Watching the Winner’s Circle celebrations at this year’s Hambletonian, many of us witnessed a rather uncomfortable moment as the TV reporter attempted to get a few words from winning trotter Broad Bahn’s caretaker, Risa Tanaka, who appeared to be less than willing to participate in the interview. We soon learned that Risa, born 31 years ago in Japan, wasn’t unwilling – she was unable to understand the reporter because she was born deaf. In an article published on the U S Trotting Association website, we were given an insight into the difficulties she faced growing up in Japan and New Zealand, where her family moved in hopes of finding a more hospitable environment for their young daughter. It seems the deaf aren’t accepted by the Japanese populace. Yet thanks to Noel Daley and Chris Ryder, Risa has now found a home and a job she loves here in America.
Reading the USTA article, I couldn’t help thinking about the more positive experiences of an American harness racer who has also dealt with deafness. His name is Ricky Macomber, Jr., and you may have seen him driving in Florida and the Midwest. You may never have known that he, too, was born deaf. He was more fortunate than Risa. He was born into a harness-racing family and was educated at the prestigious Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with a degree in business management.
On February 17, 2011, “Slick Rick” won his 2000th race. He’s won the driving championship at Hoosier Park, plus the 2000 and 2002 editions of the Dan Patch Invitational Pace, and his lifetime earnings are in excess of $17.2 million. Among the horses he’s driven are Won the West, Go On BB, and Got ‘Er Done.
Macomber has said that, because of his hearing aids, he’s only “hearing impaired” and has learned to tell the sounds of “shouting and horses hooves hitting the ground”. But he relies on lip reading to communicate with people. Can any of us imagine driving a horse in a frenzied stakes race without being able to hear what’s happening around us? Scary thought, isn’t it! Yet despite this added challenge, Macomber has managed to be the second leading driver on Hoosier Park’s all-time wins list. His long-term goal is to follow his father, Richard Macomber, into the training ranks.
While thinking about the accomplishments of Risa Tanaka and Ricky Macomber, Jr., I cannot help but consider all the marvelous folks in the Standardbred community who have welcomed them and provided them the opportunity to succeed on the same terms as everyone else. No wonder we all love harness racing!