Smaller, But Still Super: David Donk

Trainer David Donk is approaching 800 career wins. Coglianese

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The concept of the super trainer is by no means a new phenomenon in horse racing, but the huge stables run by super trainers have undoubtedly changed the landscape of the sport in many ways, from the backside to the racing entries. Are super trainers bad for the sport? Are there any benefits for an owner in using a “smaller” trainer? We asked these questions and more to a few trainers who may not be considered super trainers in terms of their stall numbers, but they have made the most of the horses they're given to build competitive racing stable over their careers.

David Donk's stable has been a fixture in New York for over 30 years. His most notable runners include MGISW Awad (Caveat), plus graded stakes winners Hessonite (Freud), Ordway (Salt Lake), King Kreesa (King Cugat) and Pennine Ridge (Cure the Blues). The easygoing and approachable horseman enjoys spending time developing young horses and takes pride in being one of first ones at the racetrack each morning. Donk is approaching 800 career wins and is represented this year by Shesastonecoldfox S. winner Shesawildjoker (Practical Joke).

 

KP: How did you first get involved in horse racing?

DD: I grew up in a small town in upstate New York near Finger Lakes Racetrack called Clifton Springs. My dad owned and bred some horses and we were neighbors with the trainer that he used. I got hooked at a very young age and realized, probably when I first got into high school, that it was something that I wanted to pursue.

After I graduated high school, I did train on my own at Finger Lakes  for five years, mainly with my dad's horses, and then I got a break in the spring in 1985. Phil Gleaves left to go out on his own so I got hired as an assistant to Woody Stephens.

I worked for Woody for five and a half years until his health wasn't doing as well and then I went out on my own in 1991. I started out with seven horses. I had a couple for Henryk de Kwiakowski, Jim Ryan [Ryehill Farm] and John and Theresa Behrendt. I was able to stay in New York and gradually have a bit of success, enough to where I was able to stay in New York to make a living. I've been here for 36 years.

KP: How many horses are normally in your stable?

DD: The number has been a little bigger for the last few years. I'm at about 50 over the summer. I try not to have any more than that. In the winter, I try to get to the low 30's. I have a lot of people who are on visas and have to go back, so I try to reduce the size of the stable to make it a little more comfortable and easier on us all in December and January before we gear back up again.

KP: Who have been your biggest mentors throughout your career?

DD: First would be my dad, who is still with us, and then the biggest break of my career was getting a job for Woody Stephens. I like to say that I went to one of the best universities in the country when I worked for him.

KP: What horse was the most influential to your career?

DD: My most influential horse is obviously Awad (Caveat). He made $3.2 million in his career, had over 70 starts and won a few Grade I races. We got to travel all over the country and we went to Japan twice. That's the horse that put me on the map and where I'm at financially. There's no question that he was the horse who is most influential for me.

KP: What do you believe makes your stable unique?

DD: This is a business, so when you are a trainer, you are the president and CEO of your own company. One of the classes I took in high school was bookkeeping. I always knew that if I was going to have a business, I needed to be able to do the financial side of it.         Horse racing today is different from when I was a kid or even from one or two generations ago. There's a lot more to it. You are the president and CEO of your own company and there's a lot of federal, state, immigration and law regulations. Even if you don't do the bookkeeping yourself, you need to understand it. You're the one that's liable and you're the head of the company.

It's not just about training horses. There's also the customer service side of it with clients. I'm a little bit unique in that I like the paperwork and the business side of it. I do most of my own bookkeeping. My dad taught me this as a kid and now I preach it to my kids-it's not a bad thing to be your own boss. The biggest difference is that you work 80 hours a week instead 40 hours a week, but at the end of the day, it's your own.

I've been here a long time, but I've had a number of clients who I've had for 25 years with John and Theresa Behrendt, Charles Marquis, Bill Punk and Bob Spiegel. I've been fortunate that I've had a lot of loyalty and at the same time, they're very successful in their own professions and they've taught me a lot.

