As he came out of the final turn and into the home stretch at the Miami County Fairgrounds track Monday evening, he urged on Bold Decision with his raised voice and occasional tap of his whip and the 10-year-old bay gelding increased his lead and began to pull away from second-place Pink Rock, a bay mare half his age.
And, in so doing, Tony Morgan proved Tom Wolfe wrong:
You can go home again.
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Morgan first piloted a horse owned by his grandfather – Eddie Morgan Sr. – around this track in a training session 52 years ago. He was seven.
Six years later — at age 13 – he drove Kay Adios, a horse owned by his mother, in his first race here. It was an amateur event – you had to be 14 to legally compete – and he says he finished “third or fourth.”
A year later he won for the first time here. He can’t remember the horse’s name, but it was owned by his grandfather, as were four of the five other horses in the race, one of which had his dad in the sulky and two others which were driven by his uncles.
Monday night, though, was Morgan’s first time back driving the Miami County Fairgrounds track in 17 years.
And quite a return it was.
He had a horse he’d never seen before – a horse that had not won in its previous 20 starts this year – out in front and headed to victory.
In the infield, a collection of friends and family – including his 82-year-old mother, Sharon – mixed cheers and tears with an overwhelming sense of pride as he came charging toward them.
“Go you (SOB)! Go! Go!” Margaret “Mugs” Rousseau, who had worked 30 years for Tony’s late father Eddie Morgan Jr., yelled at Bold Decision.
Up ahead wasn’t just the finish line, it was sacred ground.
That’s where Eddie’s Jr.’s ashes had been spread after his death three years ago.
Everywhere you looked around these fairgrounds Monday, there were memories of this venerable family of horsemen.
Tony, now 59, is the sixth generation to race here.
No family has deeper ties to this fair, its old racing oval and certainly not Monday night’s special race.
Tony Morgan is one of the most successful drivers in harness racing history. Before racing Wednesday at Harrah ‘s Philadelphia in the afternoon and Ocean Downs in Berlin, Md, at night – both tracks are near his home in Maryland – he had won 16,188 races in his career, second most in the history of the sport.
In 84,899 starts, he’d won close to $129.8 million.
He’s a four-time winner of the prestigious Harness Tracks of America Driver of the Year award and has won the North American dash title five times.
One day he’ll likely be in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Yet, for all he’s done on tracks across North America, nothing meant more than to him than that third race Monday night at the Miami County Fair.
It was called the Eddie Morgan Sr./Eddie Morgan Jr. Memorial. It was named for his late grandfather 25 years ago and last year his dad’s name was added to the race.
“It means a lot to everybody that Tony’s back here tonight,” said Noah Garrett, his cousin and a horseman himself, who stables his animals in Barn 3. “And for him to come and actually race makes it even greater. We all love seeing him here… Tony’s always been my idol.”
After his family and friends gathered around him and the triumphant pacer for the Winner’s Circle photo, Tony quietly shared a previously unspoken thought.
Driving Bold Decision had been the right decision.
“Last year was the first year my dad’s name was on the race and I wasn’t here for it,” he said “I had a lot of regrets about that, so I knew I wanted to be here this year. And it was nice to do good in front of the home crowd. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”
Tony Morgan (in drivers silks and helmet to right of Bold Decision) surrounded by family and friendin the Winners Circle after he won the Eddie Morgan Sr./ Eddie Morgan Jr Memorial at Miami County Fairgrounds on Monday night. Ben Holton/Conrad Photo
Eddie Sr. and Eddie Jr.
Charlie Morgan – Tony’s uncle who has a 32-acre horse farm with his wife, Dot, near Laura, and runs the Blooded Horse Sale company out of Lexington, Ky. which sells 3,500 horses a year – said the family’s presence at this track began with Tony’s great, great, great grandfather, Henry.
Eddie Morgan Sr., — Charlie’s dad and Tony’s grandfather – was one of the family’s most legendary figures.
