Max Heath, a Campbellsville native now living in Shelbyville, marked one item off his “bucket list” in his first year back as an owner of harness horses.
Duel in the Sun won the $250,000 Kentucky Sire Stakes final for two-year-old pacing colts on Sept. 9 at Lexington’s Red Mile harness track. And his longtime friends Randall and Pat Phillips joined Heath and his wife Ruth Ann, also of Campbellsville, for that special night.
Heath told of how he got interested in the sport and about his investment in the sport and his luck winning the top race for harness horses sired by stallions standing in Kentucky.
“When I was a sports editor there back in the late 1960s, trying to ensure coverage of all Taylor County related sports, I learned of the late Alvin “Buel” Tucker and Jim Maupin racing harness horses at a newly-opened race track, Louisville Downs on Poplar Level Road,” Heath stated. “Both had raced in Chicago and elsewhere and looked forward to being closer to home. Tucker was also track superintendent at the track started by the late, great promoter, William H. King. My friend Charlie Stiles took me there, and I’ve followed the sport every since.
“I even started Campbellsville Night at Louisville Downs when managing editor of The News-Journal, and got 120 people or so to turn out. The late Robert Miller presented the trophy for a race named in our honor, and the late Margaret Edith Tucker, wife of Buel, was most supportive.
“My future wife, Ruth Ann, and I went to Louisville Downs together in 1969 and both loved the excitement, and developed our favorite horses and drivers. We’ve enjoyed the sport throughout our 43 years together.”
Heath also told of how he started owning harness horses.
“I had been working as executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers in Shelbyville since 1980 after five years in Tell City, Ind.,” Heath remarked. “About 1983, a company “shrink” was evaluating corporate staff for management development. The guy told me that I was working too hard and needed to develop some interest outside of work.
“Terry Tucker, Buel’s son and a Campbellsville High football player when I was student manager in the early 1960s, had followed his father into the business.
“I had gotten reacquainted with him at Louisville Downs and asked him if I could buy in on a horse as a hobby. I bought 10 percent of a yearling filly pacer, D Cup, who died in Florida training, but made money due to her speed allowing an increase in insurance value over our purchase price. Seeing her train in Lexington was a big thrill, even if she never raced. I was hooked.”
Despite not much success, he stayed involved in the sport.
“Not much success, but I stepped up, buying 20 percent of two more filly pacers in a couple years. One, Skyline Skipper, was quite good, winning twice at Lexington, and second to the world champion Anniecrombie, before being sidelined with an injury. She became an excellent producer of money-winners as a brood mare in Illinois.
“James “Petie” Wilson, who had graduated high school with my brother in 1958, was another fan who was partner on some of the horses with Terry, and had the successful Corrie Messenger that I was not a partner on. Sam Cox of Campbellsville, a long-time owner with Tucker, was partner on most of the horses as well, and had several good ones.
“I owned a filly pacer selected and trained by Mike Zeller of Lexington, who I asked to train for me in the late 1980s. Elegant Lass was a beautiful filly with perfect conformation, but bowed a tendon in her first start on a rain-slick Louisville Downs track, and never raced again. She became a brood mare in New Jersey for some associates of Zeller, now retired.
“I had formed First Amendment Stable as managing partner, with shares owned by the late publishers, Lewis Owens of the Herald-Leader in Lexington and Mary Schurz of the Danville Advocate-Messenger, and Dr. Bob McGaughey, chair of the journalism department at Murray State University. Bob was a long-time friend who had owned claiming horses at Louisville Downs.
“I gave it one more shot with Tucker in 1991-92 on Sky High Skipper, by the world-record-holding Nihilator. But, she won just one race at Lexington prior to her brood mare career. She didn’t like to go to the starting gate, requiring an outrider to start the unruly filly.
After a 20-year hiatus, Heath got back in the business this year.
“I got out in 1992 as my son, Jason, started to college and waited 20 years to get back in.
“But, I still had the desire, and had looked for opportunities to get back in the game since my retirement in June, 2008. My “bucket list” goal was to win a Kentucky Sire Stakes championship. But, Tucker had moved to Florida to manage South Florida Training Center in Lake Worth, and then died of cancer way too young. Zeller had retired, and I was short on contacts.
“Like so many things, the Internet changed the game for horse ownership, too.
“I had continued my membership in the U.S. Trotting Association. VIP Internet Stable, LLC e-mailed me an offer last year to buy shares of two Kentucky-bred yearlings, a pacer by world-record holder Cambest, and a colt by first-year sire Deweycheatemnhowe, a $3.1 million winner. Both stood at Walnut Hall Ltd. in Lexington.
The Kentucky Sire Stakes was still paying a $250,000 final purse, down from $300,000 a few years earlier as stallions left the state, but still among the top-paying harness sire stakes in the country. That attracted the interest of VIP Stables, who had not offered Kentucky breds in its first few years.”
Heath explained how the Internet stable works.
“This one is super. After checking them, and their chosen trainer, John Butenschoen, out with industry insiders, and talking directly to the trainer, I bought shares of both to hedge my bets,” Heath grinned. “They sent me the paperwork, and then very detailed monthly training bills.
“Updates were made regularly to the partner portion of their website, including training video from Florida. I strongly recommend them to anyone wanting to try the sport without having to make a large investment. They update you on the horse’s upcoming races, then how they performed, with link to race program pages a couple of days prior. You can watch your horse race through the track website when you can’t attend distant tracks.”
Duel in the Sun’s background also is interesting.
“He was named for the historic golf match between (Jack) Nicklaus and (Tom) Watson in Scotland in 1977 by VIP’s managing partner,” Heath offered. “He was sold as Bestidigitator. He trained down well and they staked him to races in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana along with the Kentucky Sire Stakes.
“The fact that only 42 colt pacers were nominated for the sire stakes due to declining stallions in Kentucky helped his odds, if he could make it.
“He ended up winning four of eight races, was never worse than third, and set a personal record of 1:52.2 in his sire stakes final. He ended up making over $184,000 his first year, and is now “turned out” to rest and grow in preparation for a higher-stakes three-year-old season in 2013.”
Duel in the Sun’s main rival in Kentucky was another Cambest colt, Blatantly Best, who won a $15,000 split division of the first $30,000 leg after passing Duel on the far outside in the stretch.
In the second $30,000 leg, Duel beat him by joining Blatantly Best with a come-from-behind trip.
The $250,000 final, where Duel in the Sun won half the purse, was a real “duel” with both fighting down the long Red Mile stretch and Blatantly Best’s driver bumping into Duel’s race bike twice coming down the stretch and again at the wire. Despite a judge’s inquiry, Duel won by a short nose anyway to settle the rivalry until another year.
“We celebrated in the Red Mile clubhouse with the Phillipses, who attended two of his three races, and long-time friends Ann and H.I Stroth of Louisville.
Stroth was a graduate of Campbellsville University with Heath and assistant editor with him at the News-Journal in 1969.