On Oct. 16, 1974, at Suffolk Downs, jockey Eddie Donnally made the worst decision of his life, one that put him on the outs with both sides of the law. Below is an excerpt about the incident from Donnally’s book “Ride the White Horse: A Checkered Jockey’s Story of Racing, Rage, and Redemption.”
A chilling wind blows sleeting rain in from Broad Sound as I stand just inside a shabby Suffolk Downs barn and consider why I haven’t left for Florida. I half-listen to trainer Jeanne Patterson talk about Society Boy, a horse she trains and I’m listed to ride that afternoon. I never suspect that before the day ends I will take part in an event that will alter my life in ways I can never imagine.
I’d finished fourth aboard the horse in his last start at Rockingham Park as the favorite and doubt he has much chance today. My windbreaker and jeans are wet and muddy from working out horses that morning on a sloppy track. As Jeanne talks and the wind howls, my mind wanders to Florida. In a few weeks, I’ll be living in Crystal Beach, driving my boat down a canal and into the Gulf, fishing poles tilting up like dual antennas.
Jeanne clears her throat. “It’s raining and I don’t think he’ll like the track,” she says. “I wanted to scratch him from the race because of the mud, but the racing secretary promised he’d write a race that fits him better if I stayed in today. But if he can’t handle the mud, give him a sanitary, and we’ll wait for a fast track.”
I nod my head and hold off a grin. The 4-year-old apparently dislikes all kinds of track surfaces. He had no excuse in his last race when he was beaten nearly ten lengths by similar company. In 38 previous races, he had won only once and in three years of racing had earned only several thousand dollars. His owner has spent far more in training bills than jockey fees.
While not the most kosher pickle in the deli, giving a horse a “sanitary,” or easy race, on a surface it dislikes is more humane than illegal, and often done. Any bettor who could read the Daily Racing Form would realize the horse had little chance on any surface. Only a grandmother betting on jockey’s colors or a New Ager doing numerology would bet on this horse.
In most cases, trainers are far closer to the horses they train than the jockeys who ride them. I’ll spend 10 minutes in the post parade and then race the same animal they’ve spent weeks and even months preparing. In the end, all their work depends on a series of decisions made in little more than a minute by a 110-pound guy who wears a size six hat trainers sometimes call “pinheads.”
And then there is the betting public. This group of abstract faces fuels the pari-mutuel machines that turn the clogs and grease the wheels inside the giant horse racing industry. I guess on some level I know that without them it all grinds to a wheezing halt. Yet at the time they seem far removed from my life. Those same nameless persons have taunted me with insults when I’m hot, dirty, and pock-marked by flying dirt and just risked my life trying to get a half-ton racehorse into a shrinking space moving as fast as my mount. They also seem to have an affinity for cheering and jeering when a racehorse gets loose and charges pell-mell down the track in front of the grandstand. That the panicked horse can kill itself or someone else seems as far removed from their sentiments as my sentiment is removed from theirs. To me, they are not only irreverent but irrelevant.
It’s all about politics, I stand there thinking. Run your horse in a race he can’t win in order to fill a race and save the racing secretary from canceling it and trying to get enough entrants to fill another, so he’ll card a race that perfectly fits this or another of the trainers’ horses. So I hear Jeanne loud and clear. Go get a race into her horse to help him get fit enough to perform better the next time he is in a race with company as weak as himself. I would get the chance to ride him in his next start. Quid pro quo − it’s what makes the world and racehorses go around.
Riding a horse worth less than a ten-year-old used car in chilling sleet for a winning fee that won’t pay for two nights in a decent motel makes Florida dreaming addictive. Weeks earlier, I’d finished the summer meeting at Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire, 60 miles north, as the fourth-leading rider. I have a pocketful of money and am just killing time before Debbie and I head south. The cold wind haunting the track just outside Boston is beginning to kick up sleet. Snow will not be far behind.
It’s nearly 10 a.m. The track has closed for training, and I walk away wondering if I should go home for a nap or go to the jockeys’ room because we’re living near Rockingham Park. A rider I hardly know falls in beside me. “You got a minute?” he asks.
I stop, and he looks around to see if anyone is nearby. We’re standing on a concrete apron between two barns. Grooms are in their horses’ stalls by now, doing them up in bandages and medications to help their all-important legs. I know the rider, but not well.
“This horse you’re on in the third race . . . you know much about him?”
My ears prick. I sense what is coming. “The trainer said he won’t like the track. Not much stock to begin with. Why?”
“You want to make some money today? Some real money?”
