By Craig Harzmann
For Maryann and Kevin Donohue, the images remain vivid. As farrier Wes Champagne was busy putting some final touches on Rail Trip in the Santa Anita Park shedrow of trainer Ron Ellis the morning of Nov. 1, the couple looked on glowingly, recalling the gelding's life before he became a star.
"He was a standout. He was really beautiful to look at," remembered Maryann Donohue. "He was just the best, the most fun on the farm. He just would charge at everybody and everything. We called him 'Big Boy.'"
Far removed from his days as a sprightly youngster, 7-year-old Rail Trip is prepared to take his first crack at the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships Nov. 3 when Ellis leads him forth to meet a lineup including fellow grade I winners Shackleford , Emcee, and Jersey Town in the $1 million Dirt Mile (gr. I). For the Donohues, a triumph by Rail Trip in the Dirt Mile would be a fitting coda to a narrative that has thus far exceeded all expectations.
The Donohues' involvement with Rail Trip dates back to 2005, shortly after they began breeding on a small scale under the name Donarra Thoroughbreds. Implicitly trusting the advice of bloodstock agent Bryan Cross, Kevin Donohue—sight unseen—OK'd the $70,000 purchase of Sweet Trip, a pregnant 6-year-old daughter of Carson City, at the Keeneland January mixed sale. Just days later, Sweet Trip delivered her first foal, a bay son of the young, unproven stallion Jump Start . Nicknamed "Big Boy," the colt cut his teeth at the Donohues' 110-acre operation in Ocala before eventually returning to Kentucky for the 2006 Fasig-Tipton July sale of yearlings.
"At that time, we were just breeding to sell, and we had no thought of racing," explained Maryann Donohue.
"The market was strong," added husband Kevin. "You could sell anything. We knew he'd sell well."
The Donohues were overseas, in fact, listening live via cell phone while dining with friends in Ireland, as bidding reached $200,000 before the gavel finally fell. Their headstrong homebred was now the property of Jan, Mace, and Samantha Siegel's Jay Em Ess Stable.
The Donohues still own Sweet Trip, who is presently in foal to Harlan's Holiday, among a small band of broodmares. They focus these days on racing rather than selling their stock.
Down the road, perhaps, one of their own may grow up to rival the accomplishments of Rail Trip, who over the past four years has amassed earnings in excess of $1.3 million while racking up such prestigious southern California events as the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (gr. I), Californian Stakes (gr. II), Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II), and San Diego Handicap (gr. II). The Donohues, who to date have never seen Rail Trip compete in person, are grateful just to have been along for this ride.
"A lot a breeders never get a grade I winner, and he's done it," Maryann Donohue noted. "He was one of our babies."
"You've got to have luck in this business. Lord knows you get enough bad luck," said Kevin Donohue, laughing. "You've got to have some good luck. He's the reason we're here."
Ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., Kentucky-bred Rail Trip will break from post position 1 on Saturday. Post time for the Dirt Mile is 1:14 PM PDT.