Robert E. O'Donnell, 88, a prominent breeder for many decades, died Wednesday morning (April 10) in Florida after a long illness.
O'Donnell started Hobby Horse Farm in Grafton, Ohio, a carriage-trade breeding farm, in the 1960s and became a Standardbred breeder. His yearlings were always in great demand at prominent yearling sales. Hobby Horse Farm did not stand a stallion, but O'Donnell assembled one of the best small bands of pacing broodmares.
The Cleveland native operated a very successful beer distributorship, but his true love was the horses. He became active as a trainer and even drove in races on a limited basis.
His proudest moment in harness racing, however, came when he and his wife, Betty, were spectators at the 2005 Little Brown Jug and watched P-Forty-Seven, trained by their son, Kelly, win the Little Brown Jug.
O'Donnell was a member of the Ohio Harness Racing Hall of Fame and was also a past president of the Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association. He served as a USTA director for many years.
Harness racing was always fun when Bob O'Donnell and his sidekick, Thomas "Moose” Sheehan, were around. O'Donnell had a robust sense of humor and a deep, resonant laugh which always enlivened the scene. He was businessman, however, when it came to the operation of Hobby Horse Farm, tracking expenses carefully and keeping close tabs on the bottom line.
O'Donnell went first-class in acquiring fillies for Hobby Horse Farm's broodmare band. He paid premium prices for fillies with the right pedigrees, then bred them to the most fashionable stallions available. He was rewarded at the yearling sales when leading horsemen always beat a path to the Hobby Horse Farm consignment.
Fifty years ago, O'Donnell bred Hobby Horse Tar, later the dam of Silent Majority and Landslide. He also bred Misty Raquel, winner of the 1976 Jugette, from his mare Richelle Hanover. Descendents of Richelle Hanover include 2001 Horse of the Year Bunny Lake, See You At Peelers, and Chairmanoftheboard. O'Donnell and partners also bred the 1988 Woodrow Wilson winner, Kassa Branca.
Other top pacers with O'Donnell's imprint were the millionaire mare Leah Almahurst and the top colts Survivor Gold and Big Band Sound.
Bruce Brinkerhoff, who managed Hobby Horse Farm in the late 1980s, said, "Bob treated everybody equally, from the leaders of the industry to the grooms. He ran the farm like a business, just as he'd operated his beer distributorship. He was a stickler for detail and paid attention to every aspect of the farm operation.”
Brinkerhoff noted that, "O'Donnell's thumbprint is all over 2010 Horse of the Year, Rock N Roll Heaven. He bred Leah Almahurst, the dam of Rock N Roll Heaven's grandsire, Western Ideal. He bred Rock N Roll Heaven's third dam, Jollie Dame. Rock N Roll Heaven has three crosses to Abercrombie and Bob bred the dam of Silent Majority, the sire of Abercrombie.”
In addition to P-Forty-Seven, his son Kelly O'Donnell trained influential pacers Stienam and the stallion, Dragon Again. Another son, Mike, trained and drove and now works as an equine dentist. Bob's brother, Richard O'Donnell, has been a respected racing official for many years.
Bob's wife, Betty, was always a fixture on the Grand Circuit scene and raced horses under the name of the Liberated Stable and affixed the horse's equipment with such novelties as pink shadow rolls.
In addition to Bob's wife, Betty, he is survived by his children, Marianne (Bob Ivany), Tricia (Vince Jiovanazzo), Mike (Rhonda), Kelly (Jeannine), Tim (Pam), and Rob. He has 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren with one more on the way.