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Mays, McNeight Jr. To Be Honoured

Published: December 15, 2016 10:34 am ET

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As the 2016 live racing season comes to a close at Batavia Downs, the upstate New York chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association annually recognizes the top horses and horsepeople that put on the show for the racing fans during the meet.

This year, the chapter will present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Rich Mays and the Award of Valor to Jim McNeight Jr.

Mays got his start in harness racing by working for his father, Frank Mays, who was a respected longtime horseman in western New York. They were stabled at the Butternut Farm, which was a training facility they owned in Silver Creek, NY.

At a young age, Mays, along with his brothers, Frank Jr., Tom and Terry, were taking care of outstanding horses like Mighty Tar Heel, a local legend that his father trained. Richie perfected his skills from the ground up and was eventually driving by the 1970s. Getting good mounts from the family stable gave Mays notoriety, and it didn’t take long before he became a very popular catch driver.

Through the 1970s and 80’s, Mays was one of the top drivers on the Batavia-Buffalo circuit, and the horses that he and his family campaigned dotted the top classes for many of those years.

Magician, Lyron Hanover, May O Neighs, Avon Sweet Song, Suspense, Elmo Hanover, Sam Fella, R L Lobell, Family Fortune, Spooky Doyle, Mountain Pam, Karens Joy, Diesel Duke, Two Twenty Two and Serious George are just a small sampling of names that Mays brought to the winner’s circle in a career that spans over five decades and is still going strong.

Mays has logged career numbers as both a driver and trainer. As a driver, Mays has 1,638 wins and $4.22 million in earnings. As a conditioner, he shows another 273 wins and $1.2 million in purses.

The words ‘successful’ and ‘professional’ could be used when discussing Mays. But ‘liked’ and ‘respected by all who know him’ is what everyone would tell you first.

On June 1 of this year, longtime western New York driver Jim McNeight went down in a three-horse accident at Buffalo Raceway and seriously injured his back. Being immediately sideline from doing any training or driving, and with a quick comeback not a consideration, the day-to-day operation of the stable was in serious jeopardy.

Jimmy’s son, 19-year-old Jim Jr., had been grooming horses for a little over a year before getting his ‘Q’ license. He had only driven 20 qualifiers in 2015 and 14 more in 2016. He was given his ‘P’ license and made his first pari-mutuel start on May 6 of this year. Seventeen professional drives into his career, his father went down and it was time for him to step up. And step up is exactly what he did.

It’s not easy to fill the shoes of a horseman who has 3,578 wins and $13 million earned driving, and another 974 wins and $3.3 million training. But the young McNeight answered the bell and put up impressive numbers, despite taking on his father’s training and driving responsibilities of a 10-horse stable with little experience.

McNeight Jr. had a lot to learn. He had never even driven a truck and trailer before. He received help from Michelle Gramza and Bradley Jackson (who would help him train), Bill Weigand (who helped him jog), and Bruce Scheffler, Dale Donovan and Mike Kwoka (who helped with barn work). The young McNeight eventually got a handle on the day-to-day operation and fell into a groove that helped his family keep the business running smoothly.

Two days after McNeight Jr. took over the barn, he scored his first ever win behind their good trotter, Jim Dandy in 2:00 flat. For the remainder of the Buffalo meet he added four more wins, eight seconds and 14 thirds out of 71 starts and earned $37,544 in purses.

During the current Batavia Downs meet, McNeight Jr. has 12 wins, 10 seconds and 15 thirds with $94,224 in earnings.

In the face of adversity and under a tremendous amount of pressure, Jim McNeight Jr. has put together a year he can be proud of. He registered 208 starts with 17 wins, 18 seconds and 29 thirds with $102,975 in purse money.

He also gained a wealth of experience through sweat equity, all with helping his family in mind.

Rich Mays and Jim McNeight Jr. will receive their awards in the Purple Haze Winners’ Circle at Batavia Downs on Friday night (December 16).

(Batavia Downs)

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