Columbus, OH --- Hall of Fame horseman Douglas J. Ackerman, 86, died May 28, 2014, in North Carolina after an illness of almost two years.
He was one of the most respected trainers in harness racing and widely admired for his innate horsemanship, ironclad integrity, and memorable sense of humor. His fellow horsemen held him in the highest esteem, and that is the ultimate compliment in his profession.
Mr. Ackerman was a fixture on the Grand Circuit for decades and trained and drove many top horses, such as Albaquel, Crowning Point, Self Confident, Noble Hustle, Denali, Happy Chatter, Noble Traveler, Amer I Can, Cape Canaveral, Leopard, and the old warrior Bramble Hall.
In recent years, he turned the driving duties over to his son, D.R., and together they raced Chocolatier, a winner of $1.3 million and the champion freshman trotter of 2005.
Albaquel was a daughter of Albatross, a stallion Mr. Ackerman said he admired greatly. She earned $498,222 in purses and was the dam of six pacers to earn more than $250,000, including the Ackerman Stable stars Ever So Rich and Just The Ticket. Albaquel is also the dam of the remarkable broodmare Hattie.
Mr. Ackerman had a master’s touch in selecting yearlings and his advice on conformation was sought by many other trainers. He was one of those rare horsemen who could “look right through a yearling” and size up its potential.
Mr. Ackerman had a well-honed sense of humor and always had a clever quip to fit just about any occasion. Surely long after his death people who knew him will be saying, “As Doug Ackerman once said……”
He grew up in the small rural community of Three Oaks in southwest Michigan, and both his father and grandfather trained and raced horses in the Midwest. Young Doug grew up immersed in the world of harness racing in Michigan and Indiana and recalls seeing Greyhound and Rosalind in their memorable team-to-pole effort at the Indiana State Fair in 1939. His late brother, Jack, was a noted horseman in his own right while brother Charles stayed on the family farm.
Their father, Rollin, died of a heart attack in a race at the fair in Hillsdale, Mich., when Doug was just 14 years old. His father was only 48.
Mr. Ackerman went west to seek his fortune in harness racing in the Golden State of California as a young man and set down roots there for more than a half-century. He trained for decades over the Thoroughbred track at Del Mar, just north of San Diego, which once had a large and thriving Standardbred winter colony.
He met Ada Jean Funderbunk, daughter of the prominent horseman Foy Funderbunk, in 1950. They were married four years later. They recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. While in California, Mr. Ackerman developed close friendships with Hall of Famers Joe O’Brien and Jim Dennis. The Ackerman family lived near the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Mr. Ackerman said he loved every day he trained horses at the magnificent Del Mar facility.
Mr. Ackerman’s ability and work ethic soon allowed him to attract owners and achieve success on the competitive California circuit. Each summer he would ship his stock East to compete on the Grand Circuit and Midwest tracks from a base in Michigan.
Mr. Ackerman was particularly close to Pres Jenuine, the major domo of the Western Harness meet at Hollywood Park for many years. When Hollywood Park conducted a seminar for new owners in 1970, Mr. Ackerman met Richard Staley, a fellow transplant from the Midwest to California. They formed an owner-trainer partnership and friendship that lasted until Mr. Staley’s death in the mid-1990s.
Mr. Staley entrusted Mr. Ackerman implicitly to manage the horses he owned and said he never questioned any of Mr. Ackerman’s decisions or purchases. He admired Mr. Ackerman’s honesty and horsemanship and they enjoyed phenomenal success over many years.
Mr. Staley recognized that Mr. Ackerman was a natural horseman, raised in an environment filled with horse talk. “Doug was to the manner born,” said the erudite Mr. Staley, borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare.
When Mr. Ackerman was inducted into the Living Hall of Fame in 1994, he gave credit to Mr. Staley for his friendship and patronage.
“He was the greatest owner ever,” said Mr. Ackerman. “Ever.”
Mr. Ackerman had a wide circle of friends in the sport, but was particularly close to such legends as Bill Brown of Blue Chip Farm, Delvin Miller, and George Sholty. The friendship between Mr. Ackerman and trainer-driver Howard Beissinger went back many decades and they talked on the phone regularly after their respective retirements. The two old-school Hall of Famers shared a love of rodeo, and Mr. Ackerman took great pleasure in owning a champion bucking bull in recent years.
Among the active horsemen in the sport, Mr. Ackerman had close relationships with Ray Remmen, John Campbell, Chris Boring, and many others.
In 1989, Mr. Ackerman, Beissinger, and Delvin Miller represented the United States in a driving challenge in Moscow against Russian and German reinsmen. Mr. Ackerman won the first race in the series, thus becoming the first American to win a race at the historic Central Moscow Hippodrome since before the Russian Revolution in 1917.
When Del Mar closed its track for training purposes almost a decade ago, Mr. Ackerman had to relocate his horses to Pinehurst, N.C. When asked the difference between training in southern California and Pinehurst, Mr. Ackerman quipped, “About 50 degrees.”
Mr. Ackerman was seldom seen without his beloved wife, Ada Jean, at his side. Their daughter, Connie Hochstetler, is a noted racing official whose husband, Homer, is a veteran trainer. Their son Jay, a student at the University of Kentucky, is now working as an intern at The Horseman and Fair World magazine. Son D.R. has been training and racing the Ackerman Stable horses during his father’s illness. He and his wife, Angelika, have sons D.R. Jr. and Kevin.
“We have lost an icon,” said USTA President Phil Langley. “Doug raced all over the country and was admired and enjoyed wherever he appeared. During the last few summers he would show up at Balmoral in warm weather to visit his daughter, Connie Hochstetler, and more often than not he and Ada Jean would pull up chairs and sit with me on my balcony porch.
“With his sardonic wit and recall of horses and horsemen, they were some of my favorite times. He was a true Hall of Famer that spanned the many years of pari-mutuel racing. Doug, Jim Dennis and Howard Beissinger were great friends and set a standard of excellence seldom matched. Doug was one of a kind and will be missed."
The family will receive friends from 1-2:30 p.m. at Boles Funeral Home in Pinehurst on Tuesday (June 3), prior to a memorial service at 2:30 p.m. A reception will follow at the Holly Inn in Pinehurst.
Memorial contributions may be directed to FirstHealth Hospice, 150 Applecross Rd., Pinehurst, NC 28374; Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, 240 Main St, Goshen, NY 10924; or Harness Horse Youth Foundation, 16575 Carey Rd, Westfield, IN 46074.