Spirit of famous grandfathers lives within young Ryan Harvey

by Rich Fisher

If Ryan Harvey were a Standardbred instead of a human, he probably would have sold for half a million at a yearling sale just based on his pedigree.

Harvey’s grandfathers, who both passed away this year, are harness racing royalty. Paternal granddad Harry Harvey is a Hambletonian winning driver and Hall of Famer, while maternal grandfather Walter “Boots” Dunn had an eight-decade career and is believed to be the leading amateur driver of all time according to USTA records.

“They all joke about it, that if they had pedigree books for the drivers I’d be close to the front page,” Harvey said. “It puts a little pressure on me but I kind of hope to use it to my advantage. I’ll take the attention and obviously it’s given me more opportunities than if I wasn’t Boots and Harry’s grandson.”

Seth Dowling photo
Ryan Harvey scored his first lifetime driving victory on Aug. 9 behind the trotting filly Famous Mistress.

Ryan drove Famous Mistress — trained by his aunt Lisa Dunn — to his first career victory earlier this month at the Greene County Fair in Waynesburg, Pa. Since he does not have a registered set of colors yet, Harvey won the race wearing Boots’ colors and helmet, while also wearing Harry’s pants and vest.

“I’m going to milk that for as long as I can,” Harvey said. “Once I get my actual set of colors that are registered, I’ll find a way to keep them in the mix.”

And while his famous grandfathers have been major factors in Harvey’s career, his dad (and Harry’s son) Leo, has been Ryan’s biggest inspiration.

Growing up in Imperial, Pa., in the shadows of the Pittsburgh Airport, Harvey would attend afternoon kindergarten class so Leo, a driver and trainer, could take him to The Meadows racetrack every morning. Instead of sleeping until 8, Ryan was rousted from bed at 6 a.m. to help out at the track.

“This probably happened earlier than kindergarten,” Harvey said, “but my memory only started working in kindergarten.”

He did the usual chores such as cleaning stalls and feeding the horses. He also had some unusual responsibilities while sitting on Leo’s lap when they drove around the track.

“He’s a jokester,” Ryan said. “We’d get up alongside another trainer who was one of his friends and he’d whisper something in my ear to say to them. He’d have little 5- or 6-year-old me yelling out little smart remarks to all these people and then we’d trot right past them.

“At the end of the day he’d give me money for the cafeteria to get some food and then he’d send me on to p.m. kindergarten. He made it fun. He got me in there and he didn’t hold back. I don’t think there were many 5-year-olds on the track at that point.”

At age 10, a relative suggested Harvey enroll in the Harness Horse Youth Foundation camp, which taught him the sport’s nuances before the end-of-camp race.

“Just little things, like braiding the horse’s hair, kind of the ins and outs,” Ryan said. “Even at that point I was ready to get behind a horse and go. I can remember looking forward to that race the whole week.”

Harvey won the race, which he and his family recently watched on video.

“My camp was at The Meadows, where (longtime Hall of Fame announcer) Roger Huston is,” Ryan said. “He knows my family pretty well. I won that race and he was giving his usual emphatic call. I came across the wire and he said ‘And there’s another driver in the family!’ I think a lot of people could see it coming.”

All the while he was learning under Dunn, who lived 100 miles north in Cochranton, Pa. Ryan spent plenty of time there, getting a hands-on education most drivers can only dream of. He would also make trips to New Jersey and almost be in awe of grandpa Harry.

“They’re both very important in harness racing in their own right,” Ryan said. “I would see Boots in action and I’d be like ‘All right, this is how it’s done.’ With Harry it was just like ‘Whoa!’”

Both were also important to young Ryan.

“Harry was more of a look-up-to-as-a-legend type of deal with me, where I kind of thought he was larger than life,” Harvey said. “Anytime I had the chance to say my grandfather won the Hambletonian I would use that to my advantage.

“He was 92 when he passed, I’m 23, so most of the time I spent with him he was in his 80s. But he was still training and I was lucky enough to go to his barn. He had an impeccable operation where he was very business-like and no corners were cut. He was a no BS type man and I kind of always looked up to him like he was too good to be true.”

