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Tough-as-nails Red Wings Darren McCarty and Kris Draper join the racing game
My Kris Draper Page

tuffasnailz-n.jpg (48309 bytes)

Tough-as-nails Red Wings Darren McCarty
and Kris Draper join the racing game

by Nicole Kraft

Darren McCarty's hands are deceptive.

They are strong hands, squared at the fingertips, callused through the physical labors of his career and his hobbies.

They are hands that fit well on the 6-foot-1 frame of a professional hockey player, one who is considered a rising star among the skating set, who twice helped guide his team to Stanley Cup championships.

But hockey is more than just a game of strength, and the finesse and sensitivity that come through McCarty's hands are almost as great as the power.

It is his finesse that allowed him to score more than 75 regular-season goals in his six seasons as a right winger with the Detroit Red Wings. It is his dexterity that took the Stanley Cup-winning goal from his stick to the net in game four of the 1997 series against Philadelphia.

To witness his gentleness, simply watch as he lays his hands on the curls of his 3-year-old son, Griffin. Or watch as he strokes the necks and steers the lines of his latest quest for glory, the Standardbred racehorses that make up his Tuffasnailz Stable.

"When one of our horses won, you'd think he had won the Stanley Cup again," said stable partner and friend Ron Sanko. "Darren loves his horses."

It is a crisp and clear Sunday morning when Darren and Griffin McCarty pull up to the Windsor barn that houses veteran pacers Condor Rico and Township Patriot, and freshman filly Tuffasnailz.

Dressed in skates and hockey pads on the ice of Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, McCarty is a mountain. In his jeans and polo shirt he is just a man, although a man more popular than most.

Women and kids dressed in Red Wings jerseys, wielding photos, cards and pens, gather at the stable for a chance to meet--maybe even touch--a rising hockey star. McCarty obliges with a shy smile, speaking with each for a moment, never seeming rushed or ungracious. With each point of a camera, he strikes the pose of a man who has done this countless times before.

When the last autograph has been signed, he runs a hand through his dark curls, smiles and takes the hand of his young son. "Let's go see the horses," he says.

The same light that has filled the eyes of the Red Wings fans lucky enough to meet Number 25 now takes over McCarty's face as he runs his hands over the sleek body of Township Patriot, his first racehorse purchase and the bearer of his victory dreams. He calls the horse his "sports car," while stablemate Condor Rico is more of a "sport-utility vehicle."

McCarty plunks a hockey helmet on his son's head and waits while Condor Rico is harnessed for a morning jog. He then sits astride the jog cart and places Griffin on one knee before leaving behind the all-encompassing world that is professional hockey, and heading out to the simplicity of the dirt track.

Lord Stanley's Cup returned to Detroit in 1997, for the first time in more than four decades. Darren McCarty was there to hold it, and he was not alone. With him were, of course, his teammates, and they, in turn, were joined by thousands of cheering, screaming Red Wings fans who can recognize their favorite players in any context.

Indeed, since 1993, when McCarty became a star player on one of the National Hockey League's top franchises, his life has been significantly less his own. As a professional hockey player, McCarty starts his season in the fall and works virtually seven days a week--either in a game, practice or travel--until the season ends. That end comes when they run out of games, get eliminated from the playoffs, or win the Stanley Cup.

But there is more to pro sports than the sport itself, especially in Detroit.

Whether with wife, Cheryl, or parents, Roberta and Craig, in restaurants, at movies or simply walking to his car from practice, McCarty can expect to be approached by fans sporting Red Wings paraphernalia, clutching a paper and pen, asking for a moment of time and memory to last a lifetime.

They don't call this place Hockeytown for nothing.

It is, therefore, not hard to see the appeal of a simple morning jog--just a horse, a man and his son. For when that sea of admirers parts and McCarty drives Condor Rico through to the peace of the training track, the chatter quiets. All that is left is the pulsating beat of hooves on dirt, the laughter of a child and an occasional whinny from afar.

McCarty was 5 years old when hockey took over his life and put him on his unwavering path to the National Hockey League. But Craig and Roberta McCarty always made sure there was time for family and fun, too, and it was while visiting an uncle that the British Columbia native first encountered harness racing.

"He'd let me jog and train the horses, and I loved it," recalled McCarty with a smile. "Leamington Raceway was right down the road from his farm, and I really enjoyed watching [the horses]. I learned to read a program pretty early in life."

