Former jockey Eddie Donnally turns from his troubled past
Mary SimonSep 12, 2013
Three decades have passed since Eddie Donnally last rode a flesh-and-blood racehorse, and still he conjures them up in the shadowland of sleep. But for more than 50 of his now 70 years, Donnally’s real life was anything but a pleasant dream. Nightmares haunted him day and night, plagued him, fed on him − and conversely, he fed on them − often serving up his own generous helpings of personal despair before returning for seconds, even thirds. Yet, he is convinced that through the span of this dangerous co-relationship, something beyond the darkness was there, watching, waiting, ultimately showing him the way out.
Donnally had been a jockey, a blue-collar guy who from 1963 to 1982 risked his life 10,279 times, with 1,177 wins to show for it, mostly at second-tier tracks, on basement-level mounts. By the numbers, Donnally was decent at what he did, but like most in his profession he missed the bus to that rarified mountaintop inhabited by Shoemakers, Pincays, and McCarrons. He never rode in a Triple Crown race or captured a Grade 1 and rarely got first call on a runner of promise, but he did manage to grab his moment in the national spotlight. Sadly, it was for the wrongest of reasons.
Throughout the 1970s Donnally was at his peak, every day donning silks, guiding fractious Thoroughbreds to post, and winning his share of races. Off the track, however, he was an angry, damaged young man on a downhill slide, gripping his dreams in clenched fists but watching them slip through his fingers like so much smoke. Before the decade was out, the bullet points on his résumé would read jockey, husband, father, alcoholic, drug addict, and indicted race fixer.
On Oct. 16, 1974, Donnally, then 31, rather casually and spontaneously, made the worst decision of his life, one that put him on the outs with both sides of the law. His crime? Well, it depends on whom you asked. According to the Feds, it was his accepting $800 to finish out of the money in a cheap race at Suffolk Downs. According to the mob? He won. What followed was an epic fall from grace, one that propelled Donnally down a life path littered with substance abuse, suicide attempts, broken marriages, promiscuity, mental illness, arrest and imprisonment, homelessness, hopelessness, abject loneliness. How could one possibly survive this, let alone move forward with purpose? Many do not. This man did.
How he did is the basis of the now Reverend Donnally’s recently released autobiography, “Ride the White Horse: A Checkered Jockey’s Story of Racing, Rage, and Redemption.” The title is a reference to a Biblical prediction that Christ will someday return on a mount of that color. The book is equal parts apology for sins committed, cautionary tale of a nearly squandered life, and narration of hope and redemption.
One might well be skeptical. Literary works penned by troubled ex-jocks don’t exactly clutter the best-seller lists and accounts of jailhouse conversions are a dime a dozen. But Donnally can flat-out write. This former rider once indicted on charges of sports bribery also happens to be a two-time Eclipse Award-winning journalist. In “Ride the White Horse” he relates a wrenching, no-holds-barred tale with the masterful strokes of one entirely at ease with words, framing it all in a quirky back-and-forth format that works well. Chapters alternate between different time frames, which Donnally refers to as tracks: Track A being “Childhood to Arrest;” Track B, “Battling Addictions and Attractions;” and Tracks C and D, “Life as a Jockey” and “Life Today.” Those titles provide a pretty good hint of where this is going, and what a wild and bumpy ride it will be.
Daily Racing Form recently caught up with Donnally, who these days lives on the central Gulf coast of Florida. His life is calm, he is in a better place than ever before, partnered in a healthy marriage − his third − with a woman he terms “the love of his life.” He is man with purpose … a man at peace.
Peace is a precious gift for someone who lost his mother at 6, then spent the remainder of his childhood trapped in a world of sexual abuse and corrosive family attachments. Precious also for a man once hounded by Federal marshals and who lived for years in terror of mob retribution.
“It was the only bribe I ever took, and I was a failure at that − couldn’t even hold a horse right,” he says, recalling that day 39 years ago when he feared the Suffolk Downs stewards more than he did the gangsters and won a race he had been paid to lose. Donnally was only one of many jocks caught in the broad federal investigative net cast during the 1970s, with others including some of the biggest names in racing. If even a fraction of the stories told are true, Donnally’s unfortunate but solitary indiscretion made him far from the worst of the lot. To his credit, in “Ride the White Horse” he drags no one through the mud but himself.
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The Boston-based Winter Hill Gang played a central role in this circus of criminality, and they were nothing to mess with. Tony Ciulla knew that; even under federal protection, the 320-pound career race-fixer never felt safe after ratting them out. “Them” at the time included leader Howie Winter and Whitey Bulger, who Winter once said “could teach the devil tricks.” Both were cold-blooded killers. Bulger supposedly topped the FBI’s most wanted list until 2001, when deposed by Osama bin Laden. Finally captured in 2011, Bulger was convicted last month of murder, racketeering, money-laundering, drug dealing, and extortion.
From early on, Donnally was a writer, a pastime he often used to escape the realities of his life. Even during his racing years he toted an old Remington typewriter from track to track, clacking out freelance pieces good enough for placement in the New York Times and Baltimore Sun.
“I never knew if I was a rider who wrote or a writer who rode,” he has said.
When race-riding ended for Donnally in 1982, he segued smoothly into full-time journalism, serving as turf writer for the Dallas Morning News and winning an Eclipse Award in that capacity for an 1984 article about jockey Randy Romero’s return from near-death in a sweat-box fire. Two years after that Donnally snagged another Eclipse, this time as script writer for a local television show produced by Corey Johnson, then of Louisiana Downs, about the dangers jockeys face every day of their lives. A quarter-century later, “Ride Like the Wind” remains one of the best racing documentaries ever made.
