Wicked Awesome

Owner-breeder David McDuffee reflects on the ‘magical’ life that took him to the Hall of Fame

by Rich Fisher

It’s easy to tell David McDuffee is from New England after just two minutes of conversation. The accent drips of clam chowder. Harness is “hahness.” Barn is “bahn.” Start is “staaht.”

And, of course, his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, are “the Sawx.” But when asked if his induction into the Harness Racing Living Hall of Fame this year gave him time to reflect on his career as an owner, McDuffee committed the cardinal sin: he dared quote a New York Yankee.

“I’ve been the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” said McDuffee, who turned 86 on the last day of May.

When reminded he was ripping off Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, the Pepperell, Mass., native laughed and said, “No, wait, that’s not my original statement!”

Ah, but it was, and it’s an accurate one.


McDuffee has suffered some tragedies, such as losing his son Scott to a heart attack 10 years ago. But he has lived a mostly charmed life, and the sport has been fortunate to have his charismatic personality enhance the landscape. The two belong together.

“I’ve been so blessed with having so many great horses and so many wonderful trainers and partners and great relationships with them,” McDuffee said. “They’re all my best friends. We’ve traveled the world with them—France, Australia, Ireland. They’re more than my trainers; they’re my best friends. I’ve been so blessed by the luck that I’ve had. And, believe me, you gotta have it. It starts the minute you buy a horse.”

While doling out credit to others, McDuffee can take a little himself. Purchasing horses is truly a team effort for McDuffee, as he provides some insight along with his trainers and partners.

And the results have been nothing short of spectacular.

McDuffee has owned a Horse of the Year, three Trotters of the Year, seven Dan Patch Award winners, and five O’Brien Award winners. His horses have won nine Breeders Crown titles, two Hambletonian Oaks and two Little Brown Jugs. He gives back to the sport as a Hambletonian Society director; Harness Racing Museum trustee; president of the Western New England Harness Horsemen’s Association; and a major sponsor for the Meadowlands, Little Brown Jug, the Red Mile and Dan Patch Awards.

Despite all that, he finds his entry into the Hall of Fame a humbling experience. When the phone call came, he was “elated.”

“I love the game of harness racing,” McDuffee said. “It all starts with the love of the horse. Every year, I make it a point to go to the Living Hall of Fame and walk through there. To just think, my name is in there with all those great individuals that I worshipped as a kid. Oh my God, it is pretty cool.”

. . . as opposed to it being pretty arctic when a younger David would jog his dad’s horses in 10-degree weather.

“I can remember those cold winter February days, God almighty,” he said. “You’d come back in, and your hands would be so cold—frostbitten, almost. Only if you loved the animals and the sport itself would anybody want to do that.”


McDuffee’s love of the sport came from his late dad, Duane. Since Pepperell was on the New Hampshire border, the two would make the 45-minute drive to Rockingham Park, where they were often the first ones there and the last to leave. McDuffee recalled some of the differences back then as opposed to now. Spectators wore jackets and ties to the races, “and the food was a lot better at the track,” he said. It was an all-day project for his dad to gait a horse, whereas “today they come out of the womb full-gaited.”

Despite his love affair with horses, McDuffee felt they would not provide a living. He graduated from high school in 1957 and went into the Army, where he made a name for himself playing baseball. He made the Special Services All-Army team and played all over Europe with some lesser-known Major League players.

“We had a two-star general as our general manager,” McDuffee said. “He had the pull where he could get us good transportation to our next game.”

Upon leaving Europe as a Private First Class—“they don’t promote you for playing baseball”—McDuffee was stationed at Fort Bragg. During the Berlin Build-Up, when Russia was demanding U.S. allies pull their forces out of West Berlin, McDuffee was called back into the service.

It wasn’t dangerous.

“I played basketball then,” he said, with a laugh. “So, I had quite an interesting military career.”

After leaving the Army, he got a job with Boston’s Commercial Union Insurance Company as an underwriter trainee while also taking night courses at Boston University. He eventually began a partnership that lasted 10 years and, in 1970, opened the highly successful McDuffee Insurance Agency. After selling the agency, McDuffee threw himself into Standardbreds.

By then, he was happily married to his wife of 56 years, Mary Ellen, after an unhappy first date. The two met on a blind date set up by another couple, who accompanied them. The couple were “party animals” according to McDuffee, who liked to party just as much. Mary Ellen, whose only drinking, according to McDuffee, comes from “ordering a $35 drink in hotels,” was not impressed by the imbibed jocularity.

“I thought there would never be a second date,” McDuffee said. “I called Mary Ellen the next day, and I said, ‘I’m kind of embarrassed about last night; I think we ought to try it again alone.’ We had a good second date, and the rest is history.

“I was well behaved . . . and have been ever since,” he added, with a chuckle.


When McDuffee made Standardbreds his business, he did so with a modest past. Fond of saying he bought his first horse before his first car, his initial purchases, in 1962, were named Atto Mite and Laurens Brewer.

