As the three courageous Thoroughbreds battled to the wire, the pounding of my heart was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. The '87 Haskell was the first race of historical significance I was covering for a major trade publication and I was trying hard to keep my emotions in check. I kept hearing the same words over and over: "Stay objective."
How could you not pull for Bet Twice, the pride of New Jersey, and his amiable trainer Jimmy Croll? You certainly couldn't root against Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, with his beautifully arched neck, show-horse canter, and noble head.
But then there was that big, dark colt stuck down on the rail, running so determinedly, with his head held high and ears pinned back.
Lost Code was a writer's dream. Purchased as a yearling for $7,300, then bought at two by Bill Donovan for Donald Levinson, he seemed on a one-way road to nowhere, toiling in allowance races in Maryland. After a race at Birmingham, he bled so profusely the blood stains remained on the walls of his stall. After being treated with Lasix, the colt's incredible, but dormant, talent emerged with a vengeance, taking Lost Code and the struggling Donovan on a remarkable journey that ended with the horse's death at the age of 17 on Feb. 10.
Although he went on to win four Derbys across the South and Midwest in '87, it was the Haskell that would determine if he belonged with the big boys. Lost Code was beaten two necks, running his heart out every step of the way. Over the next year, Lost Code turned in one awesome display of speed after another. Donovan's cheerful nature and homespun yarns endeared him to all he came in contact with, as did his wife Donna, who had her own racing TV show in Baltimore.
Fourteen years have passed since that unforgettable day at Monmouth Park. Lost Code proved himself, not only as one of the most brilliant horses of his era, but one of the top stallions as well. The courage he showed that afternoon at Monmouth also would save his life the following year. In one week, he underwent surgery twice, to remove bone chips and repair a displaced colon and a hernia. He came down with a virus, developed a 103-degree fever, and had a dangerously low white blood cell count.
Veterinarians were amazed Lost Code was able to recover. But the fight that lies in a Thoroughbred's heart doesn't only come out on the racetrack.
After his retirement, Lost Code remained a major part of the Donovans' lives. Bill had saved him from plummeting into the depths of obscurity, and gave him a pampered life worthy of a king. Because of that, Lost Code was able to repay his trainer when he and his family needed him desperately.
In 1993, Donovan trained and owned half-interest in Lost Code's daughter Jacody, who won four stakes, including the Monmouth Oaks. Jacody was later sold to Arab interests for $1 million. For Donovan, the $500,000 he made proved to be a lifesaver.
When Donna suffered a brain aneurism, her surgery and subsequent medical bills reached well into six figures. Though able to get around, she only has partial use of her right arm and leg. Bill was forced to retire several years ago due to emphysema, requiring him to be on oxygen 24 hours a day. With no job and no income, that money soon was gone. They have lived on Social Security and residuals from Lost Code's stud fees.
Recently, Bill found out he had been chosen to receive financial aid from The Jockey Club Foundation. He believes it is the result of taking Lost Code around the country and letting children come up and pet him, in what essentially turned out to be a goodwill tour for racing.
"We live by the skin of our teeth," Donovan said. "Time is passing us by, but it's been such a wonderful journey, meeting so many new friends, and that's all that counts in the long run. Because of Lost Code, my life is complete."