The Boston native may be best known for owning such stars as Maven and Youaremycandygirl, but in Ireland he’s better known for his efforts to help grow the sport in that country.
by Dave Briggs
When owner Bill Donovan saw the makeshift racetrack staked out on a freshly-mowed field in Ireland, he knew he had to help grow harness racing in the land of his ancestors.
“I was just so impressed that they had such depth of love for the sport,” Donovan said. “These people all have full-time jobs. They can’t afford to be (full-time) trainers. There’s not a lot of people paying training bills over there… It’s just amazing that they do what they do with the time and effort that they put in and they aren’t racing for any money.”
Not long after seeing that racetrack lovingly hand-crafted in a field, the Boston native bought a horse to compete in the Vincent Delaney Memorial. He won the Delaney filly event one year and then became the major sponsor of the Red John Memorial Festival of Harness Racing in West Cork.
“I was looking at what they are trying to do over there. In the Republic of Ireland, they have one racetrack, Portmarnock Raceway, outside of Dublin. They’ve been trying to get government approval to put a track in West Cork,” Donovan said, adding that he has agreed to fund the racing for five years to try to showcase the sport in that part of Ireland, so “hopefully that will help show the powers that be so they can get a track over there… I’m pretty confident and they seem to be confident that hopefully within the next year they’ll get the approvals that they need.
“They were just so grateful for the assistance that we were offering. What the Delaneys have done in promoting harness racing, I think it made it possible to further look to expand in Cork.”
Donovan isn’t just a sponsor, he actively tries to win the races and now is hoping the Irish’s famed skill with horses will pay off with a U.S. bred reclamation project of sorts.
“Each year I’ve bought a horse and sent it over,” he said.
He started with Rebel Rouser, who won three races in Ireland in 2017 and then the following year Donovan sent over Reclamation — an A Rocknroll Dance filly he purchased for $32,000 at the 2016 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale.
“Reclamation was such a head case, I don’t believe she would have raced had she been trained in the U.S. as a 2-year-old,” said Donovan who sent her to Donal Murphy in Ireland to train.
“I think that whole atmosphere and different training (helped), and the Irish have a special way with horses,” Donovan said.
Reclamation posted a record of 4-3-0 in 8 starts in Ireland last summer before returning to the U.S. and finishing out 2018 with a record of 3-1-0 in four overnight starts at Harrah’s Philadelphia and the Meadowlands good for $23,000 in earnings. This year, Reclamation is 3-1-0 in four overnight starts at the Meadowlands with Yannick Gingras in the bike for Ron Burke, including a 1:50.1 mile on April 12 and a win this past Friday night. She has already earned $22,500 in 2019 for Donovan, who shares her ownership with Murphy.
A BOY FROM BOSTON
Horses jet-setting back and forth from Ireland is some 50 years removed from Donovan’s humble start in the business. He grew up in Boston and was introduced to standardbreds as a young teenager by his neighbors across the street.
“They had a couple horses down at the old Foxboro Raceway with a gentleman from the Maritimes, Rufin Barrieau,” Donovan said.
On just his second trip to Foxboro with his neighbors, Donovan found himself in the jog cart.
“Rufin put me in a jog cart… and that was it.”
Donovan soon began working at the track in the summer and after graduating with a business degree from Bentley University in Waltham, MA, he went to work for trainer Walter Ross at Vernon Downs for two-and-a-half years, “much to my parents’ consternation.”
His first summer working for Ross, the stable sent Yankee Bambino to compete in the 1975 Hambletonian in DuQuoin, IL where Yankee Bambino finished second to Bonefish after four punishing heats. Neither horse raced again.
“The whole barn went off to DuQuoin to watch Yankee Bambino and left me in charge of 12 horses,” Donovan said.
“I was there at five in the morning and until the last horse raced at night,” he said.
The barn was located directly across from the track kitchen and one afternoon one of the horses, a gelded pacer named Yarn Proof, got loose. Donovan charged after him.
I just yelled, ‘Yarnie!’ and he turned around and stopped dead right in front of (a group of horsemen sitting outside the kitchen). I had my lead shank and I walked up there and started walking him back and as I was walking back, they were just so impressed. But I got so excited (chasing after Yarn Proof) that the horse I was doing up ran out of her stall because I forgot to lock it. So, here she came out the other way and I didn’t look so good anymore.”