The rider, older and with a wrinkled face as if his best days are behind him, pulls a wad of $100 bills from his jeans. “I got eight hundred if you can make sure he finishes worse than third.”
This time I take a look around and do some quick math. The purse is a whopping $2,500, meaning the winning horse gets $1,500, and my 10 percent is $150 before I pay my valet and the IRS. I am far from a saint, but I had turned down bribes before, one a few weeks earlier at Rockingham. I have never taken part in race fixing. The decision to abstain has little to do with those abstract faces in the crowd. I’d worked with trainers to help them put their horse’s worst foot forward, so to speak, in a race or two. Then when the horse was ready and in a field we were confident the animal could beat, we’d make significant bets. I worked out horses at 5 a.m. before the track officially opened and the clockers arrived. I worked young horses that hadn’t yet raced, at speeds below their potential in order to heighten the potential payoff when they made their first starts. But to deliberately cheat a trainer I’m working for is a line I have not yet crossed.
The trainer said she wanted to scratch the horse from the race because of track conditions and all, and told me to give him an easy race. Besides, on his best day, the horse couldn’t run as fast as a man with gout. And why hadn’t they given her the money? She didn’t own the horse, and her commission for winning would be the same as mine. There were subtle things she could have done to make sure the horse didn’t perform well. Or perhaps they had paid her. Maybe the $800 they wanted to give me was merely the fixers’ purchasing insurance.
I take a final glance around and open my hand. He plants the bills in my palm and walks away. Easy money, I think, remembering an old racetrack expression that speaks to the chicanery present in horse racing, yet applies to every other form of commerce that involves people and money. It doesn’t turn out to be easy. The decision is the worst of my entire life.
In the post parade, Society Boy warms up like he’d rather be in his dry stall. He is so calm his trainer doesn’t hire a pony and rider to accompany us to the starting gate. It’s still chilly and drizzling. The track is wet but still officially listed as fast. Beneath my silks is a plastic rain jacket. My riding breeches are plastic and on my helmet are four sets of goggles for the one-mile race. At this point, I’ve been riding races for 13 years and the fact that I lived through it and can still compete on a middle-level grade gives some degree of testimony to my ability. I have some idea of how to help and how to hinder a horse’s performance. Rain pelts my helmet and I line Society Boy up with the rest of the field and walk toward the starting gate that sits in front of the grandstand. Among the couple of thousand people in the aging grandstand could there be any who paid me to lose?
I’d heard the stories about New England racing and its influence by reputed mob boss Raymond Patriarca of Providence, Rhode Island. A rider who rides each summer at the lowly New England fairs bragged that so many races were fixed he had to reserve one well in advance. He said he once had two groups of gangsters fix the same race and collected double. I heard a story of a mob member who came to a trainer’s barn after the man had claimed one of their horses running at a higher level than the horse could handle and was being set up for a bet. When the trainer refused to sell the horse back, he was kidnapped and put in the back of a car as they held a gun to his head. The trainer changed his mind. Despite my mount’s lack of ability, his apparent dislike for the mud, I wished I could change mine.
In reality, fixing a race by picking out one horse to win is far from a sure thing. The horse weighs over 1,000 pounds, the jockey little more than 100. If his mount is superior, the rider would have to stand in the irons and muscle the horse down so strongly the track stewards watching each race would be sure to see it. Even then, if the horse was that much the best, he’d still win. During the morning gallops, horses often run off and go a full race pace with dead-fit 145-pound exercise riders struggling to slow them down.
Also, four cameras mounted in towers film the race from separate angles. Patrol judges watch with binoculars from several strategically placed stands along the outside rail. Three stewards high up in the grandstand watch the race with binoculars and on monitors and take instant reports from the patrol judges. If it’s obvious a jockey deliberately keeps a horse from winning, suspensions can range up to a lifetime.
The nearly black Society Boy has the one post on the rail in the eight-horse field, something I think is good. I can bury him early behind the field and the massive amount of mud being hurled in his face will remove any inkling of courage he might have. In a race on a wet track, the kickback stings your face as if a man three feet away were hurling mud into it.
The four goggles I wear can also be used to an advantage. Behind horses during a race, the flying mud makes the top pair opaque within a quarter mile and must be gently removed. On horseback, in the middle of a pack of horses going nearly 40 mph and racing inches apart, removing them from the top layer down is no mean feat. A clumsy move and they all come tumbling to your chest. Putting them back up is impossible. If I have to, I can pull all of them down, rise on the horse and pull him to the outside, something the stewards would likely forgive given the wet track.
