by Allison Contee
Photo by Marilyn Therrian
Gary Magee is a third generation horseman with a deep love and appreciation for Standardbreds, particularly trotters. His emphasis on communication with his horses has helped bring out the best in those that others had given up on. He has been driving horses for over forty years and in 2013 he and his wife Donna were inducted into the Wisconsin Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Tell me about how you began with harness racing?
I was born into it. My grandfather raced, my dad raced. My dad did it for a career. So I’ve been in it all my life.
Has it been more of a career or a hobby for you?
It was a career. I worked for my dad for about two, three years when I got out of high school. Then I thought, “Well, we better add a little more to our life for security.” So I went back to college, but it stayed basically a hobby. Now I’ve run it more like a business, to keep track of it. But it’s been an interesting, basically, hobby.
We’ve looked at it from all different kinds of ways of doing it. I did an awful lot of catch driving during the first few years that I was racing, because we couldn’t afford a horse of our own. Then eventually we got into trying to breed. We had a few colts and we tried that and going out and racing horses. Different things, just experimenting with it. I kept everything low-budget. First the family got fed. I took care of that first. Then we just kind of enjoyed it after that.
The last few years we’ve gone to “throw-away” horses, the two-year-olds that just haven’t made it. We’ve started buying those and giving them some patience and some, well, I think our specialty is tender loving care. Our horses think that they died and went to heaven when they come to our farm. We just enjoy working with those kinds of horses. We’ve had reasonable success with them.
So you’re pretty much looking for any kind of horse you can give a fresh start?
Right, exactly. And we do trotters. I’ve inherited that problem. My grandfather and dad both were trotting people. Dad ended up doing it for a living so of course he had to have some pacers too. He used to tell me, “If you’re gonna make a living you gotta have pacers, but if you want to have fun you have trotters.” I want to have fun, so I do trotters.
Usually we try to buy the non-raced, because they’re a little closer to our budget.
Aside from inheriting the preference, what is it about trotters over pacers for you?
One of the things that my father used to get complimented with was that he had ‘good trotting hands.’ Because a trotter is, I believe, much harder to drive, to hang up, to train, everything about them is more involved because you don’t have the hopples to hold them together. As you can see with the direction we’re going we’re even putting hopples on trotters now. I’m a purist, I wouldn’t do that. I’d give up first.
But I just think there’s nothing like the feel of sitting behind a trotter. I like big trotters, with powerful rear ends on them, and you can see the muscles and the strength. The trotting gait just has a rhythm and a feel to it that you can’t match with a pacer. I just love that and having usually bigger trotters, they tend to be really easy going, mild horses, a pleasure to work around, they have patience with you. We’ve been fortunate. We try to pick those out with a little life in their eyes and some personality so that we can talk with them and they can let us know what’s going on. It’s a great communication.
When you’re looking at these ‘throw-away’ horses that didn’t make it for other people, what do you look for, what has to strike you for you to invest?
I’ve pretty much gone for the bigger horses. So the first thing I look at is, does the horse have size, or at least the potential to have size. Then I look at the head. I love the old Standardbred head, with a roman nose and all. I love that. Then it’s just, do they look like they could be a race horse? Are they put up the way they should be put up? Do they have enough length to be a trotter? From there I start looking at legs and stuff. They first have to kind of appeal to you, and those are the things I go for.
Is there anything that if you see it, it’s an automatic no?
I’m not real fond of horses with a dish nose; I don’t even bother looking at the small ones. That’s usually what will stop be. Once I get to the legs, bows will scare me. Other things with the legs are fine, I can work with.
Over the years is there a specific moment that sticks out to you as a highlight?
I love to drive. I absolutely love to drive, that’s kind of why I do all of this. I’ve had a few nice winners that we’ve enjoyed. I enjoy going to the pari-mutuel tracks in Chicago and being able to compete with the pros down there and I just come down from the north woods and we take our turns at beating each other. I guess there isn’t a ‘one.’ As a whole that’s what I really enjoy. We get a tremendous amount of satisfaction figuring out these two-year-olds’ problems and straightening them out. Basically giving a horse a good life, and knowing that it enjoys being with us, I think that’s a high for me too.
Do you think that horses enjoy their jobs?
Oh absolutely, oh yes. The one we just sold this year, he struggled through ulcers and EPM and everything else, but when he hit the track he raced. Because before that we were taking care of him and when he would come off we were taking care of him. He was giving that back. We’ve had quite a few that were like that.
What advice would you give to someone coming into the business new?
I think if you’re going to start fresh, if you are going to be actively involved, be a trainer, driver or so on, get a horse that will teach you something, an experienced horse. Even if it necessitates that you race in the Free For Alls. Even if you have to race at that level, having a horse that can teach you something I think is very important because I’ve seen so many people start into this and buy a green horse and think they’re going to do wonderful. But they’re green, the horse is green, and a lot of mistakes are made and that’s not good. So I would say if you’re going to touch them, and be involved with them, get one that you can race that has experience. If you’re going to be an owner and you want quick rewards, buy one off the track, or claim one that you can race right back.
What about this high-risk business makes it all worth it?
The reward that you are going to get out of this is being with the animal. You have to love the horse. It has to be that way, otherwise there’s just not something in it for you. If you get into this for the great financial rewards you’ve made a mistake, unless you’re at a different financial level than us folks. If you can buy big with the big people that’s great. If you’re coming into it and you want to really be a part of it you need to love the horse. A lot of things can go wrong but if you love the horse it’s ok.
You were recently inducted into the Wisconsin Hall of Fame, can you tell me about that?
A tremendous honor of course. My dad has been inducted and my cousin Dave of course. Our whole family, because we’ve all been so involved in harness racing, our whole family was inducted several years back. To have my wife Donna and I inducted was very humbling. I hold where my Dad’s ability is and my cousin Dave’s, very, very high. To think that we would be a part of the same recognition that they were is awesome. I think what’s nice about it is that I believe we were picked to be put in there by the people, not for any one great accomplishment. It’s because I was on the board and president for many, many years and Donna and I have been successful racing horses. She takes care of an awful lot of other things and we take care of the annual meetings and the auctions and we’ve done a lot of these things over the years, the kinds of things that everybody does.
As someone who is so involved on both sides, working hands on and being on the board, what do you think harness racing really needs more of?
I think if harness racing could stay grassroots, and of course in Wisconsin we absolutely feel that way, without a pari-mutuel track, we race for ‘cheeseburgers’ is what we all chuckle about. Yeah, there’s usually a few dollars there. But it’s just the real part of it. With harness racing it’s always been about family. We have that different from the thoroughbreds and the other types of racing. If there is just some way to keep that level going, it will bring in new people. One of the things that we’ve found that is most difficult about bringing in new people is that everybody’s got their own place now and they’re not at the county fairgrounds. So for somebody to just come in and see and hang out, it’s a little more difficult on private property, whereas when it was on the county fairgrounds it was no problem. My dad and grandpa were always stabled at the fairgrounds and there were kids there all the time that many of them, went on and raced horses. We’re missing that now.