By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports
For more than 20 years, Mike McHalffey was surrounded by athletes.
Athletes with two legs.
Now, 14 years after retiring as a high school coach, McHalffey is still surrounded by athletes.
But these have four legs.
The veteran of Bossier High School athletics is in his eighth year as a member of the Louisiana State Racing Commission. McHalffey, along with local businessman Roy Griggs, represent Northwest Louisiana on all things related to horse racing.
“We’re the last line of determining penalties and fines,” McHalffey said. “We oversee the rules of racing in Louisiana.”
McHalffey knows all about the rules of a sport. He’s been a head basketball, soccer, and track and field coach, along with being an assistant football coach.
McHalffey also knows an athlete when he sees one — human or horse.
“The horses are like athletes, and I’ve dealt with horses a lot,” McHalffey said. “I always use this as an example: The 6-foot, 190-pound defensive back — that’s what you look for. You look for that zero body fat athlete that’s a horse…They’re just like any athlete. They have their personalities. The good ones are good for a reason….You look for that horse that’s an athlete.”
And just as McHalffey was a coach to so many players, horses have their coaches, also.
“The coach for the horse is usually the trainer,” McHalffey said. “The groom does the physical work. Looking after the legs, just like football players getting in the whirlpool after the game on Sunday. We put them in ice. We wrap their ankles. We massage them. We have a massage therapist that comes out and does their thing. We have a chiropractor that works on the horses. They’re treated like athletes. They get everything an athlete gets.”
McHalffey could probably find his way around Louisiana Downs wearing blinkers. His love of horses — and desire to make extra cash — led McHalffey to summer work at the track while in college, at Louisiana Tech and Baptist Christian College.
“I was a horse trainer. I was a hotwalker, I was a groom. I was a jock agent. I’ve done it all,” McHalffey said.
But after graduation, McHalffey came not to the quarter-pole, but to a fork in the road.
“When I got out of college, I had to make that decision,” McHalffey said. “Go coach and teach — I had kids at the time. I had just got married. (Teaching) was stable. Or stay in the horse business.”
Choosing not to gamble with his livelihood, McHalffey chose the classroom and athletics. But he was never too far from the track. In his office, with a little free time, McHalffey would pull from his desk something to read.
That “something” was not a textbook or novel.
“Back when (Louisiana Downs) opened, we were all coaching, and everybody had a racing form in their drawer,” McHalffey remembered. “We would look at it all the time.”
And when someone would walk in?
“We would throw it back in the drawer.”
These days, McHalffey doesn’t have to hide his affinity for horses—and horse racing. And years removed from coaching, McHalffey still enjoys the thrill of sports—and the thrill of athletes competing.
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