Day At The Track

Back 'better and stronger' after tragedy

12:59 PM 29 Dec 2017 NZDT
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Kayne Kauffman, harness racing
Kayne Kauffman is on the verge of becoming the 2017 driving champion at Hollywood Dayton Raceway.
Conrad Photo

LEBANON — The call came a little after 5:30 on a cold, dark December morning. Fellow Lebanon harness racing trainer Sam Coven was on the line and he was frantic: “Kayne, it’s going!”

“What’s going?” said Kayne Kauffman, still half-asleep.

“Your barn!….Your barn is on fire!”

A couple mornings ago, Kauffman quietly and with some hesitance recalled that numbing conversation from 2009:

“At that moment I was in awe. I didn’t know what to do. I woke my wife right away and we got dressed and got there as quickly as we could.”

Kauffman and his wife Natalie lived about seven minutes from Lebanon Raceway and Barn 16, where he had stabled the horses he owned and those he trained for other people.

When he and his wife got there, they were devastated. The entire place was in flames.

“It was almost all gone,” he said. “The roof had caved in. I knew it was bad.”

Two grooms – 55-year-old Ronnie Williams and 48-year-old Turtle Edwards, both of whom had been sleeping in the tack room where the fire started – died in the blaze. So did 45 horses, including 10 of Kauffman’s, five of which had just won the night before.

Kauffman lost most of his racing equipment in the fire as well as all of his sense of well-being.

His heart was shattered. He didn’t know if he had the means – or the will – to continue in the business he first had learned as a little boy riding in the lap of his grandfather as they sat in a sulky behind a snorting harness horse going around the Darke County Fairgrounds track in Greenville.

Natalie was just as crushed. She had grown up around racing – her dad Carl Bray had horses – and she had worked in the barn alongside Kayne in their early days together. And to this day, in fact, she finds it difficult to come back into the barn and fuss over the horses as she once did.

She doesn’t want to revive that attachment and the love of the animals that she had so painfully lost eight years ago.

And Kayne said he was hesitant, too:

“After the barn fire I pondered not training horses – and just driving – but I didn’t know what to do with myself. All I’d ever known was getting up in the morning and going to the barn each day.”

He realized something else then, as well:

“Everybody always says harness racing is like a family business and that proved to be true. I couldn’t believe the outpouring of support from horsemen across the country and in Canada.”

+ Kayne Kauffman is on the verge of becoming the 2017 driving champion at Hollywood Dayton Raceway. Brad Conrad/CONTRIBUTED photo
Kayne Kauffman is on the verge of becoming the 2017 driving champion at Hollywood Dayton Raceway. 

People sent equipment. Veteran horseman Dick Macomber and his owners donated a couple of horses to Kauffman, who just had two left, both of which had been turned out to pasture the night of the deadly fire.

But the best thing he got was other peoples’ belief in him:

“A couple of horsemen told me, ‘We know you lost pretty much everything, but we have enough confidence in you – in the drive you’ve had in your life and in your love of the business – that we’re sure you’re going to get through this. You’ll come back better and stronger than before.’”

Kauffman quieted as he gathered his welling emotions and then finally said:

“And I really believe that has happened.”

More proof of that comes Saturday night when the four-month meet at Hollywood Dayton Raceway ends and Kauffman almost certainly will be crowned the 2017 driving champion. It would be his first title in Dayton.

Going into Thursday night’s racing program – with just Friday and Saturday night’s cards left after that – Kauffman had won 114 of the 754 races he started at Dayton this year. He’s earned $842,735 in purse money.

Josh Sutton was second with 110 wins, but he has been suspended for the rest of the meet. Xenia’s Dan Noble was third with 103 victories.

After the fire, Kauffman said he won a couple of driving titles at Lebanon Raceway before it closed. He then won the inaugural crown at Miami Valley Raceway in 2014.

He also won the $120,500 Battle of Lake Erie behind A Rocknroll Dance, who he guided to a word record 1:49.1 for four-year-old pacers on a half mile track.

Heading into Thursday night’s competition at Dayton, the 39-year-old Kauffman had won 2,835 races in 23,794 starts in his career and had earned over $16.95 million in purses.

Off the track he has been just as impressive.

By Tom Archdeacon 

Reprinted with permission of The Dayton Daily News

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