by Murray Brown
Many, more than likely most, harness racing people have never heard of Donato Lanni.
To most thoroughbred people, certainly those that frequent horse sales, he approaches legendary status when it comes to buying horses of which almost all are yearlings and 2-year-olds in training. At the recently-concluded Keeneland Sale he purchased over 60 yearlings for his various clients which include many prominent owners and trainers.
Among his clients is the often-in-the-news Bob Baffert. Lanni is a dear friend and fervent supporter of Baffert.
Lanni is one of the best known horse agents in the thoroughbred game. During the course of a year, he will purchase in excess of 100 horses, virtually all of them for high profile owners and trainers.
His tale begins in Montreal where his father Giuseppe had standardbreds. His dad was in the construction business and raced a few horses on the side. Building held no interest for young Donato, but horses certainly did.
Donato, as did many youngsters of the era, started going to the races with his dad. He was immediately enthralled.
He was smitten by the racetrack, racing, horses and its people, at the time, all of them of the standardbred variety.
His life’s passion was to make horses his vocation.
Of course, he knew of thoroughbreds and was always fascinated by the thought of the Kentucky Derby and various other classic events. He began following the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cups and all the top events. He devoured everything he could read about the thoroughbreds.
But it was harness racing with which all his learning years were involved.
The first person he groomed for was Onil Patry in Montreal.
Among others that he worked for were Andre Lachance and Robbie McKenzie.
When he worked for Andre Lachance, he actually drove in a few qualifying races.
One summer, Donato took care of a horse by the name of Garland Lobell. Little did he realize or even dream that this son of ABC Freight was destined to change the breed through his three great sons Andover Hall, Angus Hall, Conway Hall and their sibling sister Emilie Cas El.
One branch through Conway Hall produced Hambletonian winner Windsongs Legacy, who, even though he was tragically short lived, sired Chapter Seven, already a great sire, who is responsible for this year’s siring sensation Walner.
“When I took care of him, Garland Lobell was just a nice trotter. Nobody, I’m sure, not even Pierre Levesque who stood him at stud at his Angus Farms, could ever even have dreamed that he could possibly have had such a profound influence on the breed.”
But I stray. This story is about Donato Lanni, not Garland Lobell.
His father’s wishes were that he get a good education and then maybe join him in his construction business. Young Donato much preferred being around the horses than either of the other two.
He lived in Beaconsfield, a suburb of Montreal
Trainer/driver Duncan MacTavish lived nearby. On his way to work, MacTavish would often give Donato a ride to Blue Bonnets.
Donato would often spend his time watching the horses train from the floor above the track kitchen at Blue Bonnets.
Moe Graif, a legendary horsemen’s bookkeeper had an office on that floor. Graif was also a good friend of Donato’s dad Giuseppe. He knew of Giuseppe Lanni’s aversion to having his son “waste” his time watching horses train at the expense of his education. But Graif kept it a secret in order to let the young man have a chance at doing what he felt he was born to become.
“Uncle Moe,” as the Brown family and others came to know him, was one who was a friend of the young and always one who lent a helping hand to those who might need one. In this case, Moe kept Donato’s visits to the upper floor between himself and the young man.
Donato had firmly decided that his future lay in horse racing, preferably thoroughbred racing, which he then knew very little about.
It is on that thread that the first of two conversations at the Fasig Tipton sales facility began.
Donato, all of your background was in harness racing, yet you decided that you eventually wanted to be with the thoroughbreds. Why?
“I just felt that the thoroughbreds had more potential and offered more opportunity. There were more of them and they were spread over the world, far more than were the trotters and pacers. Just about everybody had heard about the Kentucky Derby. Very few knew what the Hambletonian was. But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t care all that much at the time. To be involved with horses, with the best of any breed was the great desire.”
At a young age you decided that Kentucky was the horse capitol of the world and that if there was a future for you in the business, Kentucky would be a good starting point.
“It was 1996. I had just graduated from Concordia University in Montreal. They were offering a summer program which would enable my being able to get a temporary visa to work in the states. I took advantage of it and came down. I had no job. Really no background or references that would do me any good in this new venue.
“But I was young and just decided to wing it. After a while I ran out of money and I had to pitch a tent at the Kentucky Horse Park and lived there for some time.
“I got a job working at Castleton Farms. John Cashman hired me and I became a yearling foreman. I loved working at Castleton and John treated me wonderfully. But being in Lexington and around so many of the world’s great thoroughbreds and thoroughbred farms, I had been bitten by that particular bug.
“After our yearling crop at Castleton had been sold. I told Cashman I wanted to get into the thoroughbred business. Walmac International was then one of, if not the most prominent of stud farms. They, Gainesway and Spendthrift each stood about 15 stallions, many of the best ones in the entire world. Walmac was run by the legendary John TL Jones. If there was one person most responsible for any success that I had to that time it was Johnny Jones. I probably learned more from and being around him than I did from pretty much anybody else before. Among the stallions we stood were Nureyev, Miswaki and Alleged. But they weren’t the ones that needed selling. They sold themselves. I was on the phone all the time hustling to get bookings to some of the others.
“Johnny Jones was also a noted bloodstock agent. It was from him that I initially learned my craft. He sold and bought horses. Eventually, so did I. While I was at Walmac, Johnny sponsored me on my first route towards becoming an American citizen.
