When Charlie Colgan started working for the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association in 1971, annual purses hovered at $1 million and the circuit was reeling from a massive cutback by the New York Racing Association. By the time he retired in 2000, the sport had flipped its financial model – relying far more on a schedule of successful one-day race meets rather than opportunities created by racetracks and taken a variety of progressive steps forward.
Purses exceeded $4.8 million and racing occurred in a dozen states. Jump racing’s governing body had moved from Belmont Park in New York to Fair Hill, Md., changed its name to the National Steeplechase Association (dropping the “and Hunt” from an earlier merger with the United Hunts Association), expanded its regulatory and officiating capacities, added a horsemen’s bookkeeping department, produced race programs for race meets and much more.
Colgan, who died Jan. 2 at age 77 after a brief illness, wasn’t entirely responsible for the changes, but his role was as big as anyone’s.
Hired by John E. “Jack” Cooper as the assistant racing secretary in July 1971, Colgan became the executive secretary and racing secretary/handicapper upon the latter’s retirement in 1976. Colgan was later promoted to executive vice president. He hired current director of racing Bill Gallo in 1977.
Colgan grew up in Manhattan, the second of two children born to Charles P. Colgan and Sabina Kelly Colgan, first generation Irish Americans. From the earliest days, he had a deep love of sports, cultivated by his live experiences at the old Madison Square Garden, and New York racetracks, including summer visits to Saratoga in its heyday. He was especially devoted to the Rangers hockey team of his youth.
He was working as a white cap at Belmont Park when he first met Audrey Walsh, his future wife, then an exercise rider for her father, future Hall of Fame trainer Mickey Walsh. The two were married in 1963 and raised three children together. Their daughter Kelly Colgan and her husband Peter McDermott, based at Fair Hill Training Center, continue the family tradition in racing – winning a Maryland Million race in 2017 with Willy d’Rocket.
Charlie Colgan graduated from Saint Bonaventure University in 1962, served as a captain in the Army for two years, graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Law School in 1969, and practiced law in Charlotte, N.C. before taking the steeplechase job. Among other roles there, he was the editor of the annual American Steeplechasing book.
After his retirement from steeplechasing, he was the executive director of the Fair Hill International three-day event for 10 years. He was active in Saint John the Baptist Holy Angels Roman Catholic Parish in Newark, Del., as a lector and member of the financial planning committee.
In addition to his wife and daughter Kelly, survivors include daughter Kerry, son Patrick, sister Patricia Colgan and four grandchildren.
A visitation will be held Monday, Jan. 8 at 10 a.m. with a mass at 11 a.m. at Saint John the Baptist Church, 200 E. Main Street Newark, Del.
In lieu of flowers the family suggests a donation to St. John Holy Angels Church, 82 Possum Park Road Newark, Del. 19711.