A conversation with owner Bill Donovan

by Murray Brown

Tell me about yourself, Bill Donovan (AKA Harvey Schwartz), I asked my friend on a recent call.

“Well, I was born on Cape Cod and spent a good part of my youth growing up in the Boston area. My dad was in the moving business. Our family developed the largest Mayflower Agency in North America. When my dad passed, my mom was left to take charge of the business. She recruited me to help her run it. I worked at that, together with assorted other businesses, some of them ancillary to the moving trade, for the next 39 years. After a bout with cancer and I suppose a slight case of burn out, I decided to sell the business and got out. Throughout those years, I had developed a love of horses, particularly harness horses.

“When I was quite young, a neighbor across the street from us had some horses and would be kind enough to take me to Foxboro when he went. It was pretty much love at first sight. I thought that it would be fun to work with these wonderful God-given creatures. I got a job with Walter Ross at the same time that he had Yankee Bambino. It was probably my first introduction to really hard work. But I loved it. Working hard has been among the greatest pleasures of my life. I’ve never really looked upon it negatively. I’ve always set goals in my life. When I’ve been fortunate enough to reach them, the satisfaction achieved has been more than worth the struggle to get there.

“I bought my first horse in 1979 and my first trainer was Lee Alphen who now heads the Christian Harness Horseman’s Association. Together with four friends we bought two horses for less than $2,000 and I was on my way.”

How many horses do you have now?

“I own parts, or all of 47 horses presently in training. The majority of them are with Ronnie Burke, but I have some with Richard Moreau in Ontario; my long-time friend George Ducharme, who in my opinion is an exceptional horseman who sometimes flies under the radar, perhaps because of his unassuming personality, and Brian Brown who trains some Ohio-breds that I own in partnership with my good friend Joe Sbrocco. I also own a Maine Sires Stakes Champion in partnership with Paul Kelley’s dad, Jack.

“I also own 19 broodmares 10 sucklings and six yearlings either by myself or in partnership, despite promising myself that I was getting out of the breeding business.”

Speaking of the breeding business, please tell us about your adventures in it?

“I learned two main lessons: 1. I have been a much more successful yearling buyer than I was as a breeder. 2. Of all the places to be a breeder, New York might be the toughest. It makes no sense to me that the state requires a mare to be on site when she is being inseminated. I understand the counter argument that it helps agriculture by having more horses resident in the state. However, I believe the negatives to be far greater than that one positive. It raises the costs for an out of state mare owner astronomically. It creates a situation where some breeders won’t ship anything but maiden or barren mares to be bred in the state, thus robbing the state’s stallions of many top mares. In many, if not most of those situations, the out of state breeder will decide not to breed to a New York stallion at all. Why do so when he or she can just get semen shipped from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Ontario or Indiana and in so doing lower the costs and risk to a new born foal involved?

“I bought a farm (Stirling Brook) in New York, not too far from Saratoga, built up what I felt was a pretty fair bunch of broodmares, but for whatever reasons I wasn’t very successful as a breeder. I sold a package of the better mares to Hanover Shoe Farms and eventually sold the farm vowing not to get back in the breeding business.

“I guess, though, that I am now back in, but with one big change:I’m boarding my mares and raising my foals with people who do that for a living. In the long run, I think I’m probably saving money and certainly ridding myself of headaches.”

Let’s talk about Maven.

“She is undoubtedly the best horse I’ve ever owned. I always thought of her as being extra special, even before she showed her extreme talent on the racetrack. I could have named her “Sybil”, she had so many personalities. Early on, one had no idea which one would show up. Like some other exceptional mares early on, she had her good days and her bad ones. She had more of the bad ones in her youth. As she grew older, she became more consistently good. I remember a conversation I had with the late Frank Baldassare. I told Frank that before her 3-year-old season was over, I felt that Maven would be just as good, if not better than Check Me Out. He thought I was joking. But I wasn’t. She was focused, determined and had a tremendous desire to win.”

You sold her for $750,000 at the 2014 Standardbred Horse Sales Company’s mixed sale. Why did you sell her?

“I thought her best racing days were behind her and at the time I was done with the breeding business. I believed that whoever bought her would primarily be looking at her as a future broodmare. I was pleasantly surprised that she brought as much as she did and maybe even more surprised that Jimmy Takter bought her with the expectation that she would be able to continue racing at the highest level.”

Who have been the five best racehorses that you have owned?

