Trotting fillies Bella Bellini, Venerable give David McDuffee a year to remember in 2021
Interview by Gordon Waterstone
Owner David McDuffee arguably had his best year ever as an owner in 2021 when his 3-year-old homebred filly trotter Bella Bellini won the Hambletonian Oaks and his 2-year-old filly trotter Venerable captured the Mohawk Million, beating colts.
McDuffee has had his share of great horses over the years, none more so than the 2013 Horse of the Year Bee A Magician. His past roster also has included stars such as Little Brown Jug winners Magical Mike and Armbro Operative, Dan Patch Award winners Kadabra, Pizza Dolce and Poof She’s Gone, and 2020 world champion Papi Rob Hanover.
McDuffee, who retired from his insurance business 20 years ago, has been married to his wife, Mary Ellen, for more than 50 years. The two live half the year in New Hampshire and the other half in Florida. They have one daughter and six grandchildren; a son died six years ago after a heart attack.
On Sunday night, Feb. 20, McDuffee was honored as the 2021 Norman Woolworth Owner of the Year at the U.S. Harness Writers Association’s annual Dan Patch Awards banquet in Orlando, Fla. Before the gala, he took time to talk with USTA Editorial Specialist Gordon Waterstone about his experiences in racing—both the highs and the lows.
Hoof Beats: Let’s get right to it. All these years in harness racing, how does it feel to finally be recognized as Owner of the Year?
McDuffee: We had a terrific year and, as always, the credit doesn’t go to me. It should go to the trainers who do all the work. That’s basically how I look at it. But I’m very humbled by the honor.
HB: Let’s go back to the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
McDuffee: I was born in Massachusetts and my dad Duane had a couple of fair horses. He never had anything very special but he loved the horses, and my great appreciation of the horses started right there. As I’ve often said, I had a horse before I had a car. We raced locally at the fairs and at Rockingham Park and Foxboro for years.
HB: What was your schooling? Were you active in sports?
McDuffee: I went to a private school as a kid and I played a lot of basketball and baseball. My claim to fame as a baseball player came when I got drafted in the military and sent to Germany. We had a battalion team that I played on and they had an all-star team and I made that. At that time special services had a baseball team that played all over Europe and I made that. Almost everybody on that team had a major league contract. That was a great experience for me. My military career was that I was a baseball player. A long time ago, but great memories.
HB: You’ve been married to Mary Ellen for more than 50 years. How did you meet?
McDuffee: It was a blind date. Mary Ellen, who was starting as a schoolteacher at the time, had a friend who was a schoolteacher who was a friend of mine and they hooked us up on a blind date. Now we’re heading toward 55 years together.
HB: Did she know harness racing or was it a teaching process?
McDuffee: She didn’t know a horse from a cow (laughing). But she’s gotten pretty good at it. She enjoys it and she is pretty damn good as she can watch a race and see some things that I don’t see. That’s pretty good, I think.
HB: Do you remember your first horse?
McDuffee: The first significant horse I had was Miles McCool, who won the (1993) Adios and (1992) Fox Stake. He was a full brother to Magical Mike, who we had the next year. Over the years we’ve had some really good horses, but saying that, Bee A Magician was right there at the top. I think if Papi Rob (Hanover) hadn’t got hurt, he would have been in the same category.
HB: Did you ever jog a horse yourself?
McDuffee: Oh yeah, for sure. I used to jog and train a little bit when I was younger. I used to send some horses to Florida in the wintertime and I’d come down and jog them. My dad was more hands-on than I was. My dad could shoe a horse. I tell stories about him back 70 years ago when we were training horses at Rockingham Park. We’d get there at seven in the morning and we had those old Rodney trotters, and my dad would spend all day shoeing them and trying to get them balanced properly. And we’d still be there at seven at night.
HB: You’ve owned horses yourself and with partners. Any preference?
McDuffee: I’ve had some great partners. There’s nothing like having a partner when you have a good horse. You have something to talk about and look forward to together. I don’t have any problems with partners. I try to partner up on almost anything I buy. Only the homebreds I keep myself just because it’s too complicated to price them right, I guess.
HB: What do you love most about being an owner?
McDuffee: Oh my goodness! To me, the best thing about this sport and owning horses, it’s like owning a major league baseball team. I can’t afford to own a baseball team but I can afford to manage my stable and have fun with it and still think I’m pretty involved. Obviously, the horses are just unbelievable animals. I love every one of them.
HB: What do you dislike most about being an owner?
McDuffee: (laughing) You know what drives me crazy? The other day I had to go for my fingerprints for a license somewhere. I’ve been fingerprinted 100 times the last 10 years and they’re still making me do it. I can’t figure it out, because my fingerprints aren’t ever going to change. With the technology they have today, you should only have to do it once. I guess it’s a money grabber.
HB: What was the best advice given to you, and from whom?
McDuffee: Let me tell you something that my father told me when I was a kid. I played a ton of golf when I was 17, 18 and 19 years old. My dad didn’t know much about the game. One day he says to me, “Dave, I’ve been studying that game. Here’s my evaluation of it. If your handicap is over 20 you have no business playing. And if it’s under 20, you’ll have no business.” I thought to myself, that’s quite a message. He’s giving me a message that I better get my act together (laughing). That doesn’t have anything to do with the horses, but it’s quite a story.
HB: Let’s talk about 2021. We’ll start with Venerable, and the decision to go against the boys in the Mohawk Million, which she won.
