07/04/2017 11:09AM

Former John Henry trainer Donato dies at 79

Email

Robert “Bobby” Donato, the first trainer to win a graded stakes race with the legendary John Henry and to run the gelding on the turf, died Saturday of complications from back surgery in Lexington, Ky. He was 79.

In his mid-20s, Donato was injured on the job as a police officer in his native Philadelphia before turning to the racetrack, where he became an assistant to Joe Pierce Jr. in New Jersey and Florida in the 1960s. He eventually went out on his own and was hired by Sam Rubin to train the newly purchased John Henry in April of the gelding’s 3-year-old year.

For Donato, John Henry won 6 of 13 starts, including a 12-length victory in the Grade 3 Round Table at Arlington Park in 1978, before going on to become one of the most accomplished and popular Thoroughbreds of the 20th century for trainers Lefty Nickerson and Ron McAnally. Competing primarily on turf, John Henry earned nearly $6.6 million and seven Eclipse Awards and was the Horse of the Year in North America in 1981 and 1984. John Henry died in 2007 at age 32 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

Donato traveled extensively in the eastern United States throughout his career while usually maintaining a small stable. In recent years he had made Kentucky his main circuit while based at the Ashwood training center in Lexington alongside his longtime partner, LaDona Hudson. After 1984, he never won more than 10 races in a calendar year, but he reveled in the sport nonetheless. His last starter was Get Foxy on June 18 at Churchill Downs and his last winner was Soso on Feb. 18 at Turfway Park.

“Wherever we went, it seemed like everyone knew him,” said his godson, Matt Mungiole. “He loved the racetrack.”

Besides Hudson, Donato is survived by a son, a brother, and a sister. A private memorial service will be held Friday in Philadelphia.