Gods of Racing Gave Nod to Donovan
Only a few thoroughbred trainers can reasonably hope to have champion racehorses in their barns every year. For every Wayne Lukas or Woody Stephens, there are hundreds of trainers who spend their careers dreaming they will get one chance to train a great horse, and who know that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience if they do.
Bill Donovan was one of the few who got that chance, and he made the most of it when he developed a $15,000 colt named Lost Code into one of America’s best. The brilliant speedster won 15 of his 27 starts, earned more than $2 million and was voted the second-best older male thoroughbred (behind Alysheba) in the country last season.
When Lost Code was retired to stud this winter, Donovan knew he would never have a racehorse like this again. One might think this realization could be a cause for sadness or despair. Yet Donovan is a happy, contented man who savors every memory of Lost Code, but says, “To tell you the truth, I was more relieved than disappointed when he was retired. I could look back and feel that I had done a good job training the horse. The only thing I could do further was ruin a good job.”
Three years ago, Donovan wouldn’t have known what to answer if somebody had put the following hypothetical question to him: You are going to have one of the best racehorses in America in your barn. Do you think you’ll be able to manage him in the big leagues of the sport? “Probably,” he conceded, “I’d have answered no.”
Donovan had spent more than 30 years training cheapies in West Virginia and Maryland. He’d never had a top horse. When Lost Code ran impressively to win a stakes race in Alabama early in his 3-year-old season, the trainer said, “I couldn’t believe it. I was terrified. When Lost Code won the Alabama Derby and I stepped up to the podium with Chris Lincoln of ESPN, all I could say was uh-uh-uh.”
But after Donovan mapped out a campaign for Lost Code and started guiding him around the country, he made a wonderful discovery. People in the racing business weren’t deriding him as a minor-league trainer who got lucky with one good horse and found himself out of his element. Lost Code’s career ended after he had an operation for bone chips in his knee last summer, then came down with a bad case of colic that required another operation. Donovan tried to bring the colt back to competition, but he wasn’t satisifed with his training, so Lost Code was sent to Kentucky to start his breeding career.
“I have two lifetime breeding rights to Lost Code that are worth $15,000 apiece, and in six more years I’ll start drawing Social Security,” Donovan said. “I might be able to make us pretty comfortable.” But when he was looking ahead to semi-retirement, he got a phone call that suggested there might be life after Lost Code.
Fred Hooper, one of the country’s leading owners and breeders, said, “Bill, you did a nice job with Lost Code. How about doing the same thing for me?” Hooper put nine horses in Donovan’s care -- most of them with high-class pedigrees. “When I walk through the barn,” the trainer said, “it looks like murderers’ row compared to the sort of horses I had before Lost Code.”
Whatever happens in this new phase of his career, nothing ever will spoil Donovan’s sense of satisfaction. “I had so many tough days,” he said, “and then one horse came along and fulfilled every dream I ever had, everything I spent 35 years working for. The horse won us a million friends. It brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. I wish each and every horseman could have a Lost Code, but I say, ‘Thank God it happened to me.’ ”