By Katie Merritt
Trainer Larry Donlin grew up in Nebraska, and still calls Grand Island, where his house conveniently sits across the street from Fonner Park, home.
He started training there more than four decades ago, in 1972, and many years later made Canterbury his summer stopping point for the meet. Over the years, he has trained at many other tracks – Hawthorne, Oaklawn, “I’ve been pretty much everywhere!” he grins – but around 2010, he decided to cut back on traveling, and only runs at the Canterbury and Fonner meets, which leaves him with a couple months off at the end of the year. “We’ve got grandkids and great-grandkids all over the country and you’ve got to see them sometime!” he said with affection, pointing out how it can be difficult to balance business and family in the racing industry, a job that is often 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Larry grew up in racing, as his uncle and grandfather were both trainers. His father served in the infantry overseas during WWII, during which time Donlin lived with his grandfather and got a good taste of what training racehorses was like. His first job, however, was not in the racing industry. When his father returned from the war, he started working on a bread route, which Larry eventually did as well. “I worked on the bread route for five years, and I was looking for a way out. I was looking for a way to get to the racetrack,” Donlin explained, “Then a guy hired me to be supervisor of a meat company and that was a really good job, but when I got the opportunity to go, I just left!”
That opportunity was a racehorse. He had owned a racehorse or two while he was working the other jobs, and had them in training with his uncle, but he decided to claim one and train it himself in the early 70’s. “The first horse I claimed, I had him for about seven months and won seven races with him. He won in Grand Island, Omaha, Lincoln – wherever I took him he won!” Donlin remembered with a smile. After that, his barn slowly started to grow. “You win a few – that’s how I built up,” he said matter-of-factly. Several years after starting his training career, he had a horse named Incredible LS who won the President’s Cup at Canterbury Park in 1985. “He really got me started,” Donlin remembered, crediting Incredible LS with putting him on the map and attracting higher quality horses to the barn.
This year, Donlin has 14 horses under his care at Canterbury Park – a smaller number than in years past, but he doesn’t mind. “It’s a good way to slow down,” he said with a smile, adding, “And it’s hard to find help anymore if you’ve got 40 horses.” Though he has been training for decades, he still enjoys his job, and shows no signs of wanting to retire any time soon. “If you retire, what’re you going to do? Go home and sit in a chair? Go home and die?” he laughed, “You’re used to seven days a week, four in the morning, get up and go,” he explained, his love for the job evident in his words.
Donlin may say he’s slowing down a bit, but his horses are still winning at almost 15% and in the money 40% of the time this year, a testament to what he learned in his early years from the “old-timers” of the sport. He would be the last one to tell you he knows it all, though. “It can be a humbling business. You can think you’re real smart, but you find out you’re not in a real hurry,” he said with a knowing smile, adding “You can stay in it though, that’s what’s good.”