Hall of Famer Enthused by Spring Matinee Races
The town of Pinehurst has lured many a retiree to its tranquil confines. And hall of fame harness driver Doug Ackerman has a problem with that.
Two problems, actually. The words “retiree” and “confines.”
It’s often said on the racetrack that no man ever retired that had a good 2-year-old in his barn. Ackerman, who was elected to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1994, could be the inspiration for that aphorism. Now 82, he is as enthusiastic about his current racing prospects as he was that summer day in 1944, when he first began driving standardbreds.
“Geez, I’m not planning on retiring until I can’t get on the cart anymore ... or I die,” Ackerman said as he pulled on his silks for the third race on the card at the Spring Matinee Races at the Pinehurst Harness Track.
Perhaps Ackerman’s “forever young” approach can be attributed to his success with young trotters. He has trained three champion 2-year-old trotting colts: Noble Hustler (1979), Self Confident (1981) and Chocolatier (2005).
And the current Ackerman roster isn’t lacking in talented upstarts. Most noteworthy is an exquisite dark bay filly named Crème de Cocoa, a daughter of Chocolatier out of Judge Judy, which makes her a half-sister to another accomplished Ackerman trainee, Judge Joe.
In Sunday’s third race, Crème de Cocoa broke stride almost immediately after the start and was some 20 lengths behind the field after one lap. But she closed furiously a quarter of a mile home to finish second.
Ackerman moved to Aberdeen in 2006 after 53 years in Southern California. He and wife Ada Jean lived on the beach near Del Mar. Their son, D.R., followed his father into the business and was Chocolatier’s driver. Ackerman’s 18-year-old grandson, Jay Hochstetler, was named the 2009 Illinois Amateur Driver of the Year.
Ackerman chose Pinehurst as a training base because of its designation as a historic site.
“We thought we were in good shape at Del Mar,” Ackerman said of the celebrated thoroughbred track, which was a training base for many harness horsemen during the offseason. “Once the synthetic track was put in, we were history.”
Ackerman has experienced the highs and lows of the racing game. He saw his 48-year-old father die after suffering a heart attack in a race at a track in Hillsdale, Mich., in 1943. He also watched fellow driver Shelly Goudreau suffer injuries that would prove fatal in a race at Hollywood Park in 1982.
“The bit in the horse’s mouth broke, and he had to bail out,” Ackerman recalled. “After it happened, I kept thinking, if he’d just fallen off the other way...”
Ackerman has also seen the quality of horses — and race times — improve through the years, thanks to improved breeding practices. Artificial insemination, which is also allowed in quarter-horse racing, has allowed standardbred breeders to mate the “best to the best.” The practice is illegal in thoroughbred racing.
“The horses are faster, and maybe the newer sulkies have helped that a little,” Ackerman said. “The drivers definitely drive faster. There used to be a select few but now there are typically 15 drivers at a track that can really drive. They’re more aggressive than they used to be. It makes a big difference in the outcome of a race.”
Ackerman has seen some of harness racing’s all time greats, including Bret Hanover and Victory Song. But the best, he says, was 2009 Horse of the Year Muscle Hill, a winner of 20 straight races. Muscle Hill and Chocolatier, ironically, are both stallions at Southwind Farms in New Jersey.
“It’s the possibility that you might be training a horse that grows up to be another Muscle Hill,” Ackerman said with a wink, “that keeps you coming out here.”
NOTES: Race coordinator Bon Carss estimated attendance for Sunday’s races at between 3,500 and 4,000. “We ran out of programs pretty early,” Carss said. “So we just opened the gates and let people drive in. They were probably six-deep on the rail.” ... The Mike Medors-trained Medoland J T, driven by Gaither Cloer, recorded the fastest mile (2:20) of the day.
Race 1 — Gratias Deo, 2-year-old filly (RockNRoll Hanover-Earhart Hanover)
Race 2 — Missuz Hanover, 2-year-old filly (S.J.’s Caviar-Mrs. Claus)
Race 3 — Guiding Hand, 2-year-old filly (Like A Prayer-Aida)
Race 4 — Medoland J T, 2-year-old gelding (Artesian-Jodie Lynn Tup)
Race 5 — Major Secret, 2-year-old colt (Art Major-Village Secret)
Race 6 — Winbak Corazon, 2-year-old filly (Village Jove-LP’s Seelster)
Race 7 — Hot Sign, 2-year-old filly (Life Sign - dam not listed)
Race 8 — Eagle Kelly (program substitute, breeding not listed)
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