Magee shifts from Breeders Crown winner to judge

by Dave Little, for the Breeders Crown

Cranbury, NJ — Once a harness driver, always a harness driver.

For someone with nearly 12,000 race wins and more than $100 million in earnings, that statement would have to be spot-on, no? Not for Dave Magee, whose highly successful driving career on the Chicagoland circuit has now seen him transition to an associate judge at Indiana’s Hoosier Park, a position enhanced by the fact that Magee had a nearly four-decade career in the bike.

From the judges’ stand, Magee is keenly aware of what drivers are experiencing on the track. But when it comes to rulings, don’t call him sympathetic.

“I try to be totally objective,” said Magee. “I try it to see it from their perspective. I try to be understanding of their position.”

These are big times at Hoosier Park. The Breeders Crown eliminations were held Oct. 20 and 21, with championship events for females on Oct. 27 and males on Oct. 28.

Equiphoto-Meadowlands photo

Dave Magee drove Anniecrombie to the win in the 1988 Breeders Crown Mare Pace.

Magee, who was voted into the harness racing Hall of Fame in 2000, will be a judge for a Breeders Crown, but this isn’t his first appearance when it comes to the series. He also won a Breeders Crown. Magee and the great Anniecrombie teamed up to win the 1988 Mare Pace at the Meadowlands in a lifetime-best 1:52.3.

Magee remembered a lot about his mare, but the race itself? Not so much.

“I thought I had a good shot and felt like if the trip worked out, I’d get my first Breeders Crown win,” said Magee. “She was really tough and fast and durable. She had all of the tools. She was a good mare. I don’t remember much about the other horses in the race. That was a long time ago. I’m not sure if I came up the inside or second up. I’m almost 64. I’m having a hard time recalling.”

Anniecrombie brushed to the lead at the three-eighths, then yielded to Singing Strings. She then sat in the pocket as Singing Strings and Kittiwake battled for the lead around the far turn. Magee swung his charge off the rail with a little less than three-sixteenths to go and powered past the top two before holding off Armbro Feather, who had explosive pace in the stretch to get up for second.

Anniecrombie was a serious horse. Her six-year racing career totals read 164 starts, 68 wins and $1.4 million in earnings.

“It was my first and only Breeders Crown win, so it was pretty special,” said Magee. “On a national level, it’s my biggest win. I won quite a few American-Nationals, but that win was very special. It was at the Meadowlands, which was then in its prime.”

Magee’s work ethic is hard to beat. He retired from sulky duty at Balmoral Park on Feb. 28, 2015 and started his gig as a judge at Hoosier three days later.

“I was offered the position,” said Magee. “It seemed like a great opportunity to transition from driving and stay in the sport.”

Magee had let then-presiding judge Tim Schmitz know that he was interested in becoming a judge, and in late winter of 2015, a transition was in the works in the Hoosier judges’ booth.

“They were replacing judges and my name came up,” said Magee. “I was getting a little long in the tooth, as they say, and I got a call from them and interviewed for the job.”

His resume helped expedite things.

“They made an exception in my case,” said Magee. “I wasn’t certified to be a judge, but my experience, plus the input of the other two judges, went a long way toward me getting the job. Then, the first opportunity I got, I went through the U.S. Trotting Association certification course.”

The trio of judges has all bases covered. Magee brings his driving expertise as one of the associate judges. Kevin Gumm, who has an administrative background, is the other associate, while Mike Hall, who has experience in all sides of the business, is the presiding judge.

“Mike checks with us before giving his opinion,” said Magee. “But it’s unanimous almost always.”

Magee thinks about what could have been in Chicago.

“We lived out in the country, about an hour and a half from Balmoral,” said Magee. “It was tough to leave. But Illinois is a high tax state and has dysfunctional government, especially concerning horse racing. My first year on the job in Indiana, I watched and saw the decline of racing in Illinois. It was heart-wrenching. I really wanted to get out of Illinois, just because of the frustration I felt over so many years of trying to pass legislation that would impact harness racing in a positive way.”

Now that he’s moved his family to Indiana — in the country, of course — all is rosy.

“I think most everybody is really proud of Hoosier Park. If you visit the facility, you would be impressed. Management puts a lot into racing.”

“I’m excited to be a part of it (Breeders Crown),” said Magee. “It’s not as exciting or as nerve-racking as if I was participating with a horse. But sometimes, I get an itch to be out there, now that I’ve been out of the bike for a couple of years. I’ll be imagining what it would be like to be back.”

Once a harness driver, always a harness driver.

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