50-year love affair
How owner David McDuffee came to love the sport that loves him back.
by Murray Brown
In my many years in harness racing, there have been numerous wonderful, generous and wise people who I have been privileged to know, but none more so than David McDuffee and his wonderful wife, Mary Ellen.
For the last eight winters here in South Florida, I’ve seen Dave McDuffee several times a week at Sunshine Meadows. If a McDuffee-owned horse is scheduled to train, then chances are Dave will be out to watch it with his trusty stopwatch in hand.
I’ve never heard him say it, but similar to me, I suspect, that he might get as much and sometimes even more pleasure in seeing them train leading up to them racing, than actually seeing them race.
My dear friend Frank “The Elder” Antonacci said to me earlier this season,. “What a great guy Dave McDuffee is. I really regret not getting to know him better than I have until this year.”
McDuffee has been deeply involved in harness racing for over a half century.
He was first introduced to the sport by his father Duane who Dave says was even a bigger fan than he is. Dave’s direct participation through the years was limited to just occasionally jogging his dad’s horses.
His father did it all and took great pleasure in the down and dirty parts of doing things.
His participation was mostly at the fair or minor league level, but it was every bit as important to him as prepping one for the Hambletonian.
Dave has owned horses for well over half a century. However, the turning point in his harness Racing career came about through his friendship and partnership with Tom Walsh — specifically in the ownership of Magical Mike and that horse’s brother Miles McCool. HIs greatest thrill to this day was in Magical Mike’s victory in the 1994 Little Brown Jug. As though that wasn’t enough, the same ownership tandem repeated two years later with Armbro Operative.
Last Monday, while observing social distancing on the telephone, we had a near two-hour conversation and question and answer session.
What do you do that allowed you the luxury of buying six-figure standardbred yearlings?
“I was in the insurance business for over 40 years. After leaving the Army, I thought of getting into and actually did dabble in real estate. Then the Army recalled me and sent me to Germany where I spent most of the time playing third base and sometimes catcher for the United States Army baseball team there. I was an average player on a team that had some real talent. Several of my teammates ended up in the major leagues. After exiting the service for the second time, I decided that real estate was too slow for me.
“So I presented myself at Employers Insurance Company in Boston and told them I wanted to learn all about the insurance business. I worked there for 19 years and then went out on my own. Several years ago an insurance giant by the name of Brown & Brown decided they wanted to establish a presence in the northeast. They came to me with an offer that I couldn’t possibly turn down. So, I sold out.
“Since then, my major preoccupations have been in order of importance: 1. Enjoying and getting our six grandchildren though university. We are half way there. 2. Overseeing the many horses I’m involved with. 3. Spending winters in South Florida and summers in New Hampshire boating and following our horses.”
What do you like best about the horse business?
“The horses themselves, specifically the standardbred. It is one of God’s great wonders. In general terms, they are smart, resilient and want to do what they were put on this earth to do. I’ve had friends who have slipped to the “Dark Side”, going to the thoroughbreds. I’ve been asked several times to wet my toe there. So far, I’ve resisted. I’m an action type of guy. I much prefer to see my horses race 20 times a year rather than maybe once every two months. Our breed is so much more hands on.”
What do you like least about our sport?
“The amount of negativity that pervades it, unfortunately some of it justified. Perhaps these recent indictments will be our wake up call. The vast majority of owners and trainers are honest, hard-working folk. Unfortunately, many have left us because they felt that they were playing against a stacked deck with the bad guys winning. All most people want is a fair chance to play on an even playing surface.”
Which person in your time in the sport has had the greatest influence on you?
“My father for several reasons. His passion for the horses was even greater than mine, although he did not play at the level I do and would like to continue doing. He was a perfectionist and one of the most detailed minded people I’ve ever known. There were times we’d go to the fairgrounds early in the morning and he’d be working with balancing a horse until it turned dark. I’m not quite that way, but I like to think I’ve inherited some of that drive from him.”
Let’s talk about some of your horses.
Magical Mike – “He was the first horse that I’ve owned that was a Classics winner. I suppose if push came to shove, I’d say he still might be my favorite. They say there is nothing like your first time. He was my first top horse. Of course, being partners with Tom Walsh, one of the finest people I’ve known, added to the pleasure.”
Armbro Operative – “A very nice horse. He wasn’t a champion. But he was a good honest racehorse who was there at the right time on the right day. There is nothing like winning the Little Brown Jug — well, maybe the Hambletonian, but the Jug is a race like no other.”
Pizza Dolce – “My first great trotter. She wasn’t a kid’s horse. But when she was good she was very, very good.”
Spider Blue Chip – “Probably the best horse I had with Chuck Sylvester. He had it all, speed, gait, gameness. In retrospect I don’t believe that he ever got the credit he deserved.”
Bee A Magician – “She was a dream horse. She had everything. How many horses have gone through a season undefeated? How many times do you have a Horse of the year?”
Papi Rob Hanover – “I’ll leave him for later.”
How about your trainers?
Bill Haughton – “Unfortunately my time with him was short. Here’s my favorite Billy Haughton story. Bill was looking for a ride to the airport. I quickly volunteered. I didn’t know him that well and figured here was my chance to pick the brain of the greatest horseman ever. No sooner had I turned the car’s engine over than the world’s greatest horseman was fast asleep. So he remained until we got to the airport.”
