Friday, April 30, 2004

Success a quick climb for McKee

22-year-old's brief career peaks with mount in 130th Derby

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

John McKee, a Western Brown graduate, is the first jockey from Greater Cincinnati to ride in the Derby since Steve Cauthen in 1978.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GARY LANDERS
LOUISVILLE - Patty McKee will arrive a bit late Saturday night for her Western Brown High School senior prom. Big brother is riding in the Kentucky Derby.

John McKee might not win aboard Pro Prado, who at 30-1 is one of the longest shots in the 20-horse field. But whatever happens might rank as the biggest thing ever for Hamersville, Ohio.

"For anyone to get to the Derby, the odds are astronomical," said father David McKee, who rode for five years at River Downs in the late 1970s. "When you're from around here, maybe it's even longer."

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Hamersville, a rural Brown County village 32 miles east of Cincinnati, has a population of about 620. Its mayor, Wyndal Staggs, lists the gas station's mini-mart and the dairy bar as the top hangouts. It's not a place from which world-class jockeys usually sprout.

In fact, no Greater Cincinnati native has ridden in the Derby since Steve Cauthen of Walton, Ky., won the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed.

It's a quick climb for McKee, 22, who has been riding just two years. It's also the fulfillment of a fantasy, spawned while staring at winner's circle photos from his father's career.

"Ever since I was a little kid, (riding) is something I wanted to experience," he said. "I didn't think it'd turn out the way it has."

This Derby mount is no fluke. McKee entered Thursday's races at No. 30 on the North American earnings lists with purses totaling $1.86 million, and was tied for 18th in wins with 75. He was No. 32 last year in earnings with $6.03 million.

McKee broke Cauthen's meet records for wins by an apprentice both at River Downs and Churchill and was runner-up to Ryan Fogelsonger for the Eclipse Award for apprentice jockeys. He has won riding titles at River Downs, Turfway Park and Oaklawn Park and was second to Pat Day in the Churchill Downs meet last spring.

"He's beyond his years in talent," said Bob Holthus, who trains Pro Prado.

McKee was a natural in one respect: size. At 4 feet 9 and 100 pounds, he doesn't have to worry about dieting and is stronger than many of his colleagues, who often are weakened after cutting weight.

He had been a wrestler and runner in high school and baseball player as a youth. Yet his father discouraged him from a riding career, detailing the dedication involved, then made him promise not to start until after graduating from Western Brown.

"He was set on it," David said. "When he makes up his mind on something, he's going to do it."

Friends from high school worked at Poplar Creek Farm in Bethel, Ohio. McKee joined them, mucking stalls and walking horses.

Then he met Eddie Campbell. The longtime jockeys' agent, who represented Cauthen a quarter-century ago, accepted McKee as his client and got him work exercising horses at River Downs.

Campbell, 75, had to teach McKee from scratch. They drilled in the starting gate and practiced switching sticks. He made McKee wait a year before riding.

"I was never impatient," McKee said. "I was galloping horses and making a thousand dollars a week. I thought I was rich."

McKee started racing at Turfway in early 2002, and in his fifth race he broke his collarbone and missed three months. When he returned, at River Downs, he started winning. And kept winning.

"He had that special something, that horses just run for him," said Perry Ouzts, the dean of River Downs jockeys.

Hard work helps McKee make it look easy. Campbell and McKee nightly study tapes of his races. McKee roams the backside each morning, networking with trainers and working horses.

McKee is Campbell's only client, and they have grown close. They share apartments together wherever McKee rides. They play checkers each night.

"When work's done, I've gotta take care of the old man," McKee said. "He's like a grandfather to me."

A year ago, Campbell had back surgery and was off a month and a half. McKee could have switched to a more prominent agent but instead asked a friend of Campbell's to handle his book until Campbell returned.

"I feel like I'm blessed," Campbell said. "He's such a nice person. He takes care of me.

"He worries about me and everything else."

Comparing McKee's talent to Cauthen, a Hall of Famer, would be unfair. Yet in their humble, small-town sensibilities, they are identical.

"If not for River Downs and the people who have helped me, I surely wouldn't be here," McKee said. "I still know where I came from."


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