Veteran Midwest-based horseman A. George Ursitti died Sunday, Nov. 2. He was 87.
Mr. Ursitti was born May 23, 1927, in Chaffee, N.Y., outside Buffalo. He was a star athlete in high school and college, lettering in virtually every sport.
“One time George brought in a scrapbook from his high school days and he was all-everything,” said longtime friend Ken Marshall, director of racing operations at Hazel Park Raceway. “He was known as ‘Mr. Big’ around the Buffalo area.”
One of Mr. Ursitti’s favorite sports was wrestling, and he turned to the professional ranks in the 1940s. While he wrestled under his real name in the Buffalo area – including a few well-documented “cage matches” against local rival John “Flash” Gordon – he also began wearing a mask and became known as “The Masked Marvel,” traveling the circuit on a full-time basis. Mr. Ursitti also danced in his early years, with his talent catching the attention of Lawrence Welk and Shirley Jones. When Ms. Jones was preparing to star in the stage production Oklahoma, she asked Mr. Ursitti to join the troupe, but he declined. Their friendship then grew into short dating relationship.
Mr. Ursitti was also a successful driver in his earlier years. Among Mr. Ursitti’s more well-known horses were the $173,180 winner Bye Time and the $140,209 winner Castle Knight, both owned by his Mac Jay Stables in partnership with his longtime friend, Doc Rini. Bye Time and Castle Knight started respectively in the 1967 and 1968 Provincial Cup at Windsor Raceway, both won by Cardigan Bay.
Another of Mr. Ursitti’s more successful horses in the 1960s was Guy Yates, who earned nearly $100,000. Among his later stars, Mr. Ursitti was one of the first trainers of Days With Dad, who earned $346,621 in his career.
Mr. Ursitti’s stable was hit hard in early 2005 by a herpes virus that briefly closed Northville Downs. He persevered through the hardship, and with his quick sense of humor he quipped to The Horseman And Fair World magazine at the time that he got through the rough times by “eating a lot of spaghetti.” He was able to put his stable back together, although with Michigan racing on the decline the past few years, he moved his base of operations to Northfield Park in Ohio.
In 2006, Mr. Ursitti was honored at Hazel Park as one of several “Michigan Legends.”
Helped in recent years by his longtime assistant Wendy Cox and his son Andy, Mr. Ursitti’s stable had 239 training starts in 2014, the most since sending out 265 starters in 1997. He posted 18 wins this year, his last coming on Oct. 14 when Tyler St. Louis directed He’s Got That to a victory at Northfield Park. His other winners this year included Bittersweet Dreams, Shockbyelectric, Dannys Man, Careless Love and Exactor Man.
“When I first got in the business they had Legends Night at Hazel Park and I knew of George, and thought it was neat how he was a professional wrestler and also trained and drove,” said Michigan native Ronnie Wrenn Jr., the leading driver at Northfield Park. “They say that back in the day he was a decent driver. My dad always spoke highly of him and George gave me an opportunity to drive, a little bit in Michigan but in the last couple years when I moved to Ohio a lot more. He was always a gentleman and respected me, and he helped me.”
Mr. Ursitti is survived by his children, Jamie, Kyle, Fritz, Chuck, Doreen, Andy and Rick; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Mr. Ursitti is also survived by his longtime companion, Diane Sheeders.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Standardbred Retirement Foundation or the local Humane Society.
Arrangements will be posted when available.