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REMEMBERING SAM MCKEE

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-- Ken Weingartner/Harness Racing Communications/USTA

MANALAPAN, NJ -- March 9, 2017 -- It is impossible to put a figure on the number of lives touched by Sam McKee. Whether through his race calls, studio interviews, work at horse sales, or personal interactions, Sam left an indelible mark on harness racing and the people in and around the sport.

And it would be difficult to find a person more respected and universally liked than Sam McKee. When news of Sam’s passing at age 54 due to complications from a stroke suffered in early February filtered through the industry Wednesday, the outpouring of admiration, love and support to his family on social media and beyond was a testament to Sam’s ability to make, as harness racing writer Dave Briggs wrote on Harness Racing Update’s Facebook page, “everyone feel like the biggest person in the room, when in truth, it was always him.”

Ken Warkentin, Sam’s colleague at the Meadowlands Racetrack and fellow announcer, spoke for many when he said, “This is undoubtedly one of the saddest days in the sport in a long time. Many like myself are in shock, devastated, in a state of disbelief and just plain sad. Sam was the modern day Mr. Harness Racing. It seemed like he knew everybody and everything about the sport.

“And Sam could do it all. He was talented, passionate, positive and an inspiration to all. And everybody knew it. He was so much fun to work with. He just made people and everything around him better.”

Hall of Fame driver John Campbell, who has called the Meadowlands home for decades, echoed those sentiments.

“We were so fortunate that Sam chose harness racing,” Campbell said. “With his talent, personality and knowledge, he could have been an announcer in any sport, whether it was NASCAR, football, or whatever. We were very fortunate that he turned his talents and abilities toward harness racing. He was such a shining light.

“He just had that bubbly, exuberant personality for what he was doing. When he was doing interviews, I think it rubbed off on a lot of people. I know it did me. He was always very upbeat. The interaction I had with Sam, whether it was on camera or off camera, was always fun and it was always something I felt good about. It was genuine. His enthusiasm for harness racing and people was right from his heart.

“The most important thing was the friendship I had with him. He was a very good friend.”

A native of Michigan, Sam’s interest in harness racing and announcing can be traced to his earliest days, virtually from the time he could speak. His family raced Standardbreds as a hobby at the county fairs and small tracks. Sam more than once told the story about being 4 or 5 years old and “calling races” with toy horses that had numbers taped to them.

When he was 10, Sam began writing letters to horsemen and others in the industry. He began a letter-writing friendship with legendary announcer Roger Huston, who became instrumental in helping launch Sam’s career behind the microphone. Huston invited Sam to The Meadows, where Sam had the opportunity to call qualifiers and a junior driving championship. After hearing Sam’s work, Huston persuaded Bobby Williams, the speed superintendent at the Clinton County fair in Ohio, to give the then-14-year-old Sam a job announcing races there.

“I was just flabbergasted at how good he was,” Huston told hosts Mike Bozich and Mike Carter last month on a “Post Time with Mike and Mike” podcast. “He had the voice of a 13-year-old, but he was seasoned even without ever being on the PA system. He was born to be an announcer, there’s no question in that. The amount of advice I had to give him was very minimal.

“It’s very seldom that somebody at the age of 6 determines what they want to do in life. He made it happen. He knew what he wanted to do and we were just so happy we had a part in getting him started.”

When he learned of Sam’s passing, Huston posted on Facebook yesterday, “A part of me will never be the same.”

A day after graduating from high school, Sam was hired as the track announcer at Saginaw Valley Downs and later Sports Creek Raceway. From there he moved to Raceway Park, where he called races and worked as director of group sales in addition to being involved in the publicity and television departments. A stint in the publicity department and announcing booth at Ladbrokes Detroit Race Course followed and in the early 1990s he served as director of operations at Northville Downs.

In the late 1990s, Sam was hired at the Meadowlands. He shared race-calling duties and soon added the role of TV coordinator at the track. In 2007, he also became the director of simulcasting.