“John Gaines who started the Breeders’ Cup races said that without Johnny Jones help in bringing the industry together, the Breeders’ Cup would never have evolved. There are some who think that if the Breeders’ Cup had never come to pass, that the Hambletonian Society would not have followed suit and established the Breeders Crown. It’s really something how our two sports often interact, considering how John Gaines came from a renowned standardbred background.
“After Johnny stepped aside from Walmac, I went to work for John Sikura at Hill N Dale Farm. He was one of the most astute horse traders ever. There was absolutely nothing about selling or buying horses with which John Sikura did not possess expertise. After 20 years at Hill N Dale, with the blessing of John and with the urging of a fella by the name of Bob Baffert, I decided to go on my own.
“Before I go any further, I need to say that Bob just may be the greatest horseman to have ever inhabited this planet. I won’t say much more than that. From my experience with him, he is the finest, kindest and most knowing horseman that I know. He taught me how to both look at and understand a horse.”
From your experience what is the difference between thoroughbred and standardbred trainers?
“The differences are vast. In terms of time and physically spending time with the horse is concerned, the harness guys probably spend more time with it. They generally play a big part in choosing it at a sale. They break it. They bring it to the point where it’s ready to race. They physically train it while it’s racing and have done so the entire career of the horse.
“It can be very different with the thoroughbreds. Various trainers use different methods. Only some of the trainers come to the major yearling sales. The majority do not come or only make brief cameo appearances.
“It’s guys like me, together with the owners and veterinarians who generally do the yearling picking and decide how the money gets spent. Bobby Frankel who many consider to have been the greatest trainer ever, rarely attended a horse sale. Sometimes the trainer might not get to see his pupils until they are ready to race. With others, they are with their horses from the onset. There are all sorts of specialists in this game that you don’t find in harness racing — people who scout out the horses throughout their growth until they reach the sale as yearlings, People who specialize in buying weanlings and growing them to resell as yearlings, people who look at them at the sales, those who buy them; those who break them, the pinhookers who buy them for resale in twos in training sales and maybe a couple that I’ve left off.
“Depending on the trainer and his or her methods, he or she determines any specialties for which the horse might be best suited and where and when it should be raced. If they race often, they might race once a month. As you know the harness guys might race every week.”
How about the horses? How do they differ?
“They are bred to be different and they are. Speaking in generalities, and of course there are variants among the generalities, the thoroughbred is generally less even tempered and perhaps less adaptable. Because of the nature of how they hit the ground, they are probably more susceptible to injury or unsoundness. Again, with exceptions the trotter or pacer is usually better keeled. Their bone structure is more forgiving. The thoroughbreds are faster and for the most part they have reached their highest speeds and that index has somewhat leveled off. Standardbreds do not quite yet seem to have reached theirs yet, but they will. It seems that they go slightly faster each year. However, for the most part, they only go one distance on one type of surface. This allows those breeding and training them to point only at a singular area in which they will be raced. With the thoroughbreds it’s a different ballgame with all sorts of potentially different goals.”
You have several friends and acquaintances among the harness racing folk.
“Yes, indeed. Most of them are also and have been involved with thoroughbreds. Among them are the Antonacci family, David Reid, David Anderson, Steve Heimbecker, Daniel Plouffe, Robert Leblanc, Clay Horner and John Fielding. All of them are good people. As I am doing today, I attend the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale each year where I am able to renew acquaintances.”
Are you happy doing what you do? Do you see perhaps changing, maybe to training or adding any other areas to which you are involved?
“I consider myself to be one of the luckiest of people. I have a fantastic wife Elizabeth and two wonderful daughters Rebecca and Mariabella. Both girls love horses and show them. There are no absolutes in this life of ours. You never know for sure what the future might bring.
“As for now, I’m pretty happy doing what I do. I’ve been fortunate enough to have chosen several champions for my clients including the greats Arrogate, Authentic and Gamine.
“I’m looking forward to the Breeders’ Cup races where four of the horses I chose for clients — Pinehurst, Gracie Adler, War Like Goddess and Private Mission — will be racing. War Like Goddess is kind of a special story, since we bought her for only $30,000.
“Any day that you are around horses has to be a day well on its way towards being a good one. For me that applies to most days, because I’d guess that I look at somewhere about 20,000 horses a year.”
* * *
The Curmudgeon gets a puzzle solved by one of the sport’s true geniuses.
Those who have followed me here on HRU, on social media and in person, know that for years I’ve mentioned a puzzle to which I’ve never been able to find the answer — that is until I encountered the great John Campbell at the recent charity stallion auction cocktail hour at Fasig Tipton.
“You know Murray, I’ve got the answer to your question,” Campbell said.
The question he was referencing was why have so many stallions who were tremendously successful from their first crop of yearlings in the sales ring have then had their second crop not sell as well, despite the tremendous success they achieved on the racetrack.
To this dope, logic would have suggested that because the fist crop raced so well that the second and subsequent crops would sell better. They rarely have.
“It’s quite simple,” Campbell said. “With the first crop everybody was all in. Everybody who bought an Artsplace or Western Hanover (the two stallions I mention most often fitting this description) was to varying degrees high on them. Sure there were some, maybe many who raced well and produced good results for their connections. However, there were some, maybe more, who didn’t race to the purchasers’ expectations. That is the case with virtually all stallions.
“All of their progeny do not perform well. Some, maybe a good number of them, do not. Many of the connections of those were out of the marketplace for them the next year because of the lack of success they had with them. It’s quite simple actually. You have fewer bidders because of those disappointed the second year than the first where everybody who bought one was bullish on their chances. Fewer bidders generally makes for lower prices.”
Have a question or comment for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.