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                                  “I fed them good, I fed them like kings,” says Donny of his horses.
But with all the success of that season, at the end of the year Donny figured out he had lost about $6,000.
“After winning a couple of big races and doing all the work myself, I was $6,000 in the hole. I thought, I’m going to either get out of this business or I’m going to need to expand. I had won races, but I knew I was inexperienced. I didn’t know a fifth of what Chris O’Dell knew. I knew I was going to have to go back into an apprenticeship (with another trainer) or expand my stable.”
Donny decided it was time to quit training.
“I’m a very conservative person and I don’t like to take risks,” he said. “My daughter had just been born and my wife was pregnant with my son.”
Donny left training, but not the racetrack. H e t o o k a j o b a s a n a s s i s t a n t s t a r t e r w i t h t h e starting gate crew at that fall’s State Fair meet. He didn’t know it at the time but it was the first step up the horse racing ladder.
When the State Fair meet ended, Downs at Santa Fe owner Ken Newton hired him as the stalls superintendent at that track.
“I told him I worked on the starting gates,” says Donny. “He said I could run the stalls in the morning and work on the starting gates in the afternoon.”
“That’s how I got my first official position, when they hired me as the stall superinten- dent,” he says.
Since 1989, Cook has held a litany of jobs at the track. The list on his resume includes: clocker, placing judge, paddock judge, clerk
of scales, assistant director of racing, direc-
tor of racing, racing secretary, director of security and assistant general manager. He has been the president of racing at The Downs at Albuquerque since 2006.
Suffice it to say Cook knows just about everything there is to know about running a
racetrack. Being a trainer, he says, probably had the biggest impact.
“What I learned as a trainer about working horses and getting horses in condition to run helped me become a racing official because
I learned the whole business,” says Donny. “Some people learn the front side real well
and don’t know anything about the backside. Some know the back side real well and don’t know the front side. As a trainer, I got to learn everything.”
He says his first job at the racetrack as a member of the starting gate crew also proved valuable.
“I know if a guy gave his best effort,” he says. “We try to hire guys that are honest and don’t have any hidden agendas.”
“I know how to operate a grader, a loader. I’m not a track man and don’t pretend to be, but I can walk across our track—not anyone e e l l s s e e ’ ’s s t t r r a a c c k k — — a a n n d d t t e e l l l l y y o o u u i i f f i i t t ’ ’s s r r i i g g h h t t . . I I u u s s e e d d t t o o take my shoes and socks off and walk across our track. I could tell you if the track was good. Ninety percent of the time I’m right.”
It’s clear Cook loves what he does, even though it can sometimes be a no win situation. And Cook’s passion for horse racing and his management style haven’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s very approachable. His door is always open,” says trainer Dick “Flaco” Cappellucci. “He’s very conscientious about wanting to pro- vide us with a good racing surface. It doesn’t mean he’s going to agree with you, but he will hear you out. That’s all we can ask.”
Says O’Dell: “Everything he has done in the horse business is top notch.”
Paul Blanchard, Bill Windham and John Turner are the current ownership partners of The Downs at Albuquerque. Over the last
10 years, the track, backside, grandstand and simulcasting facility have undergone extensive renovation and innovation.
The grandstand was completely reno- vated in 2016 at a cost of $8 million. In
Donny and his wife Liz have been happily married for 32 years.
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