It was mighty cold outside, but the warmth emanating from the room surely spread its heat throughout the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in Worthington, Ohio, on Saturday as 77-year-old Don McKirgan took the stage at the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association annual banquet to be feted for his induction into the state’s Hall of Fame. True to the form that was responsible for his selection by the Ohio chapter of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, McKirgan’s speech was succinct and self-effacing.
"Thank you to everyone for choosing me," said the Sagamore Hills resident. "I don’t belong here with all the people I have looked up to and admired all these years; I don’t deserve it. Thank you for all the people that worked for me and with the horses every day. They are the backbone of this industry and thank you to my wife Sandy; if I last another six weeks it will be 49 years she has been with me."
A former pupil of Hall of Famer Delvin Miller, McKirgan arrived at Northfield Park when that facility opened its doors in 1957 and has never deserted the backside since his first appearance. In fact, he was elected to the Northfield Wall of Fame in 1992 after demonstrating his prowess over the oval by collecting leading driver honors in 1977 and 1981.
Throughout the early years of the 1980s McKirgan continued to reign supreme at his home track as his Universal Drivers Rating (UDR) topped his rivals in 1980, 1982, 1983 and 1985.
During his illustrious career, McKirgan has racked up 3,641 driving victories and banked $10.5 million from nearly 25,000 starts.
Renowned for his assessment of the great Meadow Skipper, whom he felt should have been gelded early in his career due to his often alarming antics, McKirgan was at the helm to guide the careers of five Ohio champions. He, however, took the greatest pride in his association with 2015 Ohio Horse of the Year and world champion Like Old Times.
"She is the best horse I have ever had in my barn," he said in 2016. "She has perfect manners on and off the track. She is also very intelligent and enjoys her work. When it comes to trotting fillies they can be difficult and have a lot of bumps in the road. This one has never had an issue. She is beautifully gaited and although I put headpoles and a hood on her ears as a 2-year-old, I don’t think she needs them. I just never wanted to change anything since she has done so well. If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. That is one thing I’ve learned over the years.
"She just loves being out there, is easy on herself and does everything on her own. It has been a pleasure to watch Mr. Ross (Keith Ross, the mare’s owner/breeder) enjoy her and she has probably added at least another four years on to my life. She makes you want to get up and come to the barn each morning to see her."
Referred to as "Ohio’s Trotmaster" McKirgan has been just as prolific with horses of the diagonal gait and has overcome personal tragedy, to not only capture a race every season except 2004 when he was sidelined by the rare Gullian-Barre disease for six months, but to accrue another unique distinction.
"That win (behind Like Old Times in 2015) probably makes Don the oldest trainer and driver (at age 75) to win a race here in Ohio, but age is just a number because it has been one of the best years of my life," Ross said at the time.
Although she could not join McKirgan at the podium, the admiration for the accomplishments of 2017 Ohio Horse of the Year, Ohio 3-year-old trotting Filly of the Year and Ohio Triple Crown champion Rose Run Sydney was just as unabashed. The daughter of Triumphant Caviar-Stonebridge Dancer also was responsible for another rarity, which was acknowledged by her co-owner and conditioner, Steve Carter.
"This is one of the few times in my life that I have been at a loss for words; I am just speechless," he said. "I never thought she would win Horse of the Year because people seem to prefer pacers to trotters. Thank you so very much to everyone that voted for her."
Bred by Rose Run Farm, Rose Run Sydney is certainly the most successful progeny her dam has produced, but each of her five siblings of racing age made it to the races and earned a check.
Purchased by Carter, Adam Friedland and RBR Racing for $10,000 at the 2015 Ohio Selected Jug Sale, the filly showed talent as a freshman with a resume of 13-7-4-1 and $84,917 in purse money. It was as a sophomore, however, that Rose Run Sydney blossomed.
After a third place finish in her seasonal debut at Miami Valley Raceway on April 23, the filly reeled off four consecutive victories prior to finishing second by a nose on July 14 in Ohio Sire Stakes company at Scioto Downs. She rebounded to score five straight wins before coming home sixth in an Open Handicap against older and male rivals on Oct. 5 at Hollywood Dayton Raceway.
Rose Run Sydney, obviously a durable individual, was transported to Hoosier Park, where she captured a $68,800 division of the Circle City, was second in a $63,000 division of the Pegasus to Indiana champion Satin Dancer and was ninth behind Kentucky Filly Futurity winner Ice Attraction in the $140,000 Crossroads of America after an uncharacteristic break in stride early in that contest.
For her 3-year-old campaign, Rose Run Sydney earned $335,866 and possessed a slate of 17-11-2-1.
"All I can say is thank God for Rose Run Sydney," Carter said when he accepted her plaque for 3-year-old trotting filly champion honors.
Other U.S. Harness Writers Association Award winners were:
Peter Haughton Award – Cameron McCown
Winner’s Circle Award – Team Brian Brown
Rambling Willie Award – C. Ed Mullinax
Ohio Standardbred Hall of Fame – Feelin Friskie
Immortals of Ohio Racing Hall of Fame – Joe Adamsky
The horses joining Rose Run Sydney as Ohio champions were:
Two-year-old pacing male – Seeing Eye Single
Two-year-old pacing filly – Bad Girls Rule
Two-year-old trotting male – Mission Accepted
Two-year-old trotting filly – Looking For Zelda
Three-year-old pacing male – Drunk On Your Love
Three-year-old pacing filly – Pistol Packin Mama
Three-year-old trotting male – Fraser Ridge
Older pacer – Youlookhot
Older trotter – Sandys Victory
Kaltenbach Award (Ohio Sire Stakes) winners:
Brian Brown – Trainer
Chris Page - Driver