At 62 there’s no slowing down Don Eash, Hoosier Park’s all-time leading trainer. He’s coming off his best year as an owner and in March he won his 2,000th career race.
by James Platz
More than three decades ago, trainer Don Eash made a purchase that would pave the way for a career change. He just didn’t realize it at the time. Eash and his wife, Rosie, were in the midst of expanding a van conversion business they operated with his brother in northern Indiana and two other states. When they needed a bigger location for their base of operations, they settled on a farm in Goshen within the heart of Amish country. Eash was not aware of the history behind the plot of land, once home to Hoosier Downs, a venue for local matinee racing in Indiana decades earlier.
“There was a track there, but it was all overgrown,” he said. “We wondered what to do with it. We could either race cars or race horses. Rosie thought it might be safer to race horses.”
The land purchased for the van conversion business became the vehicle for their introduction to racing. With that, Eash and his wife began to dabble in trottingbred pony racing. They would compete in LaGrange and Nappanee with a stable of seven or eight ponies. After only a few seasons they decided to move into standardbreds beginning in 1991. Pari-mutuel racing was unavailable in Indiana at the time, so they found themselves shipping to Michigan, and later Chicago, to race.
“We would ship to Muskegon to race for $1,500,” the trainer said of traveling two hours one way. “We were getting nowhere; we were losing money. That would not have worked for a full-time business.”
Racing was still a hobby, but it wouldn’t remain that way for long. The conversion business began to sour, and as it hit a decline, Eash had to find a new money-making endeavor. As the couple looked for new opportunities, they continued to race and slowly build a successful stable. By 1994, Hoosier Park Racing & Casino opened its doors, and Eash decided to apply all of the business knowledge gained from the conversion business to a full-time racing venture.
Eash wouldn’t compete in that first abbreviated meet at Hoosier Park, but in 1995 he began shipping to central Indiana, as well as Chicago. By 1998, Eash Racing Stable eclipsed $100,000 in purse earnings for the first time, as 235 starters produced 20 trips to the winner’s circle. In 2002, Eash secured his first training title at Hoosier Park with 58 winners and nearly $900,000 in earnings. It was also the first season the stable broke the $1 million in seasonal earnings barrier. It has since earned $1 million or more during a season six other times, including four of the last five years.
When shipping back and forth from northern Indiana became tedious, Don and Rosie decided it was time to move their stable of between 20-30 racehorses closer to Hoosier Park and upstart Indiana Downs, relocating to Greenfield, IN in 2003. The move paid off immediately.
“We had some really good horses racing at that time,” Eash said of the early 2000s. “Those horses and winning the training title really launched our stable.”
Eash Racing Stable’s new location, which the couple designed themselves, consisted of a five-eighths mile training track, 64-stall barn and facilities for their growing broodmare band and subsequent babies. After breaking through for his first training title in 2002, more would quickly follow for Eash. He added Hoosier Park titles in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Horses that contributed to that success included Indiana Sires Stakes champion Foxy Maneuver p,5, 1:49.3m ($878,875), a 51-time winner, and ISS champion mare Mayflower’s Song p,5, 1:51.2s ($237,696).
As the stable’s top mares like Mayflower’s Song retired, they were added to the growing broodmare band. Those mares, along with others purchased, have helped move the stable forward, foaling the next generation of winners for the couple. It is part of a strategy that relies on the success of homebreds in tandem with yearlings purchased each fall at the sales. For the owner and trainer, it comes down to the economics of keeping the pipeline of horses stocked for future success without spending a premium.
“From a business perspective, the chances of raising a really nice one, you’ve got a good chance that can happen,” explained Eash, who says they now have 15 mares on the farm. “For me to go to the sale and buy a really nice one and pay those kinds of bucks to get one, I can’t afford to do it.”
The farm, which employs eight that Eash credits for much of the success, has a strong reputation for producing talent. Rustle’s Chip, a homebred son of Art’s Chip, secured yet another Indiana Sires Stakes final for Eash Racing Stable in 2012 before repeating as a four-year-old in 2013. He went on to win $321,393 over four seasons while taking a mark of 1:50.1 at age four. His dam, Rustler Hanover mare Rustle My Foot, has produced full brother E R Rudy, a 24-time winner with earnings in excess of $200,000. Need We Say More, a Super Ben Joe mare that earned just under $100,000 in two seasons for Eash, has foaled a trio of $100,000 winners.
Considering that he has more than 20 two-year-olds currently in training, and as many as 32 in the past, the breeding side of the farm is critical to supply, particularly when Eash Racing Stable is comprised primarily of freshman and sophomore trotters and pacers. Of the 50-55 horses that will race this summer, two dozen or fewer are older horses. Selling much of their racing stock after the three-year-old season is not only key to making room for the next crop, it is also a critical financial piece for the stable.
“We try to take care of our horses,” Eash said. “We look at selling them after their three-year-old season as part of our annual income. We have to sell or we wouldn’t have room for the yearlings.”
Last season, Eash Racing Stable collected 148 wins and earnings of $1.18 million, the most in the 26 seasons since Eash first pursued racing as a hobby. That also ranks the farm among the sport’s top owners. In March, Eash sent out his 2,000th career winner as a trainer, picking up the milestone win at Miami Valley. At Hoosier Park, he ranks as the all-time winning conditioner with 678 victories. While the 62-year-old trainer said he may eventually cut back on the number of horses he conditions and races, he’s not ready to just yet. This season he has 10 wins at Hoosier Park, his starters have hit the board 38 times in the first month and a half of racing, and his career earnings are closing in on $17 million.
“I feel like we’re off to a pretty good start for the season,” he said. “I know as the season goes on it’s going to get tougher.”
When Eash was working on van conversions he knew that if he stepped up and put a lot of work into the product, it would pay off. He and Rosie have applied the same approach to harness racing, and the results tell the story.