Dave McDuffee believes it took a village to get him to the Hall of Fame

The long-time owner will be inducted tonight into the Harness Racing Living Hall of Fame.

by Debbie Little

Dave McDuffee’s enthusiasm for harness racing is so electric it could light up a room, and even though tonight’s (July 7) Hall of Fame banquet (watch it live here) will be held outside under the stars, it’s a good bet none will shine brighter than him.

Growing up in Pepperell, MA, a young McDuffee could never have imagined he would one day see his name added to those of his heroes in the hallowed Hall.

As a current Harness Racing Museum trustee, each year McDuffee makes the nearly five-hour drive to Goshen, NY from his home in Rye, NH. McDuffee also has a home in Delray Beach, FL, where he spends winters and watches his babies at nearby Sunshine Meadows Equestrian Village.

Last year, prior to finding out he had been nominated to the Hall, totally coincidentally, McDuffee took a walk through the Museum’s Hall of Fame room and gazed upon the statues of the greats.

“As I walked down through there, those guys, the Billy Haughtons, the Stanley Dancers and even [owner] Octave Blake going way back, they were like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to me as a kid growing up, all of those great horse people, like Del Miller,” McDuffee said. “As I looked, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is like being in the Baseball Hall of Fame to me.’”

To understand the reverence of the comparison, in his younger years, McDuffee was offered a minor league baseball contract, which he never pursued.

From an early age, McDuffee wanted to be around horses. His dad had a couple of standardbreds at their farm and built a half-mile track in the middle of their backyard.

When McDuffee was a boy, maybe 6, 7, or 8 years old, he always wanted to go to the races with his dad.

“You know, in those days we didn’t have Route 95, it was like a four-hour ride to go to Gorham, ME to race in a $2,000 claimer,” he said. “But I wanted to go and I would go with him, but we wouldn’t get back until about three in the morning.”

McDuffee’s mom quickly put the kybosh on these late nights/early mornings for her young son.

“The next day I’d say I want to go and my mother wouldn’t hear it,” McDuffee said. “She said, ‘No, no, you’re staying home. You have to go to school.’

“I loved it right from the day I was old enough to be around them. I loved the horses. I still do love the horses. I think it’s an amazing animal and I got hooked on it, and, as I’ve told many people before, I actually bought a horse of my own before I bought an automobile.”

Which ended up being better, the car or the horse?

“I didn’t have many good horses for a long time,” he said. “So, the car was probably a much better investment. Well, it was probably more useful, but I didn’t start out buying a Mercedes, I’ll tell you that, they were used cars.”

Going back to last year’s stroll through the museum, McDuffee said, “Well, I hadn’t been nominated, didn’t expect to get nominated, but when I got the call [later in the year] that I had been voted in, the first thought that I had was, ‘Oh my God. What am I doing there with these people? My God, these are people that have contributed hard work.’

“Ownership is different than training and driving and that’s a hell of a lot different. But I’m so flattered, so honored for it. It’s the highlight of my life, it really is, I mean, I’m just so humbled by it.”

Unlike many who have gone before him, McDuffee does not plan to write a speech.

“I generally find that I’m better winging it,” McDuffee said. “The atmosphere sometimes is different and you kind of respond to the crowd you’re in front of, I think. I’ve never had any trouble speaking, so I suspect that I’ll have a few ideas in the back of my head.”

Although his speech may not be written down, McDuffee does have a title for it, which he shared when he was honored back in February at the Dan Patch Awards banquet.

“When I was invited to make a brief statement in Orlando this year, I didn’t say very much but I did say that I know what the title of my speech is going to be, and it’s going to be ‘It Takes a Village,’” McDuffee said.

The book It Takes a Village, written by Hillary Clinton, is about what it takes to raise a child and the contributions made by those outside the immediate family.

“I’ll probably use that term at some point because it took a village to get me in this Hall of Fame,” McDuffee said. “It wasn’t me doing it, it was all of these other people around me.”

Going with that theme, McDuffee has many he could thank, both human and equine.

The owner/breeder of multiple Dan Patch/O’Brien award winners was keeping his cards close to the vest regarding who he plans to thank, but he did mention his first significant partner, the late Tom Walsh, as well as partners Melvin Hartman and Herb Liverman, trainers Chuck Sylvester, Brett Pelling and Nifty Norman, and most importantly, his family, especially his wife of 58 years, Mary Ellen.

McDuffee will be introduced tonight by his good friend Steve Jones, who is his partner on the incomparable Bella Bellini.

McDuffee believes that Jones’ introduction will be on the brief side, remembering a conversation the two men had at the 2021 Hall of Fame banquet prior to McDuffee making an acceptance speech for one of his horses.

“So, that was when Bee A Magician went in the Hall of Fame,” said Jones, adding with a laugh, “I said [to Dave], ‘Look, nobody wants to hear these long speeches; keep it short and the shorter, the better. And he said, ‘Okay, how about thank you very much?’ And I said, ‘Too long.’ So, he just said ‘Thank you.’”

McDuffee always has a great and typically funny story to tell — the ones about his first date with his wife and his first conversation with Pelling immediately come to mind — but he didn’t want to say too much in advance of tonight’s ceremony. He said with a laugh if too much came out in print, he’d have nothing left to say at the podium.

“I’ve got five hours to drive down on Saturday because we have a board meeting first thing Sunday morning, so I will probably do a lot of thinking about what I want to say at that time,” McDuffee said, adding with a laugh, “I kind of think I ought to just take your article and just pass it around and then say, ‘Why don’t you all take that article, come out to the bar, I’ll buy you a drink, read the article and thanks very much.”