Day At The Track

Hall of Famer Doug Ackerman dies at age 86

12:10 AM 29 May 2014 NZST
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Chocolatier, harness racing Superior Judge and trainer Doug Ackerman, harness racing
Doug Ackerman and Chocolatier
Superior Judge and trainer Doug Ackerman
Photo by Ellen Havey/USTA

Hall of Fame horseman, Douglas J. Ackerman, 86, died today in North Carolina after an illness of almost two years.

He was one of the most respected trainers in harness racing and widely admired for his innate horsemanship, ironclad integrity, and memorable sense of humor. His fellow horsemen held him in the highest esteem, and that is the ultimate compliment in his profession.

Ackerman was a fixture on the Grand Circuit for decades and trained and drove many top horses, such as Albaquel, Crowning Point, Self Confident, Noble Hustle, Denali, Happy Chatter, Noble Traveler, Amer I Can, Cape Canaveral, Leopard, and the old warrior Bramble Hall. The list could go on and on.

In recent years, he turned the driving duties over to his son D.R., and together they raced Chocolatier, a winner of $1.3 million and the champion freshman trotter of 2005.

Albaquel was a daughter of Albatross, a stallion Ackerman admired greatly. She earned almost a half-million on the track and was the dam of six pacers to earn more than $250,000, including the Ackerman Stable stars Ever So Rich and Just The Ticket. Albaquel is also the dam of the remarkable broodmare Hattie.

Doug Ackerman had a master's touch in selecting yearlings and his advice on conformation was sought by many other trainers. He was one of those rare horsemen who could "look right through a yearling" and size up its potential.

Ackerman had a well-honed sense of humor and always had a clever quip to fit just about any occasion. Surely long after his death people who knew him will be saying, "As Doug Ackerman once said......"

He grew up in the small rural community of Three Oaks in southwest Michigan, and both his father and grandfather trained and raced horses in the Midwest. Young Doug grew up immersed in the world of harness racing in Michigan and Indiana and recalls seeing Greyhound and Rosalind in their memorable team-to-pole effort at the Indiana State Fair in 1939. His late brother Jack was a noted horseman in his own right while brother Charles stayed on the family farm.

Their father Rollin died of a heart attack in a race at the fair in Hillsdale, Michigan when Doug was just 14 years old. His father was only 48.

Doug went west to seek his fortune in harness racing in the Golden State of California as a young man and set down roots there for more than a half-century. He trained for decades over the Thoroughbred track at Del Mar, just north of San Diego, which once had a large and thriving Standardbred winter colony.

He met Ada Jean Funderbunk, daughter of the prominent horseman Foy Funderbunk, in 1950 and they were married four years later. They recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. While in California, Ackerman developed close friendships with Hall of Famers Joe O'Brien and Jim Dennis. The Ackerman family lived near the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Doug loved every day he trained horses at the magnificent Del Mar facility.

Ackerman's ability and work ethic soon allowed him to attract owners and achieve success on the competitive California circuit. Each summer he would ship his stock east to compete on the Grand Circuit and Midwest tracks from a base in Michigan.

Ackerman was particularly close to Pres Jenuine, the major domo of the Western Harness meet at Hollywood Park for many years. When Hollywood Park conducted a seminar for new owners in 1970, Ackerman met Richard Staley, a fellow transplant from the Midwest to California. They formed an owner-trainer partnership and friendship that lasted until Staley's death in the mid-1990s.

Staley entrusted Ackerman implicitly to manage the horses he owned and never questioned any of Ackerman's decisions or purchases. He admired Ackerman's honesty and horsemanship and they enjoyed phenomenal success over many years.

Staley recognized that Ackerman was a natural horseman, raised in an environment filled with horse talk. "Doug was to the manner born," said the erudite Staley, borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare.

When Ackerman was inducted into the Living Hall of Fame in 1994, he gave credit to Staley for his friendship and patronage.

"He was the greatest owner ever," said Ackerman. "Ever."

Ackerman had a wide circle of friends in the sport but was particularly close to such legends as Bill Brown of Blue Chip Farm, Delvin Miller, and George Sholty. The friendship between Ackerman and trainer-driver Howard Beissinger went back many decades and they talked on the phone regularly after their retirements. The two old-school Hall of Famers shared a love of rodeo, and Ackerman took great pleasure in owning a champion bucking bull in recent years.

Among the active horsemen in the sport, Ackerman had close relationships with Ray Remmen, John Campbell, Chris Boring, and many others. In truth, however, anyone who ever met Ackerman quickly came to like him.

In 1989, Ackerman, Beissinger, and Delvin Miller represented the United States in a driving challenge in Moscow against Russian and German reinsmen. Ackerman won the first race in the series, thus becoming the first American to win a race at the historic Central Moscow Hippodrome since before the Russian Revolution in 1917.

When Del Mar closed its track for training purposes almost a decade ago, Ackerman had to relocate his horses to Pinehurst, North Carolina. When asked the difference between training in southern California and Pinehurst, Ackerman quipped, "About 50 degrees."

Ackerman was seldom seen without his beloved wife Ada Jean at his side and she was as popular and widely known in harness racing as her husband. Their daughter Connie Hochstetler is a noted racing official whose husband Homer is a veteran trainer. Their son Jay, a student at the University of Kentucky, is now working at The Horseman & Fair. Son D.R. Ackerman has been training and racing the Ackerman Stable horses during his father's illness. He and wife Angelika have sons D.R. Ackerman, Jr. and Kevin.

Doug Ackerman was truly a master horseman and enjoyed the respect of everyone who knew him.

by Dean Hoffman



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