Shesawildjoker (Practical Joke) breaks her maiden on debut this summer before running in the money in three stakes, including a win in the Shesastonecoldfox S. | Coglianese

KP: What do you believe are the benefits, for owners, in using a “smaller” trainer?

DD: They're going to run more often. I come from a different era and the game has changed a lot. I sometimes say that owners, to a degree, are brainwashed. Horses can run more than once every two months. Sometimes economics don't come into play for them.

I understand the financial side of it for an owner. In New York, we run for a lot of money. I always say that I don't win enough. Sometimes I don't run my horses quite where they belong because I cater to what a client wants to do. I call it customer service. Maybe it's too far to an extent, but if you're running second or third in New York all day long, it pays a lot of bills for the client and keeps money in circulation. We're not always looking at it by numbers or in percentages. That's where technology has changed things a little bit. Everybody is worried about their numbers.

I enjoy 2-year-olds and trying to educate them to shed a little light onto what their quality might be. Sometimes you might run them a little over their head to find that out and appease someone.

Of course, we live in a democracy so I wouldn't take anything away from the big stables. But at the same time I think those owners should be willing to diversify their stable a bit more and give younger trainers who are up-and-coming an opportunity. There are a lot of really good people out there. We have some in New York now, even some female trainers who I hope are successful because we need 20 or 30 more of them.

KP: Do you think super trainers are bad for the sport?

DD: It's fair to say that it's not good for the sport when we're trying to sell races. Handle is based off of field size. We see it in New York that in the better allowance races, the field sizes are not as big as you would like them to be. That goes back to horses not running quite as often. There are rules in place where a trainer can only run two horses in a race and in New York if a race overfills, a trainer can only run one. So I think the biggest downfall is that it affects field size.

KP: What do you enjoy most about your job?

DD: I have two kids so I do a lot of coaching and I always tell them that in life, if you find something you like to do, you'll be happy. If you find something you love to do, you have a chance to be really successful.

I love what I do. I love the early mornings. I think the greatest part of the day is the first set at 5:30 when it's really quiet and has that serene feeling to it. I'm getting a little older so I try to get away a little bit or a couple of days a week during the winter, but at the same time when I'm away for a few days, I miss it. I'm at an age now where I see people who I went to school with who are retiring. But boy, I don't know if I could ever retire. I love the quality of help that I have and the quality of clients that I have. I love the challenge of training two-year-olds and then continuing to learn and do a better job. I love the human aspect to it as much as the equine aspect.

With Ramon Dominguez aboard, Hessonite wins the Ticonderoga S. for Donk in 2012 | Horsephotos

KP: What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?

DD: The most frustrating part of this industry is getting people to come to the table to make compromise. It takes too long to make changes in our industry. I believe that a lot of common sense heads could come together and make decisions. It's frustrating that as an industry, we seem to be behind the times, even in the U.S. compared to the standards internationally.

KP: Do you have any thoughts on the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA)?

DD: Not at the moment, but there was a great comment the other day from [NYTHA President] Joe Appelbaum, who sent out an email to our membership. He said that at the moment, the bill is written by lawyers for lawyers to understand. So right now with the way the bill is written, no one understands it. So it remains to be a bill that obviously needs a lot of input.

So it's far from being done in a way that is understandable and has a common sense approach, but it is needed in our industry. I think we can always do a better job and we need the rules to be the same in every jurisdiction. Again, we're behind the times and I think it's a good thing, but there's a lot more work to be done and hopefully now that the bill is out, a lot more good people will get involved with it.

KP: If you didn't have a career in horse racing, what would you do?

DD: I don't know. I always say that if it wasn't for racing, I'd probably be driving a truck for UPS. I knew what I wanted to do when I was a freshman in high school. I think as I've gotten older, I could have gone into management, but at the same time and more importantly, I love being my own boss.

 

To nominate a trainer for this ongoing series, email [email protected]. General criteria: Multiple graded stakes-winning trainer, fewer than 300 starts this year, has trained for over 20 years and accumulated no more than approximately $50 million in career earnings. 

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