By JIM WELLS
The recommendation came with high praise from one trainer to another. The guy truly cared about his horses and their performances. and he wasn’t a pain in the neck like some owners. He didn’t stand around the barn and pontificate about the right approach or browbeat a trainer about the job being done.
He was a genuine guy, someone a trainer would enjoy working with and not worry about looking over his shoulder every time a horse’s legs were wrapped or his feet cleaned.
Tammy Domenosky put the picture together quickly. It wasn’t all that hard. The name was a dead giveaway. A guy named Jack Donahue who was usually referred to as Father Jack.
“I figured right away he had something to do with the church,” she said.
Domenosky was raised Catholic herself, so the picture was quite clear. She was going to train horses for a local priest with an Irish name. She found out later that the two horses she has in the barn for Fr. Jack Donahue were named for his sister and brother-in-law.
There is Boardinghouse Barb, named for his sister. Barb. “All her married life she took in family members and fed them,” explained Fr. Jack.
And there is Pious Pete, named after Barb’s husband. “He studied for the priesthood and is real pious,” Fr. Jack explained. He has a horse named Gege _ who is laid up _ named for his sister Ginger.
He has had a dozen or more horses since the second year of pari-mutuel racing in Minnesota; one of them he gave to the St. Paul police department when its racing career ended. He has even had a horse named for him _ Father Jack.
Fr. Donahue originally intended to send his horses to trainer Tony Grantiz at Hawthorne to get them ready for Canterbury. Granitz was headed to Florida after the Hawthorne meet and recommended Domenosky.
“Tony had nothing to say but good things,” Domenosky recalled. “He said the guy’s name was Father Jack, that he liked his horses, liked to see them do well. He said he was a good owner to have.”
Jack Donahue was born and raised in St. Paul, attended Cretin High School before entering the seminary and was ordained at the St. Paul Cathedral in 1960. He worked in various capacities at several churches over the years, the longest as pastor at Maternity of Mary in St. Paul for 19 years.
As a youngster, he was a batboy for the old St. Paul Saints (from 1944 to 1948). His favorite sport was baseball, but frequent trips to the farms of his grandfather and his uncles in Erin, Wis., brought about an early introduction to horses.
He and his cousins rode the large work horses from the farms through the fields and down the dirt highways of the rural community, and the seeds were planted for a lifelong love affair with the horse.
That passion evolved into part ownership in a horse with a friend in 1986, one year after Canterbury Downs was opened. The passion hasn’t wavered in the years since.
Fr. Jack, who lives in Somerset, has been retired since October of 1999, but it’s hard to tell. He still works six days a week, saying mass and hearing confessions at St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s churches in Stillwater.
There is one much appreciated difference.
“I don’t go to meetings. I love it,” he said.
Fr. Donahue kept his early involvement in racing quiet, not sure how his parishioners would feel about it all. But thoroughbreds were not a passing fancy with him, not in the least. He grew more serious about the business with time. He requested and was given a four-month Sabbatical in 1996 and spent the time working on a thoroughbred farm in Lexington, Ky., and taking classes at the University of Kentucky.
The archbishop who granted the Sabbatical called it the most unusual request at the time that he had ever received.
Fr. Donahue was at Canterbury Park Thursday night to watch Boardinghouse Barb run. Neither he nor Domenosky knew what they were going to get.
“You know,” Tammy said, “she shows signs that she’s going to be better than average but sometimes signs that she’s just average. “She’s high-strung and a nervous filly. She can handle other horses. Racing at night is going to be the biggest problem, the lights and the people.”
Still, the filly’s owner is hopeful. “She has Mr. Prospector on both sides,” he said. Boardinghouse Barb showed early speed in her debut Thursday night but faded in the stretch.
A couple of weeks earlier, Pious Pete ran fourth in a sprint race at six furlongs, but Fr. Donahue agreed with Domenosky’s evaluation afterward.
“He probably needs a longer race, a mile 70 or so,” he said.
Fr. Jack understands thoroughbreds and racing the same way a boxing trainer one time understood a young Irish fighter, who made the sign of the cross before a bout. “Will praying help him win,” a bystander asked. “Only if he has a good left hook to go with it,” the trainer responded.
Fr. Donahue blesses his horses before they race and says a prayer that they will run without injury and to the best of their ability. He never prays that they will win.
That would be cheating, now wouldn’t it.