by Victoria M. Howard
I am very excited about writing this new column about the prodigious women in harness racing. In my 40 years in the business, I’ve met some incredible females who are trainers, drivers, dentists and grooms that have given their life for horses and racing. Unfortunately, there are many who are no longer with us and sadly did not get the recognition they deserved. I hope writing this column will bring well-deserved attention to as many superstar females as possible.
Unlike most women, 65-year-old Donna Lee didn’t care if I published her age. She said she has earned every gray hair and wrinkle — in the horse racing business, we acquire many.
The Fairfield, IL native is a die-hard advocate for harness racing and one of the hardest working people in the sport.
Probably best known as trainer Tony Alagna’s mother, Lee is proof that behind every successful man is a woman.
Lee was 12 when she jogged her first horse at the Champaign County Fairgrounds for trainer Marshall Britt. The horse’s name was Smash Key and from that moment she was hooked. Lee would go to the stable every day after school and on weekends helping out, so it was no surprise when she graduated from high school that she nixed college for a career in horse racing.
At 19, Lee married a fellow horseperson named Peter Alagna and soon after they were blessed with two sons named Peter and Anthony. From the beginning it was a family affair, as Donna and Peter brought their two children to the barn every day, instilling this wonderful, yet roller-coaster business into the boys.
Both would be involved in the business — Tony as one of harness racing’s top trainers, conditioning champions such as Captaintreacherous and Racing Hill; and Peter would become a licensed blacksmith, trainer/driver who began the Elite Harness Racing Company and developed the aluminum race bike wheels.
Lee smiles as she speaks of her two sons. “I guess I did something in my life right for they are both wonderful sons and human beings,” she said.
I then asked her about her four-legged children. We all remember the first horse we bought.
“When I was 16, I bought a yearling filly for $200. Her name was Colonel Cara and I purchased her from Tim Tetrick’s father, Tom. She was a feisty one and dumped me a few times, but it wasn’t her fault, it was mine for I was inexperienced and she was smarter than I was. Cara never made it to the races, but was a great teacher who taught me a lot. Since Colonel Cara, there have been hundreds of four-legged kids in my care.”
Lee, who divides her time between South Florida (Sunshine Meadows Training Facility) in the winter and Campbellville, Ontario (Mohawk Raceway) in the summer, has spent five decades in the business and seen a lot of changes in that time.
“Horses are much better bred today and with the track surfaces and lighter harnesses, it has improved our sport immensely,” Lee said.
Asked about her favorite driver, Lee said, “there are many, but my favorite is Mike Lachance. He was the best on young horses and especially trotters.”
She didn’t hesitate when asked what was her favorite horse.
“That’s easy, it’s Caprice Hill. Ever since the first day I got her, she has been the perfect child. She has a great personality, loves what she’s doing, and is my best friend. When I’m down, she picks me up,” Lee said.
As for fellow female trainers she admires, Lee said Jackie Ingrassia and Linda Toscano “are both excellent trainers who deserve recognition.”
Lee’s best advice for young women wanting to get involved in harness racing is to find a strong mentor.
“Look for someone to follow, and learn from them. And most of all, be honest. I’ve never failed at being honest,” Lee said.
Victoria Howard is an author, columnist and owner/breeder of harness horses. She has written or co-written, Roosevelt Raceway: Where It All Began, Meadow Skipper: The Untold Story, Murray Brown, The Adventures of Max and Molly, Elena and Junior: A (horse) Love Story, Junior: The Horse That Won The Kentucky Derby and The Kentucky Horse Park: Paradise Found