“They were overnight horses, nothing special,” he recalled. “They could go about 2:09, but, in those days, you could win races with that time.”

McDuffee’s foray back into the business was uneventful until meeting the late Tom Walsh—a neighbor of trainer Tom Haughton—at Pompano Park. The two became partners and great friends as Walsh brought McDuffee out of New England racing and onto the sport’s biggest stages.

Their first big purchases were 2-year-old Miles McCool and his yearling full brother, Magical Mike. Miles McCool gave McDuffee his initial big thrill in harness racing when he won Indiana’s Fox Stake in 1992.

“After the race, I had one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said. “(Hall of Fame horseman) Del Miller came to the winner’s circle and introduced himself, and we had a nice conversation. He gave me a leather-bound book on the history of the Fox Stake, which he signed over to me. He was very fond of that race. It was special to him and special to me.”

That was just the start. The following year, the pacing brothers gave McDuffee 24 hours that defy description. On the night of Aug. 13, 1993, Magical Mike won the $747,700 Woodrow Wilson at the Meadowlands. The next afternoon, Miles McCool claimed the $254,160 final of the Adios at The Meadows.

“What’s interesting is I had five horses who raced that night (Aug. 13) and they all won,” McDuffee said. “That was the beginning of some great horses we started getting.”


Was it ever.

Through either purchases or breeding—which McDuffee learned how to do successfully—exhilaration seemed never-ending.

Bee A Magician was the 2013 Horse of the Year in the U.S. and Canada after winning all 17 races of her 3-year-old campaign. She won the Dan Patch Award for best older female trotter in 2015, went into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2021, and will go into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame this year. The horse won 45 of 72 career races, and her $4.05 million in earnings is the most ever for a trotter that raced exclusively in North America.

McDuffee’s homebred Bella Bellini was Trotter of the Year at age 4 and a Dan Patch winner for best 3-year-old trotting filly. The owner considers those his two greatest horses, but there were more.

Kadabra, the 2002 Trotter of the Year, mated with Dan Patch winner Pizza Dolce to begin producing three generations of great horses.

McDuffee’s other Dan Patch winners were Venerable, Poof She’s Gone and Magical Mike. His O’Brien Award winners were Venerable, Bee A Magician (three times), Poof She’s Gone, Kadabra and Trustworthy.

As for notable races, McDuffee won the Hambletonian Oaks with Bee A Magician and Bella Bellini, the Little Brown Jug with Magical Mike and Armbro Operative, and nine Breeders Crowns.


Two of his main trainers have been Brett Pelling and Richard “Nifty” Norman, with Pelling recommending Norman to McDuffee when he went back to Australia.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a better horseman than Brett Pelling,” McDuffee said. “He gets inside a horse’s head like no one I’ve ever seen. We talked a number of times about Nifty, who worked for him. He raved about Nifty, so I had no reservations at all when I turned my stable over to him. We bought Bee A Magician, who’s one of the greatest horses of all time.”

Other significant trainers have been Pelling’s father, Brian; Chuck Sylvester; Peter Blood; Tom Haughton; and his Midwestern trainer, Peter Wrenn.

“All my relationships with them are very strong,” McDuffee said, “and the partnerships have been so much fun.”

Those partners included Walsh, Herb Liverman, Mel Hartman and Paul Bordogna, but his longest-lasting partnership is with Mary Ellen. The couple have six grandchildren—three from Scott and three from daughter Kathy—whom they let use their beach house on Rye Beach in New Hampshire. They live in Rye for six months of the year and Delray Beach, Fla., for the other six.


McDuffee noted that when they got married, Mary Ellen “couldn’t tell a horse from a cow, but she’s become a fan. She hasn’t missed a race in 30 years.”

These days, after looking at horses prior to sale, she asks her husband what ones interest him. He responds, for instance, with “50, 58 and 63,” and she files it away for later that night.

“Mary Ellen doesn’t stand around at the sales; she’ll go out in the car and read a book,” McDuffee said. “When number 50 comes into the ring, who’s standing right behind me but Mary Ellen. I’m figuring on going up to $200,000 for a horse. I’d be up to $350,000 and say, ‘That’s enough.’ And she will say, ‘Make another bid; I thought you liked that horse.’ That’s happened at least 25 times.”

. . . thus contributing to what he jokingly feels is his legacy.

“I haven’t yet figured out how to buy a horse that I don’t pay more for him than anybody else would ever pay,” he said. “Every horse that I ever bought, I was the highest bidder. I don’t know if that makes me very special.”

Rest assured, he is one of the truly special figures in the business, bar none. Or, as McDuffee would say, ‘Baah none.” HB


Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.


364 More posts in Hoof Beats Magazine category
Recommended for you
Profile: Dave Brower

Grand Ambassador Hall of Fame Communicator Dave Brower’s legacy lives on story by James Witherite...