Donna Brothers, A Candid Conversation

June 26, 2020

I was fortunate to set up a phone interview with Donna Barton Brothers that I had looked forward to for a long time. I hoped to have a 15 to 20 minute call with her, and had a bunch of questions ready.  We exchanged some pleasantries and then I asked my first question. What happened next is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had. That one question turned into a wonderful conversation that lasted just shy of 2 hours during which I was smiling ear to ear. It felt like I was talking with an old friend for the first time in many years. Donna makes it feel that easy. That said, this will be part 1 of a 2 part article, as I wanted to share the entire story.

Donna Barton Brothers was born into horse racing on April 20, 1966 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. She was the youngest of three children.  Her mother Patti Barton grew up in Davie, Florida and met her husband while traveling on the rodeo circuit. By the time she was 19, Patti had been a Trick rider and Exhibition bull rider in the Rodeo’s Wild West shows, a Semi-Truck driver and a blackjack dealer in Vegas.  In 1969 at the age of 22, Patti became one of the first 6 women ever to become a licensed female jockey in the United States. Within a year, and all throughout her career, Patti was the winningest female jockey in the country. In 1984, after a terrible, career ending spill at Fairmont Park, she retired with more than 1200 wins. Patti was the all time leading female jockey in number of wins for 4 years after her retirement. 

Donna started riding at a young age. She loved riding, especially in the freedom of the open fields. She learned riding bareback, without a saddle, just a bridle and her horse, and preferred it that way as she got older. “When you’re 10, 11, 12 years old it’s so much easier just grabbing a bridle, jumping on a horse and just ride, than dealing with the ordeal of putting on a saddle.  It was so much fun.”

She graduated high school a year early, and to say she worked hard for this achievement is an understatement. Her school years included traveling all over. She lived in 5 different states and attended 7 different schools, still managing to graduate with top grades.   Donna had aspirations to go to college, but sometimes fate gets in the way and changes a life in a special way.  She decided to go to the race track and get a job. She started off as a groom, but quickly realized this wasn’t going to fulfill her goals, so she moved to Kentucky to learn how to gallop horses(even though she had been riding all her life and racing her brother and sister in the fields and woods). She needed to learn how to properly get horses race ready and become a licensed exercise rider. Donna did this for 4 years, “I was pretty good at it, I had been riding all my life.  Once I got my strength built up, learned all the rules of the racetrack and developed a good clock in my head, people started noticing. I was able to get jobs at whatever track I traveled to.”  Shortly thereafter, the defining moment that launched Donna’s career path happened.  “I knew this agent who had been asking me to become a jockey and ride some races.  But quite honestly I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a jockey. I didn’t find it that challenging, I wanted something more challenging, so I thought why not become a horse trainer.”  She came to a crossroads in Birmingham, Alabama.  She heard from a family friend who was a horse owner in Kentucky and was looking to change trainers.  He asked Donna to come to Kentucky and train his horses. “I thought I really need to be sure that I don’t want to be a jockey before I do that, so I called the agent and said if you can get me on a horse I would ride it.  A few days later I was riding in my first race.  After the race I saw my brother and said to him, not only was that the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, it was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.  I didn’t expect to be challenged by it in all the ways that I was, all that it encompasses; the split second decisions, the dirt flying in my face, the jockeying for position, the quirks of the horse, etc… I loved it.”  And so the career of Donna Barton Brothers was born.

Donna started professionally as a jockey that day in 1987 when she was 21.  Her mother Patti, her older brother and sister Jerry and Leah (also jockeys), had all retired from race riding by the time she started.  Donna won her first race rather quickly (probably the 8th or 9th race she rode) “I don’t remember exactly how many it took, but it was in Birmingham, Alabama at the Birmingham Turf Club Race Course.  My horse Discover Aero was an off the pace type. I remember nearing the far turn we started passing horses, then turning for home there was only 1 horse in front, and the momentum we had I knew we had a chance to win.  I had to work for it and we ended up winning by open lengths. It was a thrill.” 

Donna rode professionally from 1987 to 1998, retiring as the 2nd leading female jockey in the United States by money earned, and with a total 1,130 wins. 

Here is a great story Donna shared with me. 

It was opening day of the Keeneland Fall meet in 1993, all the top Jockeys and Trainers were there.  Donna had 4 mounts opening day, winning 3 and coming in 2nd on the other. The next morning she went by Lucas’ barn to talk to him and she had to wait while he spoke to his assistant Todd Pletcher.  “Wayne could see I was waiting to speak to him, so when he finished with Todd he waved me over.  And I said, ‘Hello Mr Lucas my name is Donna Barton and I know you like to ride the hot hand. Well I won 3 races yesterday and that makes me the leading rider and so I was  pretty sure you were gonna want meet me (laughing).’  She started working and riding many of his 2 year olds and from that moment on she was one of D. Wayne Lukas’ first call jockeys until retiring, winning several stakes races with him, including Golden Attraction ( who won the Eclipse Award as Champion 2 year old Filly) who Donna rode to a win in the Grade 3 Schuylerville at Saratoga. 

Donna also rode other top horses including Hennessy, Grade 2 winner of the Sapling at Monmouth Park and ran 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Unbridled Song: Hall of Fame Filly Serena’s Song. Other Graded Stakes winners include Country Cat, Cat Appeal, Boston Harbour and Lilly Capote. And favorites of mine she also rode are Editors Note and Lord Carson. 

There’s so much more to Donna, especially what she continues to do in the industry today. I hope you enjoy reading her story as much as I enjoyed my time listening to her tell it.

She won’t say it, but Donna Barton Brothers was a modern day pioneer for women’s racing, something she continues to be today, and I will tell that story in Part 2. 

Also, please don’t forget to tune in on Saturday to NBC at 5:00pm to watch Donna and Kenny Rice host the coverage of the Stephen F. Foster and the Fleur de Lis. Breeders’ cup Win and You’re In racing.

Welcome back Donna, we missed you!

Ed Cofiño

Follow Ed on Twitter @itsmeeddiec

Photo: donnabrothers.com

@jonathanstettin such a great read! In my car reading this on my lunch break with a huge smile.

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