After years of striving toward his dream of an NHL career, McCarty was drafted by the Red Wings in round two of the 1992 entry draft. At the age of 27, he has reached a place too few people achieve--the very top of his profession. By his second season, the Red Wings had gone to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to New Jersey. Though they lost to Colorado in the Western Conference finals a year later, the team more than made up for past disappointments by taking home the prized trophy in 1997 and 1998.

Life, hockey and racing all share in common that they need luck for success. And it can be considered lucky for McCarty and harness racing that he met hockey equipment sales representative Ron Sanko.

Sanko, who once played minor league hockey, struck up a fast friendship with McCarty, and the pair were soon spending off-ice time visiting the Windsor Casino and area racetracks together. And when they went to the track, often to watch Sanko's trotter Over Connected 4,2:00.1f compete in conditioned events at Hazel Park, the thrill of the race began to infect McCarty.

"We hung out at the track a lot last summer," McCarty recalled. "It was a great place to be, and if you're gonna gamble, the track is the best place. You don't lose it so fast.

"Pretty soon we started talking about getting a horse. Then Drape said, 'I'm in.' He likes them, even though he doesn't understand racing at all."

"Drape," for non-Red Wings fanatics, is Kris Draper, the Red Wings' strong-skating center who rooms with McCarty on Detroit road trips. The two are as much friends as they are teammates, with McCarty serving as the best man at Draper's 1998 wedding.

One of the NHL's notorious bruisers, the soft-spoken Draper, a native of Toronto, admitted he knows very little about racing, but he thought the partnership had the potential for some "good times."

"I thought it would be kind of a neat thing to be a part of with a couple of buddies," said Draper, "so I decided to jump in. Since there are a bunch of tracks in Toronto, that made it appealing; in summers I could go and watch my horses race.

"My brother-in-law was very into racing when he was a kid growing up. He's probably the most excited about the fact that I'm part owner of three horses."

Draper, 26, might be the perfect owner: "Ron said, 'This is what we need from you,' and I gave them the money."

Though he calls himself the "silent partner," Draper added with a laugh, "I just expect results--you know, they have fun and I'm the one who cracks the whip."

Although Draper feels his role in the stable is small, his presence was the most significant when it came time to name the new enterprise. Since the center's nickname is "Nails," and both players are aggressive on-ice combatants, the partnership was incorporated as the Tuffasnailz Stable.

"It just had the right ring to it," McCarty said with a grin.

Teamed with Windsor-trainer Norm Dessureault, the Tuffasnailz Stable made its first purchase last November when it picked up Quebec-sired Township Patriot for $50,000. Three starts later, with McCarty and Draper on a road trip in Vancouver, communicating by cell phone with Sanko at Mohawk Raceway, the big bay sophomore went wire to wire to win a $13,500 conditioned claimer in 1:55 for Steve Condren.

"I enjoy a horse that doesn't quit," said McCarty, who has his horses' program pages faxed to his hotel when he's on the road. "That's Township Patriot. He follows through to the end."

tuffasnailz2-n.jpg (21161 bytes)The group followed up with Condor Rico, pictured at left with McCarty, who finished in the money his first six starts for Tuffasnailz, including a pair of wins. Rounding out the stable is a daughter of Matt's Scooter purchased for $5,000 at Tattersalls in 1998 under the name Two Wheels. That moniker, however, didn't ring right with the group, so they renamed her--what else?--Tuffasnailz.

"Without 'Sank,' I wouldn't have gotten involved," admitted McCarty of Sanko's influence. "It's a tough business. Look how many horses there are; everyone wants to win and make money. You have to look at what you are willing to part with if everything goes bad. If you find a good one, that's a bonus."

And if you find a good one, you might as well share the thrill of victory.

McCarty has been known to bring the tapes of his horses' winning races into the Red Wings locker room at Joe Louis Arena and ask his teammates to "guess who won?". He and Sanko have a system whereby the latter takes a cell phone to the races, and McCarty--game-time permitting--calls a few minutes before and after post time to get the odds and the race results.

McCarty, however, is still waiting to do what has become a regular part of his life in other venues--pose for a picture.

"That's the best part," he said, grinning. "If you're there and you win, you get to have a picture with your horse."

As much as the Tuffasnailz crew seeks winners, though, they realize there is more to life than a victory lap.

