Saying goodbye to Sam

Updated: November 24, 2001, 7:59 PM ET
By Dave Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

I remember Sam Maple from the very first season of thoroughbred racing at The Meadowlands. It was 1977, and Sonny Werblin, the former owner of the New York Jets and Monmouth Park racetrack had been enlisted by New Jersey Governor William Cahill to make a world class sports complex out of a swamp.

The complex would eventually include Giants Stadium and Continental Arena, where the Nets and the Devils now play. But the racetrack was there first. It was the cash register for the rest of the sports complex puzzle.

The Meadowlands had opened with harness racing -- lots of it. In fact from day one, The Big M was the number one showcase of standardbred racing.

But Sonny was a thoroughbred guy. Not only did he guide Monmouth on the Jersey shore, he owned a fine string of runners, including Silent Screen. He wanted to race them at his brand new racetrack. He wanted The Meadowlands to be America's nighttime racetrack.

Sonny hired me as track announcer, and he was intent on bringing in, on a nightly basis, as many of the marquee jockeys from New York as possible. Angel Cordero Jr., Eddie Belmonte, Jorge Velasquez as well as almost all of the other leading lights in the Big Apple riding colony made the trek by a Meadowlands-supplied limo or helicopter to show their stuff to the fans who had been plied with harness racing for the first two years that The Meadowlands was open.

So who was the leading rider that first meeting at The Big M? None other than Sam Maple. He always seemed to be in the shadow of his older brother, Eddie, even at night. And in the shadow of the more famous riders, from across the Hudson river. But make no mistake, Sam could horseback.

Sam won over 2,500 races. His last victory on the track was at Churchill Downs in November of 1995. But he lost his last race, to brain cancer, at his home in Wilmore, Ky. on Nov. 13. He was just 48 years old.

Trainer Joe Cantey, who conditioned such good racehorses as Temperance Hill and Cox's Ridge, told me that he remembered Sam as a solid guy who was very much like his brother, Eddie -- unassuming, talented, conscientious and a man who put his family in the forefront of his entire life. Sam was one of Joe's "go-to" riders at Hot Springs for many years and even sold Sam his condo when he left Arkansas. Sam was a leading rider there, as well at Ak-Sar-Ben, Hazel Park and the aforementioned Meadowlands. Cantey believes Sam Maple could have made it big on the big circuits, but that he was happier in the midwest. And if it was better for his family, it was better for Sam.

In the 1980's, Thistledown used to be a yearly stop on the "Racing Across America" series we did for so many seasons on ESPN. It was at one of those broadcasts of the Ohio Derby, that Sam introduced me to his wonderful father, who was so proud to have his boys be such a success in the thoroughbred game. There were eight children in all. Three were jockeys. In addition to Eddie and Sam, Mark Maple was also a rider. But as former rider and racing official John Rotz told me, Mark outgrew his jockey saddle when he was pretty young. Mark was four years younger than Sam.

Speaking of John Rotz, who is now retired and living in Warrensburg, Ill., he was a steward that first year of thoroughbred racing at The Meadowlands. He also remembers Sam very well. "He was a good rider, a tough kid on a horse, and a rider who believed in himself while always giving 110%," said Rotz.

"Gentleman John" Rotz also recalls Sam as being a fierce competitor on the track and one who strongly defended himself and his actions when Steward Rotz questioned him during the adjudication of a foul claim.

The Maple family was from Carrollton, Ohio. Rock solid. Clean cut. God fearing. Hard working. Athletic. Sam, as a Christian, built on that strong foundation, and made life better for others who were not as fortunate as the Maples.

I will remember Sam more for that than the terrific numbers and names he is associated with in the American Racing Manual. He rode 82 winners that inaugural season at The Meadowlands and every one of them was against the best riders in the business.

That same year, he won the Travers aboard Jatski. But even more remarkable was the fact that he won four -- count 'em four -- derbies in 1979 with Smarten for trainer Woody Stephens. They were the American Derby, the Illinois Derby, the Pennsylvania Derby, and the one he was most proud of that season, the Ohio Derby. The hometown fans did indeed go wild as he entered the winners circle that June afternoon. The cheering and applause should never stop.

Sam Maple leaves behind his wife, Jill, four children and a legacy for all of us to respect and emulate.

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