And then there was Boots, a constant hands-on influence.

“We’d be up here every single weekend,” said Ryan, who now lives at Boots’ farm and takes care of it. “He was more consciously impacting almost my every decision, not just harness racing. Boots would ride in the back of the trailer with the horses, there were no corners cut.”

And while Boots assured Ryan he had the talent to drive Standardbreds, Harvey’s mom Kathy urged him to attend college. An admitted bookworm, Ryan said, “I was addicted to horses but I also didn’t want to put school in the backseat. We’d go to fairs and they would overlap with school. I’d take my schoolwork with me and make sure I had that done before anything.”

Harvey showed business savvy at a young age, picking dandelions at the barn and selling them to make enough money for a candy bar. He went to the University of Pittsburgh and graduated with an economics degree. The summer after his junior year he got a Wall Street internship at a start-up online publication. Ryan would ride his bike — a favorite form of transportation he still uses frequently — from his NYU dorm to work.

“Every day I sat behind a desk and basically hated it,” he said.

Harvey began re-evaluating his goals and, despite having some job offers on the table, returned home to be with Dunn. After Ryan’s graduation, Boots’ cancer began to worsen and a nursing home was not an option.

“He wouldn’t have fared well in that environment,” Harvey said. “He was jogging horses until the day he died. I came up here and helped take care of him and spend some special time with him. That’s when I got out of the job market. From there it’s been harness racing 100 percent.”

Harvey and his aunt Lisa now tend to a dozen or so horses in training on Boots’ farm, and also have a broodmare operation that is preparing nine yearlings to race next year. Lisa, who is one of Boots’ daughters, provided Ryan with numerous drives but he went his first 17 without a win. With many of his family members on hand, he was disappointed when his horse broke behind the gate in his first race.

“I was kind of getting to the point where I was like ‘All right, I need to do this now or never,’” Harvey said. “She was putting the faith in me, I had to go out there and produce results.”

He did just that at the Greene County Fair on Aug. 9. It was only a three-horse race but the favorite, Brauti Hanover, has been winning at a steady rate on the fair circuit.

“We kind of went in just hoping to get second, but it turned into a horserace,” said Harvey, who took advantage of Brauti Hanover bearing out and losing ground on the turns.

“It was a stretch drive,” Harvey said. “We were pretty much neck and neck, stride for stride. I was just thinking about winning, and after it finally happened I kind of realized what just went down. I could hear my mom screaming and I was really overcome with joy and excitement. It was a special feeling. I think I might have shed a tear under my driving glasses but I was trying to hold back.”

It was an exciting drive for Harvey, but not half as harrowing as one that he made at age 18. During his freshman year at Pitt, Ryan helped jog horses at fairs. One day he was approached by a starter who did numerous fairs and was responsible for getting the starting gates from fair to fair.

“I guess I seemed like a likely candidate, because he approached me and said ‘Hey young fella, would you drive this?’” Harvey said, still laughing at the memory. “That starting gate doesn’t exist anymore; it was near the end of its life. And I was in this old jeep, if you would go over 55 it would rattle.”

Harvey had to make a 150-mile drive halfway across Pennsylvania, from Hughesville to Honesdale.

“I’m going down Interstate 80 with this starting gate, probably getting the weirdest looks I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Harvey said. “Even at 23 people probably think I’m not much more than 18. At 18 people probably thought I was 15 driving down the highway with this thing.”

It was the kind of experience that colorful careers are made of. The kind of careers that both of his grandfathers had. And while he was disappointed that neither was alive to see his first driving victory, their spirit will live within Ryan forever. As of now, all thoughts are of harness racing.

“The fair season’s coming to an end, after that I’ll kind of regroup, get my bearings,” Harvey said. “I just want to get along this summer and try to make next summer better. Anytime I can drive for Lisa, it makes me happy if I can do well for her. But it’s a different kind of feeling if you can do well for others.

“I hope to build up the faith and trust from other owners and trainers and kind of get my name out there and see what I can do with it.”

It’s a name that people certainly respect in the business — on both sides of the family.

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