Goshen, NY — Finishing in 12th place in the New York Sire Stakes Excelsior series may not sound all that impressive to the casual observer. However, for small breeders Gary Messenger and Ken Weckstein, it’s the company they keep that sets them apart from the rest.
Messenger and Weckstein are named prominently among some of the top breeding farms in the entire industry, including Winbak, Crawford, Steve Jones, Hanover, Blue Chip, Fair Winds and Diamond Creek. Collectively, these commercial nurseries will have nearly a thousand of their foals racing each season.
When the Monticello-Goshen USHWA Chapter holds their 64th annual Awards Banquet on Sunday (Dec. 10), Gary Messenger & Ken Weckstein will receive the Cradle of the Trotter Breeders Award.
So, how do a couple of guys based in the Hudson Valley with three or four offspring a year get mentioned in the same sentence? “A lot of luck and following good advice,” noted Monticello native Gary Messenger.
“Steve Jones helps us with the bookings and getting the mares in foal. His farm is also a great place for us to raise our babies,” offered Messenger. “He has treated us very well.”
Jones knows a few things about the breeding business, having bred his share of Hambletonian and Breeders Crown champions. His broodmare band reads like a who’s who in Standardbred sport. This season, Jones is seventh in Sire Stakes earnings ($275,778) and third in the Excelsior ($206,800). Conversely, the Messenger & Weckstein foals have earned $66,750 in the second level series.
A little more digging and one would find out that Ken Weckstein actually lives around the Delmarva Peninsula, and is a lawyer by trade, practicing in Virginia. So, how did these guys meet and how did they get together? The answer is amateur racing. A pastime that finds its historical beginnings in Goshen, it was revitalized by the Gerry’s and others in the mid-1990s as the ‘Greatest Side Show in Harness Racing.’
Gary Messenger has been hanging around The Mighty M since 1975 and has amassed 1,881 driving wins and 2,371 training victories with his charges having earned over $12 million in purses. Weckstein began driving in 1993 and has over 100 victories in his thirty years of participating in the amateur ranks. Last year in 2022, he won 17 of 122 races and earned $136,815, mostly at Rosecroft Raceway. However, if you are an ‘avid’ amateur driver (is there any other kind?) then your journey also includes many layovers through the Catskills and Monticello Raceway.
Back in the mid-2000s, Gary had a mare in his barn named Winbak Delight, who was owned by Weckstein and another avid reinsman, Scott Leaf. She earned almost $400,000 in her career, so when her racing days were over, the daughter of Bettor’s Delight made an excellent broodmare prospect. Messenger bought a piece of her in 2015, and that is how the breeding business partnership started.
Both being partial to trotters, they owned another mare Get Chipped 1:54.3 ($415,424), who afforded Leaf and Weckstein some success. When it appeared that her racing days were numbered Messenger bought into her too. Her first foal was Chip Chip Conway 4,1:55.1f ($331,006). ‘Chippy’ had the misfortune of being born in the same year and in the same state as three-time Breeders Crown winner Gimpanzee. Nonetheless, Chippy came out swinging every week and still earned $103,719 at two while chasing that Melander Stable star.
Homebred Chip Chip Conway is now seven and still racing, and is the 2023 Monticello Raceway Trotter of the Year for the second time in his career. With 41 wins lifetime, he also won that honor in 2021.
“We almost lost him,” recalls Brenda Messenger, Gary’s wife, stable bookkeeper, and biggest fan. “In May of last year he was down with colic and needed surgery to survive.” Not only did the horse make a remarkable recovery, but he came right back a few months later, qualified once and then won the Open from post eight, twice, at Monticello in his first two starts back.
In fact, last year, Mike Mulligan, the owner of the 2022 Monticello Raceway Trotter of the Year Cinnamon Stick joked, “It was good for us that Chip Chip Conway got sick, or we would not have won this award.”
Chip Chip Conway is long since removed from state competition, so this year their homebred stable star is a freshman pacer named Spectacular Plus p,2,1:54.2h—’23 ($65,798). His grand dam is the aforementioned Winbak Delight. The Huntsville colt was the leading divisional point earner and money winner in the Excelsior program, winning four and finishing second in the final to the Schnittker Stable’s Pop It.
Messenger has been married to the former Brenda Heck for 25 years, and has one son and two grandsons. They met at the Mighty M when a horse they bought at the 1995 Harrisburg sale, Allot 1:58.3h ($286,193), turned out to be one of the track’s top trotters. Her father, Fred Heck, was also a driver at Monticello.
Weckstein stated that he and his wife, Andrea, have been married for 48 years and they have three daughters and one son together. They recently moved from Virginia to Oxen Hill, MD, citing a very simple reason, “so I could be closer to the track.”
The Monticello-Goshen USHWA Chapter’s Cradle of the Trotter Award, recognizes small breeders that have an impact on the industry yet often go unheralded.
This year, in addition to the year-end awards for horses and horse people from the local tracks, the Monticello-Goshen chapter will also honor Larry DeVan (Lifetime Achievement Award); Ron Ochrym (Excelsior Award); Tom Cunningham (Good Guy Award); Edison Hatter (Phil Pines Award); Jill Omen (Amy Bull Crist Distinguished Service Award); Adam Moeykens (Rising Star); Matt Zuccarello (Amateur Driver); and Mike Druss (Mighty M Awards of Appreciation).