One of the biggest appeals for McCarty is that the barn offers a unique and peaceful experience for the whole family. Wife Cheryl is becoming an expert at picking the "pretty horses" out of the post parade and watching them cross the wire first; "She's got a gift," McCarty said, shaking his head with wonder.

Most importantly, though, the barn visits have given McCarty the opportunity to spend time with his first-born--they also have a daughter, Emerson--who must be left at home during Daddy's frequent road trips.

Indeed, there are few things that bring McCarty more joy than being with Griffin.

"A lot of times during the season you're away, and when I have a day off, I can come here and spend the whole day with him," McCarty said. "For Griffin and me it's great, something special. Hopefully this is something he'll enjoy and want to learn about. Right now Griffin loves to feed the horse, chase cats, go for a little trot.

"It's a whole family thing. I really like the personal aspect of racing--these are our horses. It's like having pets. I'd be lying if I didn't say I hope we win. But we're realistic, too. I don't have a lot of control over it. But it sure is exciting. 'Patriot' winning was one of the most exciting things for me."

Perhaps it is the lack of control in other areas of McCarty's life that makes his time at the barn, away from some of life's reality, all the more precious.

In 1997 McCarty divulged that he was an alcoholic, a revelation that led to counseling and a planned lifetime of sobriety. He sought support, as he always had, from father Craig, who is suffering a rare--and terminal--form of bone cancer.

"It's something we live with, and we do the best we can," said McCarty somberly.

Craig McCarty wrote in Rinkside, the book he published on his own cancer fight and Darren's career, "I told him we each had a problem that we couldn't do much about. We both had to learn to live with our problems....We made a pact that no matter what happened we would go through our diseases together and help each other when needed."

And together they have gone through the rest of their lives. When Darren took his celebratory drink from the Stanley Cup, it was a soft drink that wet his lips. When Craig is forced back to the hospital for treatments, it is with his family by his side. Craig and Roberta are frequent visitors to the Tuffasnailz barn, where they can share some quiet time in the sun with their dogs, their grandson and their much-in-demand first-born.

But the McCartys have done more than simply await the inevitable. When he's not chasing pucks or racing horses, Darren assists with the McCarty Cancer Foundation, a gift he gave Craig for Father's Day in 1997 to raise money to fight multiple myeloma, a little seen or researched cancer of the blood and bone.

"Darren felt that with his popularity in the Detroit market, he could help me get exposure," wrote Craig McCarty. "...We felt it would be good to get some publicity about the disease multiple myeloma. Darren felt we could help others with the disease if we could show that cancer is a disease that may not be beaten but can be lived with."

And living life is what the McCarty family is all about.

While Darren McCarty's career goals may be more complex, his aspirations for racing are simple: win a few races, hang out with the people he loves, maybe even learn to drive a few.

"How fulfilling would that be, to have a horse you bred and you drove it to some big win? Nothing could compare," said the man who has twice skated with the Stanley Cup. "Everything is relative for what it is. Hockey is what I do for a living; I know about that--ask me anything about hockey. Horses, I know a little bit. But I want to learn about things you like. I want to keep learning."

Tuffasnailz plans to keep a minimum of two racing horses--"so we can watch them a couple times a week," said McCarty--with a baby developing in the wings. Despite what seems the obvious allure of big-time racing at The Meadowlands or Woodbine, Sanko said the local opportunities for the stable are even more appealing.

"The Meadowlands and Woodbine are the NHL, the pros," he said. "If we go there, that would be exciting. But there's something about racing here. Hazel Park is close to where we live. These guys have a special place in their hearts for Detroit. They want to find their success and have fun here."

Indeed, some stable members will win, and some will lose. McCarty knows he can live with and enjoy both.

And while he recognizes the delicate balance in racing between success and failure, McCarty feels his own experiences as an athlete performing for others, where lack of quality performance can result in termination, helps him understand the racing game from the horses' perspective.

"I can relate to them, that's for sure," he said with a grin. "Really, though, I'm in because I like the horse. I know I can't get too attached to them, but I'm going to treat them as an owner should. I have a responsibility toward them, to see they get the best food and the best care so that they can perform their best. I have a good bond to them. Right now, they're mine, and I want to give them the best possible opportunities.

"When it comes time to move on, though, we will. They'll understand. We'll sit down and talk."