The McKee family: harness racing’s greatest gift

by Bob Heyden

We got the news early this week that Meagan McKee had died at 33. She’s the daughter of Sam and Chris McKee. This comes just a few months after they lost their daughter Melissa in February about a year younger than her older sister at 32. This after we lost Sam on March 8, 2017. Chris remains with her daughter Lindsey.

A decade ago, this was completely unthinkable, but we don’t get a vote on the fates.

For those unfamiliar with the McKee family, here’s a quick refresher.

They came east from Michigan in 1999 for good. The year before Sam had put his toes in the NJSEA waters at The Meadowlands as a fill-in. The situation changed a year later as the McKee family made their way to Blairstown, NJ. Sam had worked at Detroit Race Course and actually moved earlier in 1999 to Northville to be a simulcast coordinator and a race caller. A hint/preview of the extensive tool belt he wore proudly.

Sam and Chris’ girls were preteens then and, shall we say, a whirlwind of energy, fun, mystery and sass, with some extra on the end there. They didn’t even know where the shallow end of the pool was. Instead, they would be jostling off the high board elbowing to see who goes first. If you talked to one of the girls — Lindsey, Meagan or Melissa — another was likely to finish the thought.

Sam, well, he became the single most important person at The Meadowlands. And the most versatile. Oh, my goodness could he do it all. And he wanted to. And all the while, Sam and Chris never took a step without the betterment of their girls first and foremost.

I never could quite separate the girls. To me they were always the “McKee Girls.” The wattage in every room went up significantly when they entered, almost always together. More than once on a Sunday afternoon at The Meadowlands I had a program shoved into my chest followed closely by “Pick some winners buster!” Gloria Heyden’s cookies were soon a part of the regimen also. The young ladies, now, as I fast forward a bit, seemed to be open books. There was no whispering in the corner. They were sharers all. And on a busy Hambletonian Day or Meadowlands Pace Night, there was no more welcome sight than Chris and the girls. Appointments not necessary.

Sam all the while excelled at each and every role.

I remember what Tom Charters, CEO of the Hambletonian Society, said after Sam’s death, “We will have the Hambletonian this year, but without Sam, I’m not sure how.” This from the very man who was the backbone of the sport’s biggest race.

Sam never said, Sam did. He had your back, and often you didn’t even know it. I found out four or five years later after my 2013 trip to Florida for the Horse of the Year awards dinner that Sam had John Brennan looking out for me, hotels, flights, etc. He fought endlessly for Ken Warkentin. He cared like no one I’ve ever seen and you can bet it carried over to his girls. Melissa told me at his wake in March 2017, “You wouldn’t believe what kind of a father he is.” Actually, I would.

Harness racing is indeed a community sport. If one of the driver’s/trainer’s kids fall off his/her bike, half a dozen mothers are out there in a flash with first aid kits, ice and cold compresses. No event can unify us any more than this. There’s a part of all of us that feels almost as if we are levitated above the tragedy for a moment, knowing fully what has happened but powerless to actually do something. 

A couple of events stick in my mind, and all the McKees were present. The 2016 Hambletonian, Sam’s last, was a grandioso show that featured Nick Jonas and Martin Truex for sure. I know that because I got to chat with them both and many others. Sam poured it on that day. Can it really be the seventh Hambletonian without Sam in 2023?

Sam and Chris were quite proud of their girls’ athletic prowess and their association with Kentucky. Not only college but the Red Mile. Sam’s final day there was Always B Miki’s 1:46 mile.

Is there a sense of relief involved here? I’d say so. Meagan had bravely been fighting a rare form of pediatric cancer for over three years and wanted to help others after she was gone. There may be a dash of anger/helplessness in there too as the girls were smack in the prime of life. Sam was running five miles several times a week for years for goodness sakes. There’s a randomness here that is absolutely maddening. Nobody, not a single one of us, is promised a thing. Life is unifying, then it isn’t. 

I’m feeling glad, and not sad, now. Emphasis on now. Immediately after getting these thunderbolts? No. Not at all. But I am so grateful for the last quarter century. The entirety of it.

My freshest recollection comes from last Nov. 12 at The Meadowlands for the Dave Brower Memorial. There was a great turnout and it was well deserved.

As I made my way through a sea of familiarity and a bunch of re-introductions, I came to Melissa McKee. Before a word was said I got the biggest bear hug. A please don’t let go/thanks for always being there for my dad, hug. Those are my words. I had no clue that would be the last time I would see Melissa.

From It’s A Wonderful Life, released Jan. 7, 1947, it was said at the end of the movie that George Bailey was the richest man in town. That movie was adapted from the book, The Greatest Gift. It’s similar to the one harness racing has had for the last quarter century with the McKee Family.