Jeff Gural, Tom Luchento, Jerry Connors and Sam McKee are being honored by Harness Horsemen International with a quartet of prestigious harness racing awards for 2011. Gural has been named the recipient of the Dominic Frinzi Person of the Year Award, while Luchento and Connors are being honored with the HHI Appreciation Awards, and McKee with the Clyde Hirt Media Award.
Besides owning and operating Vernon and Tioga Downs in upstate New York, Gural took on his most ambitious project in 2011 -- buying and savingMeadowlands Racetrack, which was scheduled for closure by the State of New Jersey, owners of that facility since it opened in 1976.
Gural, 69, of New York, N.Y., has been "zealously dedicated to improving the Standardbred racing industry," said HHI member Sal DiMario. "Jeff's efforts in saving the Meadowlands best illustrate what this award stands for."
Luchento, 65, of Freehold, N.J., is a former driver-trainer and the current president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey.
"Tommy's efforts to save the Meadowlands were unrivaled and it was his dedication that led to Jeff Gural getting involved in this project," DiMario noted. "If not for Tommy's determination, a deal involving Jeff may have never materialized. Together these two men worked against astronomical odds to get this accomplished."
Connors, 55, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the Harness Racing Commission administrator of the PA Sire Stakes and Breeding Program and has served as the United States Harness Writer's Association secretary for over a decade.
"Jerry is an outstanding individual and long-time harness racing aficionado that serves Pennsylvania at the racetracks, breeding farms and fairs," said Kim Hankins of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association. "He has worked at many tracks over the years and has also worked tirelessly as an officer of USHWA."
McKee, 49, of Blairstown, N.J., has been the "voice of The Meadowlands" for the past 12 seasons, serving as The Big M's full-time, on-track announcer, and is also the East Rutherford facility's Director of TV Operations (since 2003) and Director of Simulcasting (since 2007).
"I feel so fortunate to be involved at the top level of the sport," McKee noted. "It's beyond my wildest dreams."
All four men will be feted at the HHI annual awards banquet on Saturday (Dec. 3) at the Embassy Suites Resort and Spa, Deerfield Beach, Fla.
by Kimberly RINKER, for Harness Horsemen's International