‘In order: 1. “Yet To Come‘.We are never totally satisfied That’s what keeps most of us going to the yearling sales each fall. 2. Maven. See above. 3. Youaremycandygirl. She had such a great heart. She’d give her all every time she set her foot on the racetrack. Throughout her career, she had terrible issues in tying up. It’s my belief that is the only thing that prevented her from becoming one of the greatest mares ever. 4. Bannockburn. A foal of 1995, this son of Copter Lobell was one of the first horses I ever bred and raised. He was the first to end the season as a national season’s champion. 5. Jolene Jolene. She had the misfortune to have been born in the same year as Mission Brief. She equaled Mission Brief’s record at two. Unfortunately, she suffered a career ending injury at three. As a broodmare for Hunterton Farms, they have sold her first two yearlings for $200,000 and $600,000. I’m a part owner of her first foal Crucial.”

What do you like most about our business?

“Primarily the many challenges involved in the yearling game. The first thing, of course, is the pedigrees. Sure, you can occasionally hit upon the freak horse like California Chrome, who was by “who” and out of “what”, but, generally speaking, our best horses are genetically disposed to becoming great. There is usually something in their pedigree that you can hang your hat on. Does that mean that every well-bred horse is destined to become good? Absolutely not. Therein lies the challenge. But that is the starting point for me. From there you go to watching them move in person or seeing their videos. Obviously the former is better. Then conformation. It’s near impossible to find the faultless horse. The trick is determining what you can live with and what you can’t. The next would be value. You try to price a yearling that you like and try to stay within certain financial parameters.

Secondarily, is the social aspect of the sport. Our business is loaded with so many great people. Interacting with them is great. Making new friends may even be better. Dreaming the dream before they get to the races may be the best. Socially, the sport is not what it once was. I’m guessing the primary reason for this is that so many fewer people go to the races. It’s easier to stay at home and watch. Dinners at Lexington and Harrisburg can still be a blast, though.”

Who is the wisest person you’ve known in the sport?

“There are two of them. They were both named Bill. I knew Bill Weaver. I never had the pleasure of meeting Bill Shehan. With a relatively small number of mares they have had as potent an effect on our breed as anybody. To a large extent, that includes all of the major market breeders.”

You’ve been in the restaurant business. Please tell me about it?

“At one time I owned three restaurant in Saratoga Springs. Now, thankfully, I only own part of one. It’s tougher and less gratifying than the horse business.”

What’s your favorite restaurant ever?

“There’s a Franco/Italian restaurant in London England called Clos Maggiore that checks all the boxes.”

It’s well known that you love to travel. What are your favorite cities to visit?

“London is number one. In no particular order followed by Budapest, Istanbul and St. Petersburg.”

I’m kind of surprised that you didn’t mention any place in Ireland.

“You asked about cities not countries. Ireland ismy favorite country. I go there often. It’s the small towns and the rural areas that make it as magical as it is. The Irish are the best people on earth. I’ve been fortunate enough to have made many friends there. I’m also involved in Irish harness racing. There is no money to be made in it, but the Irish love their horses and are among the greatest horsepeople on the planet.”

What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned in the business aspect of our sport.

“As in most areas on commerce — sell when people are buying. You never will go broke taking a profit.”

What’s the biggest problem we have?

“Most people would say integrity and of course it is a major problem. But I think our biggest problem has been our inability to attract youth, followed by us being parasites to the casino interests. They don’t want us and I fear that someday they will get rid of us.”

How did you come to adopt the sobriquet Harvey Schwartz by which you are known on Facebook?

“When I first went to work in the family moving business, I was assigned to work as a dispatcher. People would call in about their household moves and when they’d ask what my name was, they’d basically say “You’re the owner. You can do anything.” That caused me much grief until one day I went to speak with my mom who ran the business. While I was waiting, her secretary buzzed her, ‘Mrs. Rose, there’s a call for you on line 4.’ ‘Mrs. Rose?’ I questioned her. She answered, ‘You don’t think I’m dumb enough to give them my own name.’ I then decided I needed an alias. The night before I had watched the movie “Harvey” with Jimmy Stewart who had an invisible rabbit named Harvey as his buddy. I thought Harvey would be a good name to use as an invisible identity. We were based in a very ethnic area, so I needed a proper last name and I thought Schwartz was perfect. For the record, Harvey’s middle initial is “N”, as in Nagila.”

Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: hofmurray@aol.com.