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
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 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.
He was one of the guiding forces that helped launch what now has become an annual giving effort of money and gifts at Christmas by the Dayton drivers colony for people in need in the area.
Career starts in Greenville
Kauffman grew up in Arcanum, but his heart was in Greenville.
That’s where his grandfather, Herman Baker, had a modest harness racing operation.
“When I was 7 or 8, he made me a small pitchfork so I could help clean the stalls,” he said.
“The first time I sat in a race bike by myself and went fast on a training trip I was probably around 13 years old. I loved it. Right then, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do in life.”
He said he got his first horse at age 15 and he cared for it daily. The one problem was that he lived some 15 miles from the Darke County Fairgrounds in Greenville.
Lowering his voice and leaning forward — as if someone of authority from two dozen years past might hear — he laughed and admitted: “Even before I got my driver’s license I used to drive to the Fairgrounds from Arcanum.”
Except for playing varsity basketball for four years at Franklin Monroe High – and briefly working a construction job after high school – his primary interest and effort outside the home has been training and racing harness horses.
His first victory – which came when he was 16, but was quite short-lived – came in the first race he ever ran at the Darke County Fair.
“But as soon as it was over they took me down,” he said with a shrug. “I had gotten too anxious and interfered with a guy. I pulled out when there wasn’t clearance and hit his horse’s front legs. They dropped me to third.”
A few days later he won again with the same horse and his career was on its way.
His first pari-mutuel win came two years later – at age 18 – at Scioto Downs. Eventually, he realized there was a more vibrant racing scene at Lebanon and he relocated there. That’s where he met his wife, who is now a prenatal nurse with the Warren County Health Department.
They have two daughters, both who are making a name in volleyball, not horses. Breanne, who is 17, plays at Lebanon High and 11-year-old Elisabeth just made the Air City Chicks junior club team in Dayton.
“It takes a pretty strong family to be in the horse business,” Kauffman said. “I’m gone a lot from the kids and my wife. Every morning I’m at the barn and every night I’m off racing.”
Waves for grandma
Kauffman now operates out of Barn 5 on the backside of Lebanon Raceway. He sat in the tack room the other morning bundled against the bitter cold, but sharing some warm thoughts.
It had been just 2 degrees when he and his crew — he has five people working for him, including Diane Williams. sister of Ronnie and an accomplished horsewoman herself — began working out 16 of the 20 horses they have in the barn.
“We get them all exercised according to a schedule we’ve worked out for them,” he said. “Everybody has a stop watch and we jog them 25 minutes, which usually equals about four miles.
“It’s cold today, but the wind isn’t bad. And the horses actually feel good when it’s cold. The cold air hits them and they get to playing more.
“You’ve got to love your animals They all have different personalities. And I like getting up in the morning and coming to do the work. They say this business gets in your blood and I believe it.”
And that attitude has translated into renewed business. In his stable he has several horses he trains for a Cincinnati attorney along with some that belong to a local judge and to a bailiff.
And he also trains for one other very special owner – his 83-year-old grandmother, Mary Alice Godown.
“She absolutely loves racing,” he said. “She has the racing network on her dish and she watches races every day. Wherever I’m at, she can see me.
“I just claimed a horse for her two weeks ago – Hay Goodlooking – and it won here at Dayton last week.
“And whenever I’m headed to the Winner’s Circle or once I get in there, I always wave to the camera. People all know I do that. I’m waving to Grandma.”
And this meet at Dayton he’s been waving more than any other driver.
Just like those guys one said:
He has come back better and stronger than before.