Donovan’s dreams of becoming a horseman came to an end when his father died and Ross headed off to race in Florida.
“Fortunately for John Campbell, I needed to go home,” Donovan said, laughing. “My mother still had my younger brother and sister at home. I didn’t want to work in the family business at that point, but of course I felt I better be close to home.”
Eventually, Donovan took over the original family business, Mayflower Moving.
“Once I took over the company, we expanded into other areas related to the core business, which was moving and storage.”
WORK, WORK, WORK
Donovan said he became a workaholic that worked seven days a week. In the process, he lost contact with horse racing.
It would be more than five years before he would return, this time as an owner. In the late 1970s, Donovan and some friends paid $1,500 for a Tar Pepper gelded pacer named Martins Dream that proved to be underwhelming.
“He was followed by Mountain Greenery, who did a little bit better. Both those horses were trained by the daughter of the people who lived across the street from me when I was a kid. She’s now the chaplain of the Christian Harness Horsemen’s Association, Lee Alphen. It was her family that had the horses in the first place.”
Donovan soon became active in the Standardbred Owners Association of New England and eventually became vice-president “during very tough times.”
When Foxboro closed in 1989, Donovan left the business.
“That was my local track… That was where the contact was lost,” he said. “Then I was probably out of it for about 10 years.”
Foxboro reopened in 1992 and Donovan would eventually return to harness racing, this time spreading out beyond New England, first with Jim Winske and then, with Winske’s second trainer, Tim Hayes, after Winske retired from training.
“That’s when things kind of took off. Tim was out at The Meadows and we began to play the claiming game,” Donovan said. “I’m not sure which year it was, ‘98 or ‘99, one year we claimed 56 horses at The Meadows.”
That led Donovan into the breeding business.
FROM CLAIMERS TO BROODMARES
In 1999, he and Winske claimed a pacing mare named January Spur for $25,000 at The Meadows.
“It was probably the first time we spent a significant (amount on a horse) – that was a lot of money to us then. She raced exceedingly well and raced a lot of races and made us a lot of money. She took a decent record. She raced for three years and then got hurt, then I decided I was going to breed her (to Dragon Again). So, that was the beginning of my breeding career,” Donovan said.
The night before her first foal was born, Donovan watched a Harry Potter movie in a hotel while away on business. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about and one part stuck with him: Gryffindor — the name of Harry Potter’s house at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
“The next day I get a call and we had a colt from January Spur and I said, “I know his name, Gryffindor.’ That was the first great horse we had. Jim Arledge trained him in Ohio,” Donovan said.
Gryffindor took Donovan to the top of the game — to the 2005 Little Brown Jug.
“Gryffindor got locked in, finished fourth, and didn’t make the final,” Donovan said. Soon after, he and his partners sold the horse who went on to win four straight, including the final of the Messenger.
“Now that I was a successful breeder, I got really stupid and decided to breed more,” Donovan said.
He ended up buying some 15 mares that were spread over a number of different farms. Wanting to keep his mares at his own place, Donovan bought land near Saratoga, NY and built Stirling Brook Farms, which opened in 2008 under the management of his old trainer Tim Hayes.
Eventually, the farm ballooned to 40 mares, but, despite advice from David Reid and the Antonacci family, Donovan was never able to have the success he hoped for.
“Breeding is a tough, tough business. I don’t know whether it was the weather in upstate New York or limited season… but I had always said, ‘Once I lose a certain figure, I’m done.’ Well, I lost that figure and didn’t know if I wanted to keep putting my money in.”
Around 2014, he sold the farm, but not before buying likely the greatest horse he’s ever owned.
MAVEN ALL THE FASHION
In October of 2010, Donovan plucked Maven out of the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale for $37,000. The daughter of Glidemaster out of M Stewart went on to earn more than $2 million on the track.
“I had a good relationship with (trainer) Jonas Czernyson and his niche seems to be trotting fillies. He had her, Mystery Woman, Holier Than Thou, Jolene Jolene.”
But Maven was anything but impressive from the start.
