Columbus, OH --- I’m wearing a hat as I write this. I have a large collection of hats: baseball caps, Aussie Akubra hats, cowboy hats, and Irish woolen caps.
And if someone can tell me the name of a harness horse trainer more respected and liked by his peers than Doug Ackerman, I’ll not only eat the hat I’m wearing, but I’ll eat my whole darn collection. Because I don’t think it can be done.
Please don’t take my word for the esteem that Doug Ackerman commands. Ask Hall of Famers like Ray Remmen or John Campbell and many others. They’ll tell you.
Doug Ackerman celebrated his 84th birthday last fall and each year I realize more and more what a treasure he is to harness racing. And I think it’s his peers among the training fraternity who know this best.
I’ve known Doug Ackerman for almost 30 years and I consider myself lucky to call him a friend. Not only is he a great horseman, but he’s one of the wittiest guys I know and he can slip zingers into a conversation at any time. Some of them have stayed with me for years.
In 1984, Doug had a robust trotting colt named Crowning Point that came into the Hambo as a serious contender. A day or two before the race, I was sitting with Doug and some other horsemen in the track kitchen at the Meadowlands. Someone asked Doug if he was nervous about the big race.
“No,” quipped Ackerman, “I’m not nervous. I just hope Crowning Point isn’t nervous. I’ve been in the Hambletonian before, and I’ll probably get another chance, but he won’t.”
As luck would have it, Doug followed what he thought was the right horse that day in Baltic Speed, but it turned out to be the wrong horse. When Baltic Speed stalled, Crowning Point got a bit bully and jumped.
It’s well known that the annual vet bill for the Ackerman Stable probably wouldn’t pay for a Big Mac and fries; as I wrote many years ago, Doug Ackerman needs a vet like Venus de Milo needs a manicurist. Doug knows more about horses than most vets. You could search racing records back to the time of John Quincy Adams and not find a positive test on his record.
Many years ago when Doug trained at the bucolic Del Mar Fairgrounds in southern California, he let me go some training trips with some of his stock. One Nevele Pride filly pulled up lame after a mile and Doug sensed immediately it was a broken sesamoid. His vet -- a former Ackerman groom -- wasn’t so sure the sesamoid was the problem, but he said x-rays would determine that.
“I’ll bet you the cost of the x-rays that it’s a broken sesamoid,” Doug told the doc. And he was right.
In 1989, Doug and I went to Moscow with a group headed by the late Delvin Miller. Ackerman, Miller, and Howard Beissinger competed in a driving competition against the best from Russia and Germany. Doug became the first American driver to win a race at the resplendent Moscow Hippodrome since before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
The star Russian trotter then was Sorrento and he won the Russian Derby in a romp. A day or two later, the three American horsemen inspected Sorrento in hand and were asked by the Russians if they thought he could compete at the Meadowlands. Delvin, the goodwill ambassador, immediately agreed. Beissinger went along. Only Doug Ackerman candidly said, “I’m not so sure.”
He said that politely and with respect and I suspect Doug was correct. A year later I saw Sorrento racing at Solvalla in Sweden and yet he never came to America.
Most of all, I remember the laughs on that trip. Our first morning in Moscow Doug and I took a walk to try to find the racetrack. It was fenced off and obscured by thick shrubs, but we could hear horses jogging not far away.
Doug started searching for a spot where we could sneak into the track. I wasn’t so sure that sneaking in was a good idea because Russia was still a communist nation then and politically hostile to America.
“Every fairgrounds I’ve ever seen had a hole in the fence somewhere,” Doug said.
“Yeah, Doug, but what if we meet some big SOB with a machine gun on the other side?” I asked.
Beissinger provided us with frequent laughs as he was trying to sell the young stallion Cornstalk 3,1:53.4 to the Russians. They declined, saying that they didn’t have enough money in Russia.
“You spend too much money on tanks!” Beissinger replied.
One of the many traits that I admire in Doug Ackerman is how he has continued to work hard long after he’s attained rockin’ chair rights. He’s in Pinehurst now schooling another crop of 2-year-olds. Somehow I simply cannot imagine Doug hanging around a shuffleboard court after he reached 65; instead of being done working, Ackerman has persevered in his profession.
Shakespeare saluted such people when he wrote in Troilus and Cressida: “Perseverance, dear my lord, keeps honor bright; to have done is to hang, quite out of fashion….”
At age 84, Doug Ackerman keeps his honor bright by searching for his next star trotting colt. Let’s hope his horsemanship and character are never out of fashion in harness racing.
Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.