Sam also worked the Grand Circuit meets at the Delaware County Fair, where he hosted the Little Brown Jug week simulcast, and The Red Mile. He was elected to the Michigan Harness Horsemen’s Association Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2012, he received the sport’s highest honor when he was elected to the Communicators Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.

Mike Tanner, the U.S. Trotting Association’s executive vice president, first met Sam when he was working at Detroit Race Course. Tanner was an intern at the time.

“It was my first front-side job in racing, and I was kind of in awe of him,” Tanner said. “He was a terrific announcer, even back then. But he was so kind, encouraging, and down to earth, and we became friends. When I got hired there on a full-time basis the next year, he might have been happier for me than I was for myself. That’s just the way he was.

“I can’t think of anyone in our industry better liked or more respected. I feel badly for anyone that never had the chance to meet him, and worse for those of us that did, because we know what we’ve just lost. He was special.”

The stories of Sam helping others, encouraging others, are countless. Gabe Prewitt, the executive secretary of the Kentucky Harness Horsemen’s Association and a multiple-track announcer, first heard Sam calling races at The Red Mile in the early 2000s --- Prewitt’s introduction to harness racing --- and acknowledged Sam’s role as a mentor, “so supportive of me from Day One,” on last month’s Post Time with Mike and Mike podcast.

Sam’s influence stretched beyond the announcer’s booth, Prewitt said. “Just on a personal level, his kindness, his class, how he treats everyone; I learned as much from him on a personal basis – just by observing him for that matter – as I have professionally.”

Jason Settlemoir, the chief executive officer and general manager at the Meadowlands, told Mike and Mike that Sam always had the ability to sense when someone was having a bad day. And he was always there to discuss the situation and help in any way possible.

“By the time the conversation was over you always felt enlightened by him,” Settlemoir said. “You’d walk out of talking with him being much happier.”

Meadowlands broadcaster and statistical guru Bob “Hollywood” Heyden, who was inducted to the Communicators Hall of Fame with Sam, recalled seeing Sam several years ago helping a lady who had fallen in the parking lot following a snowstorm during a Saturday night card at the Big M. Because the snowstorm hit during the card, the parking lot was not yet plowed. Heyden later found out that Sam had fallen several minutes prior to helping the woman, who was a waitress at the track, and injured his back.

“The only way I found out was by seeing the pills he was taking the following weeks,” Heyden said. “He didn’t say anything, and wouldn’t, because he was once again Sam being Sam.”

Beyond the racetrack, Sam was an accomplished horseman (see sidebar following this story) and a go-to choice as a pedigree reader at the industry’s horse sales, where his knowledge, expertise and demeanor made him a natural.

“Sam had an exacting job --- make a good impression for the horse in 15 seconds or less, give current update information about the horse with perfect accuracy, and be ready to jump back in at any moment if the auctioneer decides to pause the auction for emphasis,” said Russell Williams, the newly elected president of the U.S. Trotting Association as well as chairman of both the Standardbred Horse Sales Co. and Hanover Shoe Farms. “Sam’s work in this area was virtually flawless, and he did it with that wonderful voice of his.

“We at Standardbred Horse Sales Company have lost a great announcer, but we’re conscious now that we’ve lost a cherished friend. We offer our condolences to Sam’s family. You will be in our thoughts.”

Sam’s surviving family includes his wife Chris and daughters Meagan, Melissa and Lindsey.

“He was an amazing family man,” Warkentin said. “He was a true Hall of Famer; a great person, honest and pure. A true friend to many and a real gentleman.

“When I first heard of his passing I said it couldn’t be possible. And the first thing I thought was he wasn’t going anywhere. He’s always going to be here with us in so many ways. We will never forget Sam McKee.”

Sam McKee was a part of so many of harness racing’s greatest moments and biggest events. Here, we remember him with a few of our favorite Sam McKee moments, and some that were his favorites as well.

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