Area was as good to Donovan as he was to it

August 19, 2007|By LARRY YANOS

Legendary thoroughbred horse racing trainer Bill Donovan and his wife paid a visit to Charles Town Races & Slots last Sunday.

"I could tell you a million of stories about my days at Charles Town and the Maryland tracks, like Hagerstown," the 75-year-old Donovan said. "I had my share of disappointments but I sure had some great days and I wouldn't have given them up for the world. I used to think of training like I was on the Yellow Brick Road. It was not a job, it was a way of life."

Donovan, who lives in Reisterstown, Md., said he got into the horse racing business by disobeying "dear old dad."

"My father wanted me to become a veterinarian," he said. "He was a horse trainer and said I would starve to death if I went into the racing business."

Donovan, though, ignored the advice.

"I was attending Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and I wasn't a happy camper," Donovan said. "One day in class, my teacher left the room and I also decided to leave - out the window. I went to a racetrack, never to return to school again."


Over the years, Donovan trained race horses along the East Coast but had a special place in his heart for Charles Town and the small Maryland tracks.

"Hagerstown was wonderful," Donovan said. "You couldn't beat their hospitality. The folks in Hagerstown treated the racing community like gold. I was there 10-15 years and won a lot of races. People like Vic and Rudy Keys, Pat Paluch, Jim Fockler, Glenn Price, Ted Mowen and Whitey and Hunch Reeseman were great friends and good horsemen. And I remember Rocco's ... I ate so much spaghetti there."

Donovan got his trainer's license in 1955 and started at the Maryland mile tracks before taking on Charles Town and the smaller half-mile ovals like Hagerstown.

"I didn't do any good in Maryland that first year," Donovan said. "I couldn't pay attention I was so broke."

Months later, Donovan made the move to West Virginia and things began to improve.

"A mare named Pango was my first winner at Charles Town. I won 18 races that first year and picked up some new owners. I won 40 races the next year and worked aside guys like Bobby Hilton, Jack Salter and Dickie Dutrow. We had a great time."

Donovan moved on to Cleveland in 1958 and spent most of his remaining years of training in Florida before returning to Maryland and West Virginia in 1971.

Over the years, Donovan trained some great horses but Lost Code and Albergo stood at the head of the class.

"Lost Code was a great one. He earned over $2 million in his career," Donovan said. "And Albergo won 14 races in a row in the mid-50s."

Donovan says his father (Harry I. Donovan) was a big influence on his decision to become a trainer.

"Growing up, I was around horses all the time. I knew dad went through some tough times but I also knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I remember going to the Preakness in the early 40s. I was very young and was a little restless. I kept bumping into a guy sitting beside us and mom said 'Be careful son, don't bother people like that.'"

The person: Al Jolson.

Pony Tales

·Tune of the Spirit moved into the Laurel Park record books last Saturday with a run of 1:01.15 in a 5-furlong turf test. The previous record was set last October by Quiet Retaliation at 1:01.46.

·The Breeders Cup Challenge, presented by Emirates Airline, continues today at the Del Mar Racetrack with the running of the $1,000,000 Pacific Classic, the $400,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap and the $300,000 Del Mar Mile.

The races can be seen on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.

The Challenge is a series of 24 U.S. qualifying races at six of America's premier race tracks. Race winners earn automatic starting positions in corresponding races in the Breeders' Cup World Championships on Oct. 26-27 at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J.

·Entertainer Merv Griffin, who died last week at age 82, was a great performer but also a very successful thoroughbred horse owner.

Griffin's Stevie Wonderboy won the Del Mar Futurity and Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2005 and the Eclipse Award for that year.

Aside from Stevie Wonderboy, Doug O'Neill also trained Grade III winner Skipaslew and three-time stakes winner Cee's Irish for Griffin. This year, O'Neill trained Cobalt Blue for him.

·The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has announced that it has earmarked $100,000 contributions in both 2007 and 2008 to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.

The funds will be dedicated directly to two key initiatives: increasing backstretch security and investigation into prohibited practices and uses of illegal substances - including out-of-competition testing and development of new drug tests.

Larry Yanos is sports editor of The Daily Mail. He writes a weekly horse racing column for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2311, or by e-mail at

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