A legion of friends and fans celebrate Bill O’Donnell on his 75th birthday

The Magic Man was born on May 4.

by Bob Heyden

For three quarters of a century, we’ve been listening to Bill O’Donnell. Now it’s high time we heard from everyone else about him in honor of his 75th birthday.

Rick Plano: “I went to California in 1981 and early on I saw Billy out there. Great guy. He met Barbara there. I remember one night I was going for my 2,500th win in California. I pulled up alongside Billy’s horse who was tiring and he told me ‘Go get your 2,500th.’”

Joe Pavia Jr.: “A pretty funny guy. Drove with smarts and class on the racetrack.”

Per Eriksson: “Coolest guy. Superb driver. Greatest personality.”

Chris Ryder: “A really cheerful nice guy.”

Murray Brown: “One like no other. At his best, the best driver these eyes have ever focused on.”

Jacqueline Ingrassia: “Happy Birthday! You are right on my heels.”

John Campbell: “I didn’t meet him, but the first time I saw him drive he drove a filly for my father at the Syracuse Mile in the Elitist Cup. I was just a kid and will never forget it.”

Mark MacDonald: “I drove with him at Mohawk at the end of his career. Great stories.”

Holley Haughton Tufano (Daughter of Billy/Dotty Haughton): “He was so important to our family. A great guy.”

Joe Holloway: “A great horseman and a great personality.”

Mark Jordan: “I’ve known him since the 1980s. Great driver and a good guy also.”

Ginny Whipple Berkner (Widow of George Berkner): “In 1989, he drove Hit The Bid for us in the Jug elim. We were so late catching our flight home that Billy drove the rental in his driving outfit, left the car at the airport curb and we ran to catch our flight. It was quite a sight, myself, George, Barbara and Billy all running together to catch the plane.”

Kevin McDermott: “You’ve heard the one about Billy stopped for speeding in the New Jersey Turnpike and the policeman saw his license and asked him if he was Billy O’Donnell the driver at The Meadowlands. ‘I’ve bet on you at The Meadowlands. You’re one of the top drivers. Nice to meet you.’ Billy [said] ‘I got here as fast as I could.’

“Or the one when I was with Billy stuck on the runway at Newark Airport going to Canada to race Miss Whitewater. Billy initially gives up his first-class seat to a mother so she could sit next to her daughter. He gets relocated. We’re not in the same row at this point. Pretty soon he comes back and says, ‘They put me right in the middle of the Iranian soccer team. I had to get out of there.’ And he winds up sitting on my lap for the next four hours.

“Or the one about the trainer who asked Billy what to do with a really grabby horse who just won’t stop. ‘Show him the 3/4 pole. He’ll stop.’”

Laurie Morningstar (Daughter of Buddy Gilmour): “Billy once told me that when he first went to Yonkers, after dad saw him drive, he told the other trainers it was okay to use him. He knew he was talented. I guess the rest was history. Dad never regretted it.”

Jack Darling: “Great driver and all-around horseman. Really good guy and fun to be around. He has been a very positive influence on Ontario racing as president of COSA.”

Brad Grant: “How long have I known Billy? Not as long as I would have liked. More so now since he’s taken over COSA.”

Bob Boni: “Back in 1985, we were time trialing Nihilator. We wanted to go at Springfield which in my opinion is the best place to time trial. But it rained all week and that was off. Then DuQuoin. Billy Haughton came up to Billy O’Donnell right before the event and handed him a slip of white paper with the anticipated splits, the numbers for the 1/8th, the 1/4, the 1/2 and the 3/4s on it. Billy O’Donnell glanced and put it in his pocket. The trial goes and Nihilator doesn’t finish well, the last quarter I believe in :30.2 or something for a 1:50.4 time. Everyone is disappointed. Nihilator’s feet were bothering him. The first three fractions were pretty much right there. Ken Seeber was there. Lou Guida, too. The mood after the race heading back to the paddock was not good. Then Billy told Mr. Haughton, in order to brighten everyone’s spirits, that he left out the last number on the sheet; the final time for the trial.”

Kim Hankins: “I was lucky enough to drive a prompter that day in the time trial. Normally, they use one, but this time we had two. I remember at the top of the stretch with Nihilator, Billy said to me, ‘Time to go Hankins.’”

Marion Larochelle (Daughter of the late Denis Larochelle): “Everyone was Billy’s friend.”

Peter Blood: “Billy and I go back to 1970 at Suffolk Downs. One of the best senses of humor of all time. Great guy, great horseman.”

Dave Mattia: “Billy gave me a lot of info for Ted Wing when he went into the Hall of Fame. I think he might be the best driver in history.”

Stephane Bouchard: “It was in 1988. I was paddocking for Pierre Touchette and Billy was driving. That is the first time I remember him. Later, I drove with him at Freehold, Yonkers and he was always laughing about something. Great sense of humor.”

