Communicators Hall of Famer Sam McKee, one of the most well-known and respected announcers in horse racing, passed away during the early-morning hours of Wednesday, March 8 as a result of complications after suffering a major stroke early last month. He was 54.
McKee was the announcer and simulcast director at the Meadowlands Racetrack, leaving his home state of Michigan in 1998 to work on a fill-in basis at the New Jersey racetrack. Soon after he was hired as full-time announcer, later adding the title of simulcast director.
Born on March 24, 1962, in Mount Pleasant, Mich., McKee grew up on his family's 32-acre farm in Linden, Mich. Raised in a harness racing family, McKee played with toy horses and gave imaginary race calls.
"From the time I was four or five years old, I was fascinated by announcers," McKee once said. "When I was 10 I went on a big letter-writing kick, and it blew me away to get something back from a star horseman. I had a very nice handwritten note from Billy Haughton that said something like ‘In this age of jets and machinery, it's nice to see young people interested in harness racing.' Stanley Dancer was very nice and sent me pictures of Albatross and Super Bowl."
At age 12, McKee began training and jogging horses over the half-mile racetrack on his family's farm. When he was 18 he received his 'P' drivers' license, and that year he won two of 38 starts at the Michigan fairs.
It was at age 14 though that McKee's dreams of becoming a race announcer came to fruition. In 1976, at the Clinton County fair in Ohio, track announcer Roger Huston persuaded U.S. Trotting Association supervisor of officials Dennis Nolan to give the young teenager a chance to announce the races.
"I said he'd have to pay Sam $50 a night plus expenses," recalled Huston. "He said, ‘I'm not paying a 14-year-old kid $150.' I said, ‘Yes you will. He's good, and you'll get the money back through the publicity of having him there.
"He had written to me, and we went back and forth, and then he finally had the guts to introduce himself and talk to me. He would go to Hazel Park and other places, and sit in the stands with a tape recorder and call races and send me the tapes."
McKee graduated from Lake Fenton High School and the day after he was hired as track announcer at Saginaw Valley Downs and later at Sports Creek Raceway. In 1983, he moved to Toledo's Raceway Park, where he announced the races through 1988. In addition to his race-calling duties, McKee also worked as director of group sales, and was involved in the track's publicity and television departments.
McKee went on to work in the publicity department and announcer at Ladbrokes Detroit Race Course, also adding the title of simulcast director. In the early 1990s he also served as director of operations at Northville Downs.
It was while at Northville McKee was asked if he could travel to the Meadowlands to announce on a part-time basis, which soon led to his full-time hiring.
"We were looking for an announcer to go with Ken Warkentin," remembered Chris McEarlean, the Meadowlands general manager at the time. "Sam left a very favourable impression from his first stay here. When the opportunity came up for a full-time position, he was our first choice."
When new ownership took over the historic Red Mile, they hired McKee as announcer. He made many racing moments there iconic, including his call of Always B Miki's record 1:46 mile last fall.
McKee was elected to the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association's Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2012, he received the sport's highest honour when he was elected to the Communicators Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.
He is preceded in death by his mother and survived by his wife Chris; three daughters Meagan, Melissa and Lindsey; sister Sally; father Alton and step-mother Theresa.
Visitation will be held Sunday, March 12 at the Newbaker Funeral Home in Blairstown, NJ, from 1:00 - 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. A service will be held Monday, March 13 at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepard, also in Blairstown, at 12:00 p.m.
Memorials may be made to the Harness Horse Youth Foundation, 16575 Carey Road, Westfield, IN 46074 or the American Heart and Stroke Association.
Please join Standardbred Canada in offering condolences to the family and friends of Sam McKee.