02/16/2017 10:53AM

Zoccali: Paying homage to my mentor, Sam McKee

Lisa Photo
The Meadowlands was a home away from home for Darin Zoccali through much of his life.

On a winter day in early January 2016, several members of Meadowlands management were brought into the board room along with myself and it was revealed to them that I had given my two weeks’ notice and was nearing my final day of work at The Meadowlands.  I was sitting next to Sam Mckee when he learned this news the first time.  It really beat me up inside that for nearly a week, I knew I was leaving, but I couldn’t tell Sam.  I owed Sam everything.  I had told my wife that having to tell Sam this news would be the hardest part of this process. 

After the meeting regarding my departure was over, I followed Sam to his office and closed the door and told him that I wanted to be the one to tell him, but I was asked not to inform anyone myself.  Sam understood why I made the decision I made, but I still sensed disappointment in him.  He was the first mentor I had in the racing industry, no doubt the greatest mentor I had, and there was a part of me that felt I was betraying him in a way by moving my career in another direction. 

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Sam was one of the few people in harness racing that really understood me, an ironic fact since I was an Italian kid from Bensonhurst who was never afraid to give an opinion and Sam was a soft-spoken man from Michigan.  We couldn’t come from backgrounds that were any more different.  But Sam understood me.  He understood that my father taught me when a person sees enough potential in you to hire you, they aren’t paying you to simply agree with everything they say.  I was taught that the real world appreciates passion, appreciates enough confidence that you aren’t afraid of voicing an opinion, even if it turns out that you are wrong.  A lot of people thought this was cockiness, a know-it-all attitude.  Sam knew it was just my turning a passion into a career and not becoming complacent because of it.  After all, Sam knew my dad very well from years of him being at The Meadowlands with me as customers.  Sam knew that for quite a while, I was the only person under the age of 21 permitted on the east side of the clubhouse near the sports bar.  Sam knew that the tellers in the Clubhouse tele-theater had a birthday cake for me on my 16th birthday.  Sam knows just about everything there is to know about me.

To me, Sam has been a father-figure.  He saw a passion in me and took it upon himself to help guide that passion in the right direction.  There was no reason he had to do that, but he did.  For over 16 years Sam gave me advice, congratulated me on achievements and gave me constructive criticism on things I could have done better.  Never once getting angry with me, always focused on working with me to make me not just a better racing professional, but a better person; much like a father would do.

It was Sam that first put me on television in the “Grasshopper Also Sunday Ticket,” a guest spot during a Sunday matinee of racing at The Meadowlands.  It was Sam who put me on the in-house Breeders’ Cup simulcast broadcast in 2006, and when it was his turn to take over, decided I was doing so well that I should just keep going.  He gave me opportunity upon opportunity to work on The Meadowlands TV broadcast, eventually to the point of hosting and co-hosting the SNY recap show.  The names of people who had done that were Sam Mckee, Tom Durkin, Brad Thomas, Ken Warkentin, Bob Heyden, Dave Brower, the best of the best at what they had done.  For me, it was like being asked to host Fox NFL Sunday.  Here I am, a 23-year-old kid that Sam thinks is worthy of being put on stage with such tremendous talent.  When someone shows that kind of confidence in you, you owe it to them to work harder at everything, harder than you even knew you could work.  It was Sam who reached out to Jason Settlemoir on my behalf, inquiring if there were any spots open for a young track announcer at the new track he was running, Tioga Downs.

The first weekend I actually called races at a pari-mutuel racetrack was at Tioga Downs.  Sam was working at The Meadowlands, but he kept a close eye on me as well.  He kept a close enough eye that he went and spent some time with my parents that night, who were watching me via simulcast in the tele-theater.  Sam always reminded me of that image he had, watching two parents filled with pride as their son was living out a dream.  I don’t even know if they realized just how much Sam had to do with that moment.  Without Sam, that moment wouldn’t have been possible.

For years, I drove up and down the east coast, between Tioga Downs, Ocean Downs and Parx Racing with other stops on the way, sometimes driving through the night to be sure I never missed a post time.  I would call the races at Parx on a Monday and Tuesday before driving to Ocean Downs to call the races on Wednesday and Thursday, and then driving the seven hours to Tioga Downs to call the races on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  At times thinking I was out of my mind, but remembering that there was an icon in the industry who thought enough of me to open the doors for these opportunities and I owed it to him to follow through.

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I went through some very joyous and very difficult times in my personal life and lived through them with Sam.  My father’s declining health and seeing him become a shell of what he once was is something that I know upset Sam.  I don’t know if Sam knows to this day, but he was the first person outside my family I informed when my wife was pregnant the first time.  I remember exactly where we were, standing next to the copy machine in the publicity office in the old Meadowlands facility.  Sam was ecstatic, gave me about the biggest hug a person can give.  He was heartbroken when I told him that we lost that pregnancy in the days after The Hambletonian.  He was there for me as my mother-in-law battled cancer and never once asked me a question about work during the month that I was in and out of the office because she was now sent home to live out her final days in peace.  I think he knew that experience changed me, as I think it would change a lot of people.  I think he saw the despair in my eyes near the end and just wanted to be there to let me know that he was there for anything I needed.  We were always much more than colleagues during my time at The Meadowlands, we were friends.

During that conversation where Sam and I discussed my decision to leave, beyond the professional reasons behind it which really paled in comparison, Sam understood this decision was about family.  My wife had lost both parents and  I felt that I was missing things in my children’s life that I shouldn’t be missing and a professional opportunity presented itself which allowed me to no longer have to miss these things in my family life.  Sam understood something that not a lot of people understood.  Sam understood that my work day didn’t end when I left the office, that upon getting home I would eat dinner, maybe get an hour with my family before heading to my office to work on morning lines and writing the analysis for every horse in every race, which often kept me up until two o’clock in the morning.  This was in addition to my race-day obligations the rest of the week, where I would typically get home around 1:30 A.M.  Sam understood this was no way for a father of two small children to be living.  He made sure to let me know that he understood, which was so important to me.

I could write a book on the greatness that is Sam Mckee and if I were a good enough writer, it could probably be a best-seller.  I’ll close by simply saying this, everyone deserves to have a Sam Mckee in their life.  I’m thankful the original Sam Mckee is in mine.