Article by: Veronica Gizuk @_GateToWire and gatetowire.ca
Donna Brothers is arguably one of the most well-known women in the horse racing industry. Racing ran in Donna’s blood from a young age—her mother, brother and sister were all jockeys. Donna pursued the same career, beginning her professional riding career in 1987 and riding until 1998.
After retiring from riding, Donna knew she did not want to leave racing behind. In 1999, Donna began to try her hand at reporting, working for various media outlets. From there, she never looked back. She has since become a familiar face in equine media, most notably for her work with NBC Sports covering the Breeder’s Cup, Triple Crown and many other equestrian events.
But media isn’t the only way Donna stays actively involved in racing. She spends five to seven hours each day keeping up with the industry and its latest news, and is the client relations manager for Starlight and Starladies Racing. Donna also serves on the executive boards for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the industry as a woman, if you had any?
D: My answer to that has always been the same. I’ve never been a man, so I don’t know the difference. I know it’s a challenging industry; it’s an industry that presents challenges to anyone involved in it, and there would be no way for me to know if the challenges I’ve faced have been more difficult because I’m a woman.
I’ll give you an example. I walked into a guy’s barn in Oklahoma—his name was Wilson Brown, and he was one of the leading trainers, and I wanted to ride for him. He said, ‘Lady, it’s nice to meet you, but I don’t ride women,’ and I said, ‘Mr. Brown, it’s a pleasure to meet you too, but I don’t ride like a woman,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Well, that’s cute.’ The next day I beat him on the wire in a photo finish, so the following day when we stopped by his barn, he said, ‘Young lady, you’re right—you don’t ride like a woman. I’d like to find a horse for you to ride.”
Q: Do you miss riding races at all?
D: No, I don’t. If I did, I’d do it. I retired healthy at 32 years old because I was ready to move on. When I started riding at 21, it was really to eliminate being a jockey as a career option because I was pretty sure I wanted a more challenging endeavor—mentally challenging. My mother, brother and sister were all jockeys, so how challenging could that be? I was a natural lightweight, and I had galloped horses on the track since I was 17. My very first race that I rode, I fell in love with it. Then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll at least ride when I have the bug. Well, I’m making money and saving enough money for college.’
Q: Who has been your most memorable interview?
D: Well, I guess for personal reasons, Mike Smith. When my brother started riding with the bug in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the jockey there that helped him and took him under his wing was Mike Smith. When I rode with the bug at Canterbury, Mike Smith did the same for me. So he’s been a really good friend for a long time. He always sort of mentored me when I was riding. He would even call me and be like, ‘What are you doing with your left-handed whip?’ when he’s riding in California, and I’m riding in Kentucky. So getting to interview him after the Triple Crown was meaningful to me because, first of all, he’s one of those people when you interview him, he’s really good at staying in his heart. He doesn’t jump up to his head. He’s not afraid to say what’s in his heart, and he’s filled with gratitude all the time. Just being able to talk to my good friend after he won the Triple Crown was meaningful.
Q: What is your favorite workout?
D: I’m a workout person. I love to workout—I love the way it makes me feel. I like to mix it up. I find if I just do Bikram Yoga all the time, then I lose muscle, and if I build all the time, I lose flexibility. If I never get on the spin bike, then I lose cardio. So right now, I currently do all three. I go to spin class a couple of days a week, and I go to F45 two days a week, then do yoga.
Q: Do you think Thoroughbred racing is different compared to the past in terms of training and breeding?
D: Yes, because in the past, we didn’t have corrective conformational surgery. I’ve talked to different vets and breeders about that, and there are pros and cons to it. Sometimes conformational surgery has made horses that were going to have some problems be pretty conformationally correct, which has helped them be a sounder horse in the long run. It has also taken some horses that were really conformationally flawed and just turned them into a horse that has some problems and probably shouldn’t have made it to the track anyway. So there are pros and cons; that’s been a double-edged sword for a while. You hear all the time now that people breed to sell, not to race, and it would be nice to see more people breeding to race. Given the potential that they can make on their investment right away at the weanling or yearling sale, it’s a little hard to begrudge them for wanting to produce a product that’s going to turn a profit. Those farms are expensive to run.
Q: Do you think you would’ve had a harder time starting in the industry without family already involved?
D: For sure. It’s very difficult because people in the industry are inherently distrustful of people they don’t know and one of the things that helped me a lot was that, everywhere I went, there was somebody who knew my mother, brother or my sister. I could always strike up a conversation with someone because they would say, ‘Are you Patti Barton’s kid?’ or, ‘Is Jerry Barton your brother?’ It opened up a lot of doors for me because you know the easiest way to get into somebody’s barn is to have a good rapport with them, and that’s a lot easier to have if you have some common ground.
Q: How did you transition from being a jockey to a reporter, and did you find it difficult?
D: I did. I didn’t think it would be hard because I had been interviewed a lot as a jockey, so I was like, ‘I can do that. I’m not afraid of the camera.’ The very first time I had to conduct an interview, I realized, ‘Oh wait, I have to ask the questions. I don’t really know what questions to ask.’ I figured it out pretty quickly and luckily on my own. My first position was interviewing the winning connections after the stakes races at Fair Grounds. So these were not high-pressure interviews, so if I didn’t do a good job, it was no big deal. I just learned to ask questions that I already knew the answers to. You just have to start asking questions, and that begins a conversation, and then you do start learning stuff yourself that you didn’t know.
Q: Did you find growing up dating in the industry hard, and how did you meet your husband?
D: First of all, I didn’t date jockeys. I didn’t know how to be someone who dated a jockey, then have the other jockeys respect me. If you dated one jockey the whole time you were a rider, okay, but if you dated more than one, it was just really weird.
Frankie and I were friends; we worked out of the same gym. It wasn’t very long after, and we were dating. It was almost harder to date someone that wasn’t in the industry. Frankie and I were together for two and a half years, then we ended up breaking up for two years. At that time, I just never dated anyone. I just wasn’t interested. It can be difficult to find someone in the industry that you would want to date. I was just very fortunate we got back together and now we’ve been married for 23 years.
Q: Everyone in your family rode. Did that have an impact on your choice to ride?
D: Not at all. My brother grew up wanting to be a jockey; that’s all he ever wanted to be. My sister always liked horses; she was a very good rider and competitive. I rode all the time, but I didn’t want to be a jockey. I thought there were more challenging endeavors out there. My mom always said, ‘I’m never going to encourage you all to be jockeys. You’re all good riders, you get along with horses and like them, but it’s a big world—there’s lots of stuff you can do.’ She never encouraged it, but she didn’t discourage it. It didn’t seem like something I wanted to do for a living until I did it.