“When she was a 2-year-old, nobody believed that she was even going to make the races, but Jonas felt there was something there,” Donovan said. “You’d watch her on the track and she didn’t want to go on the track. She was out there and wouldn’t pay attention. She had a bad attitude and she just wasn’t doing anything right.
“Jonas took her off the track for a month and one of the beautiful things about Sunshine Meadows is that they have this strip, this straightaway, to get her away from the track, away from the other horses. He did that for a month and kept her in condition. The surface was good for all trotters and it helped her. He brought her back in 30 days, the first time back on track her ears were up and off she went. She was just a different horse and she had decided, ‘Okay, I’ll do this.’”
As a result of her slow start, Donovan staked Maven lightly at two and thinks that was key in her career success — partly because she didn’t have to knock heads with top trotting filly Check Me Out at two and partly because Maven had some growing still to do.
Maven improved immensely as her sophomore year went on, ending in a victory in the 2012 Breeders Crown at Woodbine.
“I didn’t even see the race. I went to dinner and intentionally left my phone at home,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think she was going to win. I was very frustrated with her then. She’d had some problems in the few races before that and my confidence in her was shaken. I’m one of the most superstitious people that you are ever going to meet, so just me watching the races is bad sometimes. So, when I got home, my phone blew up with all these congratulatory text messages from all my friends. I watched the race and I was just stunned.”
Maven was the sport’s top older mare at age four and, at the end of 2013, the decision was made to race her against the boys in the American-National in Chicago. “If she did well, then Jonas would point her towards the Elitlopp,” Donovan said. “She finished a solid second to Market Share, who was the Hambletonian winner. So we decided to go to Sweden with her (in May of 2014). That’s an experience that everyone in the harness industry should be fortunate enough to have, because it was a wonderful time in how we were treated, the love of the sports over there, the enthusiasm is just incredible.
“Of course, when the race went off, I was out in the parking lot.”
With her regular driver Yannick Gingras in the bike, Maven finished third in her elimination and sixth in the final.
Maven took some time to return to form when she came back to the United State and, coupled with Donovan’s decision to sell his farm, he opted to put her into the 2014 Standardbred Horse Sales Company’s Mixed Sale.
“I firmly believe in this business that you have to know when to sell,” Donovan said. “It is a business and I treat it very much as a business. I try not to get sentimental.”
Any separation anxiety Donovan may have felt was certainly eased by the $750,000 Maven fetched from Herb Liverman at the sale, a figure that made her the most expensive trotting mare ever sold at auction in North America.
“When she went into the ring there was nobody outside of that arena, everybody was inside watching the action and it was quite dramatic,” Donovan said.
More recently, Donovan’s stable star has been pacing mare Youaremycandygirl that he picked out and purchased himself from the 2016 yearling sale in Harrisburg.
“I had the two fillies (picked out), Kissin In The Sand, who was selling the first day, and Youaremycandygirl on the second day. I rated one 9.8 and the other a 9.9,” Donovan said. “
Kissin In The Sand sold first and Donovan said it was obvious her current owners “weren’t stopping. I went to $125,000 and they bid $130,000 and it was a matter of, ‘How far are we going to go?’
“I would’ve liked to have had them both, but I kind of liked the other filly better, so the next day (I bought Youaremycandygirl).”
The price was $150,000. Youaremycandygirl and Kissin In The Sand have battled ever since, with the former earning over $1.4 million, so far, for Donovan under the tutelage of Ron Burke.
“The fact that she was from a sister to Sweet Lou just had Ronnie’s name all over it. Ronnie is my primary trainer, but I do have other trainers. I like having the flexibility. Usually I decide after the yearling sale who is going with who, and there’s reasons, it’s not just you need a horse or something,” Donovan said.
Meanwhile, Reclamation has quite a following in Ireland.
“They all follow the horses. They are their biggest fans. If you look, I’m not sure what it’s up to now, but it was about 8,000 views on Reclamation last race because, I think, everyone in Irish harness racing is a fan of hers and, Rebel Rouser,” Donovan said. “We’re five hours behind (Ireland) so they are getting up at three in the morning to watch the Meadowlands race. They really kind of adopted them as the Irish horses, even though they were born here and shipped over. They’ve taken possession of them.”
Just as Bill Donovan has adopted Ireland as his second home.