McKinley Kirk liked to describe himself as “just a farmer who likes horses.” He was, however, not only a successful farmer and businessman but also one of the most accomplished and respected figures in harness racing from the 1950s until his death in 1978. Kirk was a breeder, owner, trainer and driver of Standardbred racehorses. Additionally, he was a director of the Little Brown Jug Society and for 24 years an elected director of the United States Trotting Association (USTA).
Born in New Holland in 1896, Kirk lived most of his adult life on Rawlings Street in Washington Court House. In 1933, he purchased a mare named Belle Mahone from Ed Sever, a Fayette County horseman, who lived a short distance west of Washington C.H. on the CCC highway. Kirk bred Belle Mahone and her daughters to top stallions. During the next 70 years, Belle Mahone’s daughters and their female descendants produced more than 45 horses that paced or trotted a mile in two minutes. (A 2:00 mile was the benchmark of Standardbred superiority in the 20th century.)
McKinley Kirk began driving horses at the Ohio county fairs in 1944. He won his first race in the same year at the age of 48 and was soon operating a Standardbred nursery and training facility at his farm near New Holland. Throughout his long career in harness racing, Kirk was technically an amateur driver because he owned, shared ownership, or piloted without compensation every horse he drove. Early in his career he owned horses in partnership with Clarence Vallery of Waverly, Ohio, and later with Clarence’s sons, Robert and Harry Vallery, who also lived in Waverly.
To quantify the success of harness drivers, the USTA uses a mathematical formula known as the Universal Driver Rating System (UDRS). A driver is assigned nine points for every race he drives. He is awarded nine points for a win, five points for a second-place finish, and three points for finishing third. Dividing the cumulative points for his first, second, and third-place finishes by the sum of the nine points charged for each race gives the driver a UDRS score expressed as a decimal value.
Although Kirk never drove more than 228 heats a year, his statistics were those of an outstanding professional reinsman. His UDRS percentage surpassed the .400 mark eight times. In 1952, his 134 starts yielded a score of .532, and in 1961, his 91 trips to the starting gate produced a .607 percentage. His lifetime summary shows 380 heats won as a driver and $330,000 earned in purse money. McKinley Kirk stood six feet, three inches tall. His colors were red and white.
Kirk bred, owned, trained or drove four world champion racehorses, whose records were all taken at a distance of one mile. His first world champion was Hodgen, a foal of 1943. Kirk purchased Hodgen as a yearling and raced him successfully as a trotter in 1945, 1946, and 1947. In 1948, he switched the stallion to the pacing gait when the horse was a 5-year-old. In late 1948, when reducing the size of his racing stable to concentrate more on the breeding side of the sport, he sold Hodgen to Dr. and Mrs. Roy Knisley of Toledo, Ohio. The Knisleys sent Hodgen, already a winner of $7,300, to be trained and driven by Eddie Cobb, Kirk’s son-in-law.
Cobb campaigned Hodgen as a trotter in the spring of 1950. In June 1950, he drove the horse a 2:02.1 mile in a time trial at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles and then returned the 7-year-old stallion to the lateral gait in July. On Sept. 8, 1950, with Cobb in the sulky, Hodgen paced a heat in 1:58.3 when winning the $10,000 Governor’s Cup Stake at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. The mile trotted in 2:02.1 at Santa Anita and the mile paced in 1:58.3 at Syracuse made Hodgen the world’s champion double-gaited Standardbred racehorse.
Kirk owned his next two world champions in partnership with Robert and Harry Vallery. He was the breeder of Floating Dream, a filly by Billy Direct, holder of the world’s pacing record (1:55 for the mile). Her dam was Abbe M., a daughter of Belle Mahone.
Floating Dream was foaled in 1948, and on Aug. 17, 1950, she won both dashes of the 2-year-old pace at the Miami County Fair in Troy, Ohio. Floating Dream’s fastest heat in 2:06.2 was a new world’s record for 2-year-old filly pacers on a half-mile track. Her driver that afternoon was McKinley’s friend Clayton Cox, a well-known reinsman from Wilmington.
On Oct. 4, 1950 at the Red Mile racetrack in Lexington, Ky., Kirk drove Floating Dream to a double-heat victory in the Hanover Filly Stake for juvenile female pacers. Floating Dream’s fastest mile heat in 2:00.4 was a new world’s record for 2-year-old pacing fillies. The Record-Herald called her “the equine darling of Fayette County.”
McKinley Kirk’s third world champion was his homebred filly pacer Pleasant Surprise, foaled in 1950. Her dam was Abbe M., the mother of Floating Dream. The sire of Pleasant Surprise was Adios, the most successful progenitor of Standardbred racehorses from the 1950s until his death in 1965.
On Oct. 2, 1953, Pleasant Surprise became the world’s champion 3-year-old filly pacer when she went a 1:58.3 mile in a time trial at Lexington’s Red Mile. Kirk drove Pleasant Surprise, while his longtime friend T. Wayne “Curly” Smart, a legendary horseman from Delaware, Ohio, steered the galloping Thoroughbred prompter that pushed the filly to her maximum effort throughout the record-setting mile.
Kirk’s fourth world champion was Flaming Arrow, a filly he bred and then trained for her owner William Vallery, a cousin of Robert and Harry Vallery. Foaled in 1953, Flaming Arrow’s sire was Ensign Hanover, winner of the first Little Brown Jug in 1946. Her dam was The Miracle, another daughter of Abbe M.
On Sept. 29, 1956, Eddie Cobb drove Flaming Arrow to a double-heat victory in a $15,000 stake at the Red Mile, the track where records are most often broken. The chestnut filly won the first mile heat in 1:58.2—-a sparkling new world’s record for 3-year-old filly pacers in either a race or a time trial. Flaming Arrow won the second heat in an identical time of 1:58.2. Her combined times of 3:56.4 was a two-heat world’s record for female pacers of any age and a two-heat world’s record for 3-year-old pacers regardless of sex.
In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, no one in harness racing was more respected or well-liked than McKinley Kirk. He exemplified all that is good in the trotting and pacing sport. Horsemen young and old sought his advice, and he cheerfully gave it. His illustrious career played a pivotal role in maintaining Fayette County’s reputation as the “Lexington of Ohio” in the second half of the 20th century.
McKinley Kirk died in Washington C.H. in April 1978. He was 81-years-old. He was enshrined posthumously as an “Immortal” in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame at Goshen, New York, in 1997.