you will remain in our lives and a part of the harness racing community, forever. Sam would want it that way.