Chuck Sylvester – “It seems like I’ve had horses with Chuck forever. He’s a great horseman and an even better person. If you can’t find being with Chuck Sylvester enjoyable, then you don’t belong in this business. We’ve been partners on both owning horses and with Tom Walsh in establishing Magical Acres training center in New Jersey.”
Brett Pelling and Nifty Norman – “Two great horsemen and wise men who were often way ahead of the competition. They have the ability, often not found in this business, to think out of the box. People asked me when Brett left to go back to Australia was I upset? Maybe because of the loss of camaraderie, but not because of losing anything in terms of horsemanship. He and Nifty (Norman) were a team. There was very little difference in separating them. When Brett came back I left the trotters with Nifty and gave the pacers to Brett.
“As great an experience as I’ve had with these two guys training my horses, it has been even better having them as my friends. I’ve been to Dubai with both of them; traveled to Australia to visit Brett; been to France for the Prix d’Amerique with Nifty and spent countless hours with them in person and on the telephone.”
Peter Wrenn – “The first trainer/driver that I’ve had since Billy Haughton. He races the midwest division of the horses I have in training and races Ohio and Indiana breds. An added bonus with Peter is that he trains at Sunshine Meadows and I can come to see my horses in action all winter.”
What was your biggest disappointment in all your years in the sport?
“Most people would point to the disqualification of Papi Rob Hanover in last year’s Breeders Crown and they’d be mostly right. It was terribly devastating, not only because I felt I had the best colt that night, but also because I had chartered a plane and brought some dear friends to the race with me. We all were on our way to the winner’s circle when that light started flashing. I felt almost as bad for my friends as I did for myself when they took him down.
“But before Papi Rob, there was another incident.
“We had Pizza Dolce in an elimination of the Del Miller Memorial at The Meadowlands. In my opinion she was by far the best. She won fairly easily, but then that light started flashing. They took her down and of course she couldn’t participate in the final. At least with Papi Rob, we still got to keep second money. In the Miller Memorial, she didn’t even get a chance to race.”
What was the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in the business?
“I was selling what I thought was a pretty nice yearling. It ended up bringing about five per cent of what I thought it should bring. I realized right then that it’s next to impossible to both sell and buy yearlings in this business. If you are a buyer, then your credibility suffers drastically if you also try to be a seller.
“Anyway, I was feeling down, not so much because of the money, but probably more because my pride had been affected. In the midst of this remorse, along comes Ernie Martinez. He sits down and asks me if I would consider selling Pizza Dolce. I immediately said no. He persisted and asked if I would take half a million dollars for her.
“I thought a moment and considering the glum mood I was in, I reluctantly said yes. Ernie said, “You’ve got a deal. I bring you a check tomorrow.” I immediately said to myself, ‘What have I done?’ She was my favorite horse. More importantly, she was Mary Ellen’s favorite horse. I awoke the next morning hoping that Ernie wouldn’t bring the check. Then I could easily back out of the deal. As fate would have it, he showed up check in hand.
“The worst was yet to come, when I told Mary Ellen what I had done. Needless to say, she was not happy.
“The kicker is that I’ve spent well over a million dollars since bidding on and buying all of her foals.”
What are you most looking forward to?
“A horse by the name of Papi Rob Hanover and his 3-year-old season. When Papi Rob was a yearling I went to Harrisburg with the intention of buying a Captaintreacherous colt who subsequently had his name changed to Captain Nemo. I was the underbidder on him at the then staggering price of $400,000. I was disappointed in not getting him and encountered Hanover’s Dr. J outside the sales arena. I gave her my tale of woe and asked if there was another pacing colt that she felt strongly about. She said that she liked Papi Rob Hanover every bit as much as she liked the Captaintreacherous colt and that he wouldn’t bring near as much as he had brought. I knew that Brett had also liked the colt. I asked her what she thought he would bring. She said between $125-$150K. She was right on the money and I bought him.
“From Day 1 Brett was very impressed with him. He kept telling me that he could become something special. He never wavered in his confidence.
“Brett has said that he believes he is the best horse that he has ever trained. That is a mouthful when you consider that he has had Rocknroll Hanover, The Panderosa and numerous others. Like all other things in this great game of ours, we shall see.”
* * *
Perhaps next to, or maybe even more than, the huge amount of happiness the harness racing business has afforded me in the form of these fantastic creatures that constitute the foremost element in the sport, have been the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wonderful people that I have been privileged to have known in all my years in the sport.
Just the other day, fearing that I was running short of face masks, I posted a question on Facebook asking if any readers knew of the availability of them in South Florida.
I received several responses, most of them leading to sources where I might be able to get them.
One of the answers came from Rita Polese who said that she had a couple of homemade ones that she had received from an Amish lady in Lancaster County Pa.
They were ours for the asking if I could meet her at Barn 10 at Sunshine Meadows the next morning.
Would I ever? Yes indeed.
Upon receiving them, I asked her how much I owed her? She said, “I’ll charge you what the lady charged me – nothing”. I insisted, but so did she.
Finally she said “the next time you see a homeless person, or someone in need of help, please give them what you were prepared to pay me.”
I digress, but I thought this act of generosity, deserved mention, because Rita is one of many who make the populace of this sport as great as it is.
Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: email@example.com.