“That’s about what it was like,” laughed Mike Eckman, once the kid who loved racing, now grown up. “It was a little rougher around the edges, maybe, but kind of like My Friend Flicka, sure.”
Eckman is leaving the industry this month, retiring after selling his highly-respected PM Eckman advertising agency in Ocala, Fla. to son Joel Eckman and business partner Jon Siegel.
The summers that sparked Eckman’s interest in racing began when he was 12, riding out on a ranch belonging to a local owner. The horses were trained to race every summer and ridden by teenage kids in county fairs across the state. It was a grand adventure.
“There would always be three or four of us, and we’d take care of (the horses) and ride them in races and all that stuff,” Eckman said. “I’d never ridden a horse in my life when I went there, but it didn’t take long to learn.”
Daisy Mae, a small brown filly with a gentle nature, was the horse Eckman rode to his first victory. Out on the ranch, where there was a small track, a starting gate, and an old cavalry remount stallion, he trained and exercised the filly as if she were his own.
“It was a unique kind of deal,” Eckman said. “It wasn’t designed to be any kind of program—kids just went out there in the summer and it went on for years.”
Although Eckman took a hiatus from racing to finish high school and attend college, his interest in the industry never flagged. After graduating from Northern State College in South Dakota with a teaching degree, he was working for a school when his brother Morry decided to buy a Quarter Horse.
“She cost $300 and he didn’t have any money, so I put up the cash and he broke and trained her,” said Eckman. “She couldn’t run a lick, so we bought another Quarter Horse together that turned out to be amazingly good.”
The other horse cost $500 and went on to rack up a 6-5-4 record from 23 starts and a 1971 Register of Merit.
After Eckman accepted a job as a high school principal, however, tension developed between work and racing.
“Horses were interfering with my work, and work was interfering with my horses, so I said, ‘I’ll just go to the track,’ ” Eckman said.
Eckman trained for several years. After moving to Florida in 1981, however, he decided on a change of pace. He began to sell advertising for the Florida Thoroughbred Farm Managers annual directory, becoming involved with a new side of the industry. And after working in advertising for The Florida Horse trade magazine, he decided to start his own agency.
The company, founded in 1993, introduced the concept of Internet marketing to the Florida racing industry, developing key Web sites and attracting the state’s top farms as clients.
After selling the business to Siegel and his son, Eckman is ready to take a break from the industry. He plans to travel the country on his Harley-Davidson Street Glide. He expects to enjoy retirement.
“I have a couple broodmares, and I’ll probably sell them so I have more time to travel,” he said.
Still, Eckman said, there will always be a place in his heart for horse racing.
“There really isn’t anything that gets more exciting than watching your horse make a move on the final turn and nip somebody at the wire,” he said. “That feeling is amazing, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.”