“He was at Iwo Jima in World War II and 95 percent of his company was killed or wounded,” Charlie said. “Because he was good with animals, he had a war dog – a German Shepherd – and he credited that dog with keeping him alive. When he was in the fox holes and the Japanese came out at night, his dog could pick them up right away. He brought that dog home with him afterward.”
After the war, Eddie Sr. gave his sons – Eddie Jr., Charlie and Tom – their racing lessons at the Miami County track.
“See that big sycamore over there?” Charlie, now 70, said as he pointed to a massive tree beyond the barns. “I was maybe 12 and had a horse on as long line. He wasn’t broke yet and tried to run off. I couldn’t stop him, so when he pulled me past that tree — it was small then – I wrapped the rope around the trunk to stop him.”
Another memory involved Eddie Jr.
“Here at the fair, when I was little and he was a teenager, he was like The Fonz on Happy Days to me,” Charlie said. “He even had ducktails and he was good looking and I remember he had a girlfriend at this gate right up here by the barns and another girlfriend at the gate across the fair.
“He’d take this girl and win her a teddy bear and then he’d go up and get the other girl and win her a teddy bear, too.”
Eddie Jr. was even better squiring his four-legged partners around the fair.
“He was a really good driver,” Charlie said. “He could win with his horse up front, in the middle or coming from the back.”
Early on, Tony said his dad gave him tough love training, while his grandfather – Eddie Sr. – was a little more nurturing:
“In the beginning my grandfather was my biggest cheerleader. He kept my morale up. But it worked out just fine. In the end, my dad became my biggest cheerleader.”
“From the time I was little, nothing interested me like being out here at the track. In fact, for a while we even lived in a house on the grounds here.
“I can remember when I was in junior high and high school, my dad would be off racing in the winter and I’d be out here training the colts.”
When Tony was a junior, the family moved to Michigan where his mom – a Michigan State grad and a respected veterinarian – was from.
“After high school Tony went to Michigan State …briefly,” Sharon smiled. “He didn’t like that, at all.”
After starting his driving career on the Ohio and Kentucky circuits, he moved to the Chicago tracks in the 1990s and had great success. Now he races primarily on the East Coast.
“Tony is a genius,” said Charlie’s wife, Dot, who runs the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, the largest such program in the nation.
“Since Tony was three or four years old he could take things apart and put them back together again. First it was his bike, then the TV.
“Later he applied that to horses and he could fix any horse, whether it was sore or mentally not good or it was interfering with itself. He can figure out the kind of shoes or equipment it needs. He can get in a horse’s head and bring it around.
“He’s that good.”
‘A stellar human being’
Every year the Morgan family gathers outside Barn 3 during the fair for a reunion that centers around the memorial race.
Tony’s cousin, Holly Neitman, orchestrates the spread of food that is set up beneath a nearby tent. This year she said the gathering was extra special because Tony – who in the past has raced 360 days a year —had come back home.
Yet, for all his glory, he is down to earth and humble and spent much of the evening standing along the track fence or in the barn talking quietly – and mostly listening - to others.
“He’s not just a horseman, he’s a stellar human being,” Dot said. “He gives all the time though you’d never know about it.
“There’s a guy I know who was a good horseman. He’s 72 now and has cancer and was very depressed because he couldn’t do a lot now.
“Tony literally bought a horse for $15,000 and gave it to him so he’d have some purpose again. He just didn’t want to see him down.”
Sharon told how she was “really sick” last August and how Tony showed up in Michigan – where she lives – to care for her.
“I was just so touched,” she said.
His love of family showed itself in a different way when his dad died, she said:
“We were talking about a funeral and Tony was not in favor of that. He looked down his nose at me and said, ‘Have I ever told you no?’ I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m telling you now.’
“So we had a celebration of Eddie’s life instead. And Tony participated and everything was perfect.”
Holly remembers that day: “As soon as the memorial ended, he got in his car and left. He had had all he could deal with that day.”
Monday night Tony made sure there was another celebration.
That’s when Bold Decision became the right decision.
That’s when he guided another winner to the finish line and onto sacred ground.