Blair Burgess: “Jeez he’s old! Obviously, he’s had as dominant a run as has been seen in the game, when on top. Just by coincidence I rarely got to use him. In the rare times I had that kind of horse I went to JC [John Campbell], who was ironically third choice on Amity Chef in Freestate. I listed [Ron] Waples and O’Donnell and both went other ways. John wound up staying with Amity Chef the rest of the year [1986].

“I raced eventual [1987] Canadian Horse of the Year Frugal Gourmet. I was young and stubborn and raced Frugal Gourmet one more time, against Trevor’s [Ritchie] wishes, with Billy driving and set the track record at Pompano [in 1987]. In the winner’s circle, a typical Billy quip, ‘I don’t know how Trevor ever got this horse beat.’ With the straightest possible face. He knew the gullible youngster I was then and would take that comment straight back to Trevor.”

Mike Keeling: “He’s certainly a guy with a story or two. His renaissance, or second act, had a lot to do with his relationship with Bill Wellwood [Woody]. I happened to be a second trainer there at the time [circa mid-1990s]. For a 20-something kid to get to meet and work with a childhood hero was amazing. The greatest thing about Billy was that he made you feel comfortable with him immediately and you quickly lose that gobsmacked feeling. We had many an adventure and success.

“Gramola was a tremendous 2-year-old trotting filly and I was on the road at Lexington and I was on my own as Woody couldn’t be there. I warmed her up and she locked on a right line. So, I tell O’Donnell, ‘I think we need to put a Murphy blind and a headpole on.’ He was aware that equipment changes and Woody don’t usually go well. The filly wins handily and impressively. We both know that Woody is going to be watching on satellite and we try to get them off before the winner’s circle. Needless to say, Woody wasn’t fooled and O’Donnell thankfully took the brunt of the abuse. He helped me out of many a sticky situation with Woody (He wasn’t easy!).

“I once forgot my wallet on a trip to Chicago and O’Donnell got word through to Jean Wellwood [Woody’s wife] and they snuck my wallet into Woody’s travel bag and O’Donnell retrieved it for me in Chicago. Crisis averted. That was the Galt and Armbro Leader set a record there and all was well. Billy is now a close friend and a mentor and I feel privileged to say that.”

Steve Katz: “Billy drove the first horse that I ever had at The Meadowlands, Dan Lynch (1985). He won. I thanked him and he said, ‘Don’t thank me, thank God.’ Years later, we sent him a 2-year-old named Berto Primo to get started baby racing in Toronto. He called me after the race and told me the colt was the ‘real deal.’ He was right. My $12,000 yearling made it to the Hambletonian.”

Dave Palone: “Terrific guy who was very instrumental and helpful when I came to The Meadowlands. He and Charlie Ginsburg helped me get started [when I was training] and he drove everything for me. Got to know him very well. His second trainer had Barberry Spur in the barn at the time. No one I would rather have dinner with and hear stories.”

Bonnie Butler: “Oh yes, I remember. He was a character.”

Paul Kelley: “Back in 1998, I guaranteed him a kiss from Michelle Pfeiffer in the winner’s circle if he won the race. He took back and finished third. Happy Birthday Billy!” Note: Paul’s sister-in-law is Michelle Pfeiffer married to producer David E. Kelley, Paul’s brother.

Rick Kane: “He has been referred to as “the Magic Man” during his driving career. He is often remembered for his even more memorable quotes during interviews, which in hindsight he could be thought of as the Yogi Berra of harness racing.”

Mary Pat Rhodes: “Once he got in an accident at Garden State Park. Days later he was sitting in the drivers’ room lounge and some man asked him how he was doing. Billy said, ‘A lesser man would still be in the hospital.’”

Pat Lachance: “I used to drive Billy and my dad to Garden State Park when I was a sophomore in high school. That’s when I met him. We had long chats on the way home. Awesome guy. The Magic Man!”

John Kopas: “I first met him in ‘78 or ‘79 when he was racing Lionel Minbar at Yonkers. One time, Ron Waples was in a wreck and Billy ran over him with his wheel. Ronnie said, ‘I thought you had time to miss me.’ Billy answered, ‘What makes you think I was trying to miss you?’

“Another time, a trainer tried to change shoes on a horse who was perfect the start before. Billy asked her about the change and the trainer said, ‘That’s what the dam wore.’ Billy said, ‘My mother wore high heels and I can’t go in them.’”

Paul Macchia: “Billy’s always 45 in my mind.”

Greg Wright: “I didn’t meet Billy until after The Meadowlands opened [1976]. I knew he was doing well in New England. Good friend and top horseman.”

Rod Allen: “Bill always wanted to carry on a conversation with you while you were going to the gate. He was also more aware what was going on than 99 per cent of us in the race. He never intentionally put you in a bad situation in a race and always looked out for others.

Stay tuned. We hope to have a fresh batch of quotes when O’Donnell turns 100.