Family finds Smart way to honor beloved Ann

Craig Donnelly poses with then-newborn Ann's Smart Dancer, who has earned more than $200,000.
Craig Donnelly poses with then-newborn Ann's Smart Dancer, who has earned more than $200,000. (COURTESY: CRAIG DONNELLY)
Posted: September 09, 2011

IT WAS MAY 2006 when Craig Donnelly's wife, Ann, was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Donnelly, the Inquirer handicapper for 37 years and a public handicapper for 42 years overall, and his family wanted to do something for a release as they took Ann for treatments.

They were looking to claim a horse. Donnelly, who would retire the next year after amassing an enviable record as one of America's best public handicappers, had his eye on a 5-year-old mare named Bennington. She had raced 44 times and he had seen many of those starts at what was then known as Philadelphia Park.

"She wasn't consistent necessarily, but she had acceleration," Donnelly said. "I always look for a horse with a quarter-mile burst. And she was a big, strong mare."

On June 11, 2006, she was last at the quarter pole and 5 lengths in front at the finish. Serious acceleration.

Donnelly checked out Bennington's pedigree. Found out she was a full sister to Percy Hope, who had won the 2001 Lone Star Derby. So, he decided to make the claim the next time she ran. She was entered for $7,500 on July 4, 2006.

There was only one problem. It was July 4. Banks were not open.

So, Donnelly called a friend, said he needed $7,500. Would pay him back as soon as the banks reopened. Went to his house. Got an envelope with the money in it. Handed the envelope to his son, Jeff, a licensed trainer in whose name the horse would be claimed. He was going to put it in the horsemen's bookkeeper account. Jeff counted it out. It was about $3,000 short.

Craig called his friend back. The friend realized he had pulled some money out of that envelope to use on something else. Told Jeff to meet him at a gas station near the track to get the rest of the money.

Donnelly was calling the charts that day in the press box.

"I saw her swerve in the stretch," Donnelly remembered. "Then, I looked up on the turn. The van comes to pick her up. This is where you say, 'Let's lose the shake, if there's a shake.' "

There was no shake, a racing method to determine which claim (if there is more than one) gets a horse. There was only the one claim.

One of his first concerns, Donnelly said, was for the mare's well being. There was no way to know how badly she was hurt.

Bennington had finished second. She was disqualified to fourth for committing interference. She had a fractured sesamoid in her left front leg. There was some question whether she could be saved. Her racing career was over.

Under the claiming rules, any horse claimed becomes the property of the new owner as soon as it leaves the starting gate. Donnelly and his family were the owners of a racehorse that could no longer race.

Donnelly's father, Russ Harris, the longtime distinguished racing writer and handicapper for many publications, most notably the New York Daily News, suggested they breed Bennington.

On Dec. 19, 2006, Ann passed away. Craig and Ann had been married 25 years. She was only 53. Nearly 5 years later, Craig tears up just about every time he speaks about Ann. It was impossibly difficult then and has never gotten any better.

A few months after Ann died, Bennington was bred to Maryland sire Dance With Ravens. Her first offspring was born on Jan. 23, 2008, at Mark Reid's Walnut Green Farm in Chester County.

Craig got the call from the farm and was asked what he thought they had - a colt or filly.

"I said, 'We have a filly,' " Craig said.

"How do you know?" he was asked.

"Because she's Ann's Smart Dancer," he said.

Fast-forward to the spring and summer of 2011. Ann's Smart Dancer is on her way to being named Parx Racing's Horse of the Year. The 3-year-old filly has raced five times, with four wins and a second. She has won two stakes. She will be heavily favored to win tomorrow's $75,000 Dr. Theresa Garofalo Memorial at Parx, one of four stakes on the Pennsylvania Day At The Races card. Counting breeder awards, she has earned more than $200,000.

She was bred by three generations of horse people - Russ, Craig and Jeff, who trains a few horses at Penn National, including Ann's Smart Dancer's full brother, an unraced 2-year-old. Craig and members of his family own Ann's Smart Dancer, her brother and several other siblings.

Donnelly saw the foal 5 days after she was born in 2008. His sister and brother (and Carmen, then Craig's girlfriend, now his wife, and some of her relatives) came to see her, as well. The foal was in a field with her mother.

"When her mother would look the other way, she would start running, just take off," Donnelly said. "My sister saw her fall over a puddle. She got up and kept running. The next time she came around to the puddle, she jumped over it. She was smart and she just wanted to run."

True then. True today.

Four of Ann's races have been against Pennsylvania-breds because the money is big and the competition not overwhelming. It was in her second start against open company that she proved to be something beyond fast. She was in a vice, caught in a speed duel against more experienced horses. It was a prescription for defeat. Instead, Ann showed toughness, ran the other speed out of the race and refused to be passed in the stretch.

Her most recent race, the Power By Far Stakes on July 30, was her best. She ran really fast and won really easily, as if she could beat open company someday. Butch Reid, Mark's brother and one of the top trainers at Parx, has overseen Ann's campaign, which began on April 2.

When Ann's Smart Dancer runs, Craig and Carmen's families appear in large numbers. Russ, 88, can't make the races. He watches from his suburban Philadelphia home.

Craig has watched hundreds of thousands of races. As post time approaches for the filly's race, he goes off by himself, walking down toward the turn on the apron, alone with his binoculars and his thoughts.

Every time she runs, Ann's Smart Dancer breaks perfectly, usually ahead of the field. Then, she does whatever regular rider Frankie Pennington wants her to do. Go to the front. Wait patiently. Run with flair. Jump puddles, if necessary.

Ending up in the winner's circle, carrying the name of a beloved wife, mother and sister and the hopes of all those she left behind who won't ever forget her.

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