McDuffee: It came down to two things. Number one was that we thought she was good enough to beat the boys. The second thing was that she was in Canada because she was there for the Peaceful Way. We had to make a choice as she would have been the heavy favorite in the Sires Stakes final in Kentucky. But shipping the horses around all summer long, both Nifty (trainer Richard “Nifty” Norman) and myself thought it would be better if we stayed right where we were in Canada. It worked out well because she won the race. But she still wasn’t at the top of her game at the end of the year, which is tough to do when she raced 11 times as a 2-year-old, as that’s tough.
HB: What are the chances Venerable could go against the boys in this year’s Hambletonian? Too early?
McDuffee: That’ll be a decision that I’m sure we’ll think about. But it won’t be for a long while. She’s been in Kentucky at Carter Duer’s place (Peninsula Farm) all winter with Bella Bellini and Delilah Hanover. Nifty just picked them up a week ago and he tells me they all look great so that’s a beginning, anyway.
HB: You’ve never won the Hambletonian but you won last year’s Oaks with Bella Bellini. What do you remember about that day?
McDuffee: It was pretty special. And when you think about a filly that the year before had trouble trotting in 2:06, it’s an amazing story. She’s the third generation of the family, first with Pizza (Dolce) and her mother Bella (Dolce).
I was actually planning on breeding her (Bella Bellini) this spring and Jeff Gural spoke to me at the Meadowlands on TVG night and asked if I’d bring her back. I told him that I won’t because there’s no good races for 4-year-old mares. He said he’d have something going like the Graduate Series for 4-year-olds and the Miss Versatility and some other ones. I told him that if he’d do all that, we’ll give it some thought. I think we’ll probably do it. I had her all lined up to breed to Walner, but we’ll use that breeding for somebody else, I guess.
HB: The Hambletonian has to be the one race on your bucket list?
McDuffee: Oh, for sure. That has to be the ultimate in our sport, at least in my eyes. I don’t buy many colts so I don’t have a very good chance of winning the Hambletonian with a colt. I buy mostly fillies. Once in a while the only colt I’ll have is a homebred. My chances of winning the Hambletonian are probably a lot better with a filly than a colt.
HB: Why the preference?
McDuffee: I love the residual value of the fillies. Gosh, you get a filly that is well bred—even if she doesn’t amount to too much on the racetrack, you almost get your money back no matter how much you pay for it when you’re ready to move on. You can pay $300,000 for a colt and if he doesn’t make it, he’s worth $10,000. It’s more of a business decision and formula that I follow.
HB: Let’s now talk about Bee A Magician, who you probably consider your best-ever horse?
McDuffee: She was an incredible filly. She did so well for us. She went undefeated her 3-year-old season and won 17 races. The end of the story was that she won over $4 million and not too many have done that. She’s been admitted into the Hall of Fame, and that’s a lifetime dream for anybody.
What’s interesting about her was that training down as a 3-year-old she was a disaster. Around March 1, Nifty called me and said, “You know what Dave, I don’t think she’s going to make it. I can’t even get her to go on the track. When we start to take her out she’ll fall down; she doesn’t want to work. She had a mind of her own. Maybe you want to try and line up one of your Amish friends in Indiana because I don’t know if she’s going to make it.” In a matter of weeks she started to put it all together and the rest is history.
HB: We’ve talked about all the good and great, now about the disappointment. And that has to be Papi Rob Hanover, who was injured while winning his Adios elimination in 2020?
McDuffee: You go from a high when he set a world record in the Adios elimination and then five minutes after you find out he’d broken a bone and that’s probably it for him. That was pretty devastating. But the good thing about this business is that you only have to wait one more week and you can race again with something else.
HB: Right now, how many horses do you own?
McDuffee: I have 22 horses in training right now and about 10 broodmares, most of them in Pennsylvania at Carter Duer’s old farm. And I still maintain a big part of Papi Rob Hanover.
HB: How many trainers do you have your horses with and how hands-on are you with them?
McDuffee: I have Brett Pelling and Nifty Norman, and I have a little division in Indiana that Peter and Melanie Wrenn handle. And Chuck Sylvester and I always have a horse together every year. But that’s it. They are all good communicators. Probably Nifty is more who I talk to.
HB: What about picking out yearlings. Are you actively involved?
McDuffee: I’m pretty hands-on on that. I like to look at everything myself. We always start with the breeding and which area we want to do. My trainers certainly have the final say on everything.
As an example, when I bought Venerable, I had been after Nifty to buy her. She was out of Jolene Jolene and I always liked Jolene Jolene and thought she’d produce a good horse. I wanted to buy the first two foals she had. They turned out to be good horses, not great horses, Crucial being the first. I had Nifty go back four times to look at Crucial. I thought she was a pretty nice filly, but Nifty wasn’t so sure. A couple hours later I said to go back and look at that filly because I really liked her. But after four times, I told Nifty that I guess he doesn’t want the filly. So we didn’t buy her.
So a couple years ago I wanted to go look at the Jolene Jolene yearling (Venerable) as she was at the top of my list in Lexington. Nifty went and looked and says, “Mmmm, I like this one a little better.” I said, “I think we’re going to own it, Nifty, because that’s what I was waiting for.” Obviously, I’m not going to buy a horse and give it to somebody who doesn’t want it. I was happy to get that one, that’s for sure. (Editor’s note: Venerable was sold as a yearling for $210,000.)
HB: Your winter home is near Sunshine Meadows. How often do you go there?
McDuffee: I go out probably twice a week. Half of it is social as much as anything. There’s always somebody to talk to.
HB: Circling back to the beginning, you are now age 84. Are you having the time of your life and enjoying this ride?
McDuffee: Oh my gosh, yes! My major interest in life right now, besides family, is obviously the horses and the people. I love the people in this business because my whole social life is built around horse people now. It’s a lot of fun. HB
Gordon Waterstone is a USTA editorial specialist. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.