Hard-luck trainer and wife getting back on track--again Bill, Donna Donovan no strangers to adversity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It all started with the headaches. Bill and Donna Donovan were in Ocala, Fla., for a horse sale, and, for three straight days, Donna had excruciating headaches.

So they drove home to Maryland, where Donna underwent a series of tests. "At first, the doctors thought it was a brain tumor," she said. "Then they thought it was two tumors."

Word spread around Maryland's racetracks, where Bill, a trainer, and his wife, Donna, have been popular fixtures for 20 years: Donna's life was in jeopardy.

Several days later, doctors determined that the headaches were being caused by a large brain aneurysm -- a clotting or dilatation of a blood vessel. On Sept. 14, Donna was wheeled into an operating room at the Johns Hopkins Hospital for 8 1/2 hours of surgery.

"An aneurysm is like a weak spot that has ballooned out in an inner tube," said Dr. Howard Moses, her neurologist. "It is potentially very dangerous. If it bursts, there's a very high chance of morbidity, or irreversible neurological damage."

And so began the latest chapter in the incredible saga of the Donovans. To say their story is merely one of highs and lows would not do it justice.

* Bill and Donna have been married 31 years. Donna has a daughter -- Sheree, 33 -- from a previous marriage, and they have two children of their own: Mike, 28, and Pat, 26.

Bill, 57, and Donna, 52, have been involved in racing virtually their entire lives. One might say their careers paralleled, on a smaller scale, those of the Canteys: Joe Cantey, trainer for the powerful Loblolly Stable in the 1970s and early '80s, won the 1980 Belmont Stakes with Temperence Hill. His wife (now ex-wife), Charlsie, became something of a celebrity as a racing television commentator for ABC and ESPN.

Bill, a trainer since 1956, usually had a small stable -- eight or 10 or 12 horses. He would win a race here and there, but never did more than eke out a fair living.

For most of those years, Donna was involved in the publicity facet at many tracks in the East, including Pimlico and Laurel race courses. She has worked as a hostess for television and radio shows and seminars, as a publicity aide and at other related jobs. She is vivacious, outgoing and personable, which, along with her career, has made her a well-known figure in racing circles. Bill loves to talk about the connections his wife has made, theelbows she has rubbed, the friendships she has collected, the lives she has affected.

Together, Bill and Donna struggled through personal and financial difficulties. They have a slew of tough-luck tales: the house fire in which they lost virtually everything and had no insurance; the mare Bill said he could have sold for $150,000, which was let loose by a vandal on their Randallstown farm and killed by a car on Liberty Road; stable employees quitting, en masse, without notice; and the tremendous personal problems, including drugs and numerous auto accidents, that their children have survived.

In early 1987, the Donovans were so broke that Bill, in desperation, left Maryland for the new track in Birmingham, Ala. He had to borrow $2,000 to get there.

"People don't realize just how broke we were," said Donna, who soon followed her husband to work at the track as an in-house TV handicapper.

That spring, their lives would change dramatically. A colt named Lost Code was about to set the racing world ablaze.

* Lost Code was not just a good horse. He was a superstar, a life-changer. In the spring of 1987, he won a minor stakes at Birmingham, then the Alabama Derby, then much more.

He took the Donovans on a tour of the United States. At 3 and 4, he also raced in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, winning virtually every time. In two memorable races, he ran neck-and-neck with Bet Twice and Alysheba, losing narrowly in each. His speed and ability drew raves from everywhere.

In a way, Lost Code proved what Bill Donovan had always said -- "Good horses make good trainers" -- so Bill was always willing to give credit elsewhere. He loved to launch into the amazing story of how, simply by chance, he and Don Levinson of Baltimore renewed an old friendship at a Pikesville car wash, agreed that Levinson would buy a young horse, then stumbled onto a freak when he got Lost Code for $30,000 at a Florida sale.

Finally, fortune was on the Donovans' side -- and they made it a point not to forget where they had come from.

"When they were rolling, they were just the same," said trainer John DiNatale, a longtime friend. "It could have been a $5,000 horse they were winning with. They never changed their attitude or feelings toward their friends."

After reinjuring his knee in 1988, Lost Code was retired to Vinery Stud in Kentucky. His career record: 15-for-27, 12 stakes victories and earnings of $2,085,396.

From the winnings, Bill got his 10 percent trainer's fee -- $208,539 -- and Levinson gave him two lifetime breeding rights. The Donovans repaid many old debts. Their financial woes appeared to be behind them.

After Lost Code's retirement, Bill resumed training a small stable at Pimlico, winning only occasionally. Early last year, an owner let an unpaid bill soar to $16,000, and money began to get tight again. "So Donna and I agreed to cut down on expenses," Bill said. "One of the things was to drop ourselves from medical insurance coverage. Time went by, and we never could afford to get back on. The owner never has paid."

In the summer, Donna said she began to get "strange" headaches. In Ocala, they became unbearable, so they came home to see a doctor.

*

On the morning of Sept. 14, surgeons drilled a hole about 1 1/2 inches in diameter just above and in front of Donna's left ear, allowing Dr. Haring "Hank" Nauta sufficient room to perform the delicate surgery.

Nauta clipped the affected vessel with a thin stalk, removed the coagulation, then repaired the vessel by cutting it and sleeving it onto itself.

Five months later, all parties are proclaiming the surgery a success.

"A malformation such as she had carries a very major risk of death if not caught in time," said Nauta. "But with successful surgery, a normal way of living can be resumed."

*

The weeks and months after surgery were the hardest for Donna and for Bill. The crisis began to take an emotional and physical toll, and there were the normal doubts about the quality of life to which Donna could look forward.

For weeks, Donna was disoriented and confused. Her long- and short-term memory was poor; even simple concepts, such as time, befuddled her. She wondered whether she ever would be the same.

"After the first couple weeks, it was almost like having to start again," she said. "Where have I been? What has happened? Why can't I put my thoughts together? Why can't I speak well? Why can't I remember names?

"The doctors told me that was all normal, but I would go into the bathroom and I might cry for two hours. Then I'd come out and say, 'Good babies don't cry. But they're allowed to whimper.'

"It was total frustration. When you've been active all your life . . . all of a sudden there was a lapse, and I was floundering. I was even worried about whether people were going to think I'd lost it.

"Then I said, 'Hey, I'm going to concentrate on getting well. Be glad you're alive. Be glad you can walk, that you can talk. It'll come back.' "

For Bill, who was caring for Donna at home and looking after his stable, double duty became too much. In December, he was hospitalized for exhaustion.

"I'd had it," he said. "It was all just too much. I was totally unprepared for the recovery period. Little did I know that for three months after the surgery, things would be so hard."

* It is nearly five months after her surgery, and Donna Donovan is recounting her progress.

Her physical appearance has not changed much, although, if you knew her beforehand, you might say her eyes are a bit glossier and her movements are slower.

"Most of the right side of my body is still numb, and I'd say I've only got about 80 percent of my memory," she said.

"But everything's coming back. Dr. Moses told me I'm one for the history books."

No one is happier, of course, than Bill Donovan. The medical bills are formidable -- about $40,000, counting everything -- but Lost Code's babies are yearlings this year, and, chances are, Bill will get to train quite a few when they come of age.

Elated at Donna's recovery, he is eager to get a new start on their lives together.

"Good God almighty!" he shouts. "We've crossed that mountain already. I'm looking forward to putting it all behind us. Now let's go get us another Lost Code.

"Me and Donna, we've made a pretty good team, I'd say. All in all, we've had a wonderful life, made millions of friends."

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