An assistant starter walks up and puts a thin leather lead through the bridle’s chinstrap. He leads us into the first stall and leaves. I consider gigging the horse with my heels to get him excited, something that might give him a lousy start, be he stands there as if he’s asleep. I decide to leave him alone.
The seven horses outside me load quickly, and the starter squeezes a pair of prongs that break the electric circuit that keeps the front doors closed. They spring open and off we go into the rain and mud. As we enter the first turn, less than an eighth mile from the gate, we’re fourth. Mud hits us like we’re inside a car wash. Oddly, Society Boy doesn’t seem to mind. He has his head down and is firmly into the bit. Horses have an extra covering over their eyes that allow them to keep them open even when a wall of water is ripping into their faces. I’m not worried. Not yet.
As the field straightens into the backstretch, a space opens in front of us, and he literally drags me through it. He’s fourth. The three in front of me are staggered and wide apart. No mud is hitting us. I decide to give the reins slack, thus depriving the horse of the support my firm hold is providing. I cautiously move my hands up his neck, not to signal for more speed but to let him flounder a bit on the muddy track. This I believe will discourage him.
To my dismay the early leader slows, and I and another horse pass him. I’m still fourth but in the clear and only about four lengths off the lead. I pull him behind horses again, but instead of slowing, he’s gaining. I’m nervous now. I realize that … other horses are being held, and I know the entire field is running slowly, even for bargain-basement $2,000 claimers.
As we approach the final turn, I have an idea. Horses race with one of their front legs leading. On the backstretch and in the homestretch, that normally is their right leg. To properly negotiate a turn, they must switch to the left lead. I decide to keep Society Boy on the wrong lead, something I think will force him to race wide and lose valuable ground.
To induce a horse to change leads entering the turn, the rider shifts his weight to the left or inside, while gently pulling the right rein to the outside. I do the opposite, shifting my weight outside while putting pressure on the left rein. Society Boy ignores my leaning and shifts perfectly to his left lead. I decide to keep him wide. He’s on the outside, but still moves into third. The two leaders are racing head to head with me alone in third. I’m getting the perfect trip, damn it. In a near panic, I tighten the reins.
Society Boy sees it as a sign to accelerate and despite my strong hold moves into second at the top of the stretch with less than a quarter-mile remaining. The only horse in front of me is starting to tire. I can jump off or muzzle him back so hard the stewards can’t help but notice and likely finish second. The only other option is to win. Jumping off a perfectly good racehorse is like jumping out of a perfectly good plane. Without a parachute. Behind me are a half-dozen racehorses. If I keep a stranglehold, I’ll draw the attention of the stewards, who might rule me off for years. Even worse, they’d investigate the race and interview its riders. It would not only put a lot of heat on me, but on the people that were fixing the race.
There’s a point in nearly every race at which a jockey is sure he’s going to win. Because it hasn’t happened yet, that moment is more thrilling than even going under the wire in front. I never heard the roaring crowd because my every fiber is overwhelmed by a sense-numbing moment when the horse and I melt into a single purpose. The line where I end and the horse begins is blurred. For a few brief seconds it ceases to exist.
It’s the reason riders come back from near-crippling injuries to again climb aboard a Thoroughbred. It’s why they return from retirement and hang on long after their best days, tamping down the naturally recurring fear that crops up in the frontal lobe like davits on a golf course. That singular, silver sliver of a split second is something I still dream about.
To make this horse finish worse than third in front of three track stewards and a battery of cameras would not shoot my career in the foot but the temple. No more silver sliver moments. My fellow jockeys in the race will have to answer questions that might also end their careers. I don’t know what the race fixers would do. I am sure what the track stewards and the racing commission will do.
I decide to win.
With less than a furlong to go, I cock my whip, give Society Boy a reminding tap, and start hand riding. He wins by a length and a half.
We walk into the winner’s circle and Jeanne is there, happy and carefree. I don’t think she knew what was going down. The race’s final time for a mile is 1:44 2/5, at lease three seconds or 15 lengths slower than normal even for $2,000 claimers. This is the only race Society Boy will win in 24 starts that year. Nearly three weeks later I ride him over the wet track at a distance only 70 yards farther and in a cheaper $1,500 claiming race. He is never closer than sixth, and in a field of eight finishes seventh. This time I try hard. His 101-race career ends at age ten with total earnings of $19,308.
But on this day Society Boy is the winner. As I walk back to the jockeys’ room covered from head to toe with mud, I look again into the nearly empty grandstand, half expecting a crazed Italian to run down the steps and start shooting.
I know there will be retribution. I just don’t know what it will look like.