In his new profession Donnally gained a reputation not only as an outstanding writer but as the toughest of interviewers − in fact, a royal pain-in-the-butt, as some trainers came to regard him. His penchant for asking hard questions, often in group interviews before major events, particularly rankled Hall of Fame horseman Jack Van Berg, whose pat response of “No, Eddie,” as soon as Donnally opened his mouth to speak became an inside joke among turf writers.
Success, admiration, awards, and financial security were not enough to release the iron grip Donnally’s personal demons still held. A string of promises made − to himself, his then-wife, to God − were broken like so many twigs, and the downhill trek continued until he found himself unemployed and alone. One night he swallowed a bottle of Xanax, only to be found and revived at the last possible moment. Another time he opted out of a late-night drug run; the guy who went in his place died in a car wreck. Then there was his unlikely recovery from an all-consuming crack cocaine addiction, and the mystifying fact that he defied the mob and lived to tell the tale. How does he account for this pattern of near-misses?
“Miracles,” Donnally says. “Miracles.”
Turf writer Gary West once referred to Eddie Donnally as the only person he knew who re-invented himself every seven years. Perhaps, but that cycle has been broken. After experiencing what he calls a divine revelation in a California courthouse holding cell 17 years ago while being tried for assault with a deadly weapon (his hands), Donnally’s life took a complete 180. Misdirected guilt, shame, and self-destructive behavior would gradually be replaced by an ability to forgive, even himself, and to let go of a tortured past.
The now 70-year-old ex-jock/journalist holds a Doctorate of Ministry in Christian counseling and has spent the past decade or so helping others get through times as dark and hopeless as his own life once seemed. He does it as a religious man, but without heavy-handed proselytizing, instead tapping into whatever form an individual’s spirituality might take.
“There are many roads to recovery, many paths to take” he will tell you. “Christianity happens to be mine.”
Did Donnally’s faith lead him to write “Ride the White Horse”?
“The fourth step in AA is the ‘scathing inventory,’ ” he says. “In some regards, I guess I just wanted to do an inventory. I hurt a lot of people, made a lot of mistakes, suffered a lot of pain of my own, from sexual trauma and promiscuity, to substance abuse, to being diagnosed bipolar, and all the rage and hate that goes along with that. I thought if I could get my story out there and into the hands of people going through similar experiences, I might offer a flicker of light, let them know that wherever they are, whatever path they’re on, there’s hope. There’s always hope.”
He has in recent years assisted backstretch employees through the Race Track Chaplaincy of America program, worked with trauma victims − including survivors and families of the 2008 Los Angeles Metrolink crash that killed 25 − and has conducted street ministries with his wife, Sandi, in aiding homeless and drug-addicted populations. Presently, Reverend Donnally works at a hospice center in Clearwater, Fla., about 20 miles from an old racing haunt, Tampa Bay Downs.
Despite that proximity, Donnally remains detached from his former sport. He attends the races infrequently, and when he does, he’ll stand along the paddock rail and admire the horses as they circle. Afterward, he might push a couple of bucks through a mutuel window before returning with Sandi to their grandstand seats, where the view is far different from when he himself rode like the wind, crouched low over the neck of a Thoroughbred, sweat and dirt clods flying, experiencing that shiver of pleasure when he knew a race was won.
That was a lifetime ago, and uninvolved he will probably remain, but that doesn’t mean he no longer cares.
“I love racing, I always will,” Donnally says.
In fact, he credits a skill set learned as a jockey with helping him in his role as disaster and hospice chaplain.
“I’m not normally a calm, collected person, but I’ve noticed in these awful situations how my whole ‘system’ seems to slow down, and I can account for everything going on around me,” he says. “My awareness is heightened. I finally realized that’s exactly what jockeys do in the chaos of a race − situations where you have to make decisions in milliseconds that could kill somebody or yourself. The ability to slow down and take in what’s happening around you is crucial to survive.”
In addition to those occasional soirees that ethereally place him back in the saddle, Donnally sometimes finds himself pondering his old life, and worrying. About what? Unsoundness, for one thing. Breakdowns remain a huge and shameful black-eye on the Sport of Kings.
“You can’t walk away from a career of riding without having incredible respect for these animals, without caring about them,” Donnally explained, noting also his concern for the lives and safety of those who ride them. “We breed Thoroughbreds for speed, not soundness, not stamina. It’s time for some introspection on this.”
The perception of brutality in racing, Donnally sees as compounded by the highly visible, sometimes overzealous use of whips.
“Batteries have been overblown,” says Donnally, who admits to having used them on occasion back in the day. “More trainers believed in them than riders. I maintain that misuse of a whip can do more damage and cause more pain than an electrical device. With a battery, you’d basically wake them up a bit, but with a whip you can leave stripes all over a horse. Don’t get me wrong − I’m not advocating use of batteries. But I’d have probably won another 400 races if they’d never given me a whip. I think I whipped more horses out of the winner’s circle than into one.”
Another tenacious public perception is of racing as a crooked sport. While gangsters may seem passé these days, something we see in “The Sopranos” or “Boardwalk Empire,” Donnally maintains the threat of race-fixing remains very real.
“We should pay close attention to history because it has a tendency to repeat itself,” he says. “Racing isn’t any worse than other sports or industries, but whenever you put people and money together, you have the opportunity for chicanery. Trifectas and superfectas with small fields are particularly vulnerable. Always have been, always will be. With an eight- or nine-horse field and a trifecta, it would be so tempting. If you can stop three or four horses by any means, and box the rest, the statistical odds are on the side of the fixer. Don’t think it can’t happen again.”
Words of wisdom, from a man who’s been there.