Wednesday, July 28, 2021 — by Chris Tully, for First Tracks Cumberland
CUMBERLAND, ME – If you mention Jake Phipps to anyone around the state of Maine’s many pari-mutuel fairs and race tracks, you are likely to get a similar response, “That kid really loved harness horses.”
A third-generation horseman, Jason “Jake” Orrin Phipps was passionate about Standardbreds, and would be the first to grab Hoof Beats magazine from the family’s Yarmouth, Maine mailbox when it arrived.
“Whenever I expected to receive the latest issue, it could usually be found in Jake’s room, where he had scoured it from cover-to-cover,” exclaimed his dad Bill Phipps. “This was usually several days before I got my hands on it, and by that time Jake had memorized much of the content and news.”
As a young adult, Jake worked as a shop assistant at the family’s trucking company, known as Yarmouth Lumber, Inc. Founded by Jake’s grandfather, Orrin Phipps in 1951, it was originally a saw mill. Then the company transitioned to hauling lumber, and eventually adapted with the ebb and flow of business trends to 53’ dry vans that run up and down the northeast corridor.
Currently, the company has terminals in Gray, Maine and Morristown, New Jersey and primarily hauls Poland Spring bottled water products. Orrin Phipps was also a horseman who trained and drove around Maine from the mid-1970s through 2011, and helped introduce Jake to the lure of racing harness horses.
Growing up in Yarmouth, Maine and graduating from Greely High School, at an early age Jake was exposed to the many fairs and commercial tracks that dot the Pine Tree State landscape.
“Jake loved horses almost immediately,” his dad Bill noted. “By age five he started asking to go with my father and me whenever we went to Scarborough, Cumberland, Windsor, Union, Skowhegan, Fryeburg, Presque Isle, Bangor…any track in New England. He insisted upon traveling with us.”
As Jake grew, so did his love for horses. He started working in the stables with his grandfather Orrin Phipps, as well as in the barn with Maine legend Donnie Richards.
“Jake loved horses and could read a program. Jake knew every horse in the barn and what every horse wore for equipment,” noted Richards’ long-time stable manager Donna Fenderson. “He spent many summers with us, traveling around to all the fairs, helping us in the barn and working with our horses.”
Jake was rarely seen without his sunglasses and a golf cart, and had always kept himself on a strict regimen. Having a daily routine is a common trait among individuals that have developmental disabilities or have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
Because of his omnipresence, the Cumberland Fair provided Jake with a golf cart to take people to the winners circle.
“Jake knew everyone around the fairgrounds, and they all loved him. He was quick to smile and help in any way he could,” noted long-time Cumberland Farmer’s Club president Mike Timmons.
The consistency of the racing schedule complimented Jake’s need for routine, and also gave him something to look forward to each race day. His father Bill also had to accept the unwavering nature of Jake’s lifestyle.
“At our Yarmouth terminal, Jake made sure that the garbage cans all got emptied at 9:15 am, every day. No matter what,” Phipps noted. A prominent horse owner in the state of Maine, he also recalled that, “we always had to be home by 9:00 pm, because that is Jake’s shower time. He never misses it, and he is never late.”
Jake’s schedule was very important to him, as was his work. However, his office at the trucking depot had an indication as to the gravity that harness racing meant to his life. A big sign on the door read, “Regular hours are 8 am to 5 pm. Hours subject to change during the racing season!”
“He had a photographic memory,” Bill Phipps remembered. “Any driver in our yard that wanted to know where a truck was or where it was going, Jake knew, right off the top of his head.”
Because of their affinity for harness racing, and their trucking business, each and every one the Phipps family’s Yarmouth Lumber semi-tractor trailers is adorned with a large magnetic sign that reads, “Maine Harness Racing – Fun to the Finish!” It also has a silhouette of a harness horse and driver.
The trucking company and harness racing stables were very much a family affair for the three generations of the Phipps clan. Monday nights are family supper night, because they are usually racing on Sunday.
“They made me feel right at home,” stated Ben Kenney, the on-site manager for First Tracks Cumberland. “When I arrived in April to start preparing for our meet, Bill invited me for dinner and I instantly became part of their extended family.”
Having traveled from across the country to facilitate the track’s renaissance, Kenney found the Phipps family suppers’ sort of a home away from home.
“If I am not at the door by 5:30 pm on any given Monday, Bill starts calling me, asking if I am going to make it,” Kenney continued. “He is a great guy and has become a good friend. We are honored to name this race after Jake who was such a big part of the local racing community.”
Jake Phipps passed away suddenly in 2012, and was laid to rest with one additional item by his side–the November 2012 issue of Hoof Beats. He was a vibrant 36 years old, who kept hundreds of copies of the magazine in the eaves by his bedroom.
The Jake Phipps Memorial will be held at Cumberland on Saturday, July 31. First post time is 2:30 pm, with the special event being carded as race nine on the full, twelve race program.