In the world of harness racing, there’s no better recipe for success than hard work, perseverance, knowledge and passion for the game.
Sprinkle in a bit of luck and as some would say, "it’s all good.”
Chicago-based trainer Donna Lee couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to her son Tony Alagna, who will be harnessing six Breeders Crown starters on Saturday. Much has been written about Tony and his first foray into the championships, but Donna says it’s no surprise to her that her son, at age 40, is in the spotlight.
"Tony isn’t an overnight success—it’s been years and years of hard work for him,” she said. "He was determined to go out on his own as a trainer before he turned 40, as he didn’t want to be a second-trainer for the rest of his life. He had been assistant trainer for two large stables and knew what it takes to run a large operation. I had been after him for a couple of years to go out on his own, and he was initially nervous about doing it, but it’s worked out super.”
Donna, 60, has been involved with Standardbreds since she was a 12-year-old, horse-crazy youngster staring over the fence at the Champaign County Fairgrounds in Urbana, IL.
"I was born in Fairfield, IL, and nobody else in my family had anything to do with horses,” she recalled. "I saw my first horse when I was five and just fell in love. I used to go and watch a little bay horse and a mule in a neighbor’s yard. I would just stare at them for hours. One day I started watching this guy at the fairgrounds named Finny Thompson. He had an old Standardbred pacer named Smash Key, and he asked me if I wanted to jog a horse, and that’s how I got started.
"The following summer Finny had 20 horses at the fairgrounds and offered me a job,” Donna continued. "Finny was a character. He was a butcher by trade and got into trouble with the government for selling meat on the black market, and until the day he died he couldn’t have anything race in his name. But he hired me and let me start fooling with the horses. I was in heaven.”
Three years later, at age 16, Donna purchased her first horse for $200—a trotting yearling—from Geff, IL horseman Tom Tetrick, father of driver Tim Tetrick.
"That horse was Colonel’s Cara, and she dumped me out more times than I care to remember,” Donna said. "She never made it to the races but she tough me a lot.”
It was while working for Finny that Donna met and married her husband, Pete Alagna, when she was 19. Tony was born in 1972 and son Petey was born in 1973. When things didn’t work out for the couple a year later, Donna found herself raising two boys as a single parent.
"It really wasn’t difficult for me because the boys went to the track with me every morning and the school was right across the street, so they went with me before and after school,” Donna offered. "Tony was always horse crazy and wanted to be at the barn more than he wanted to be in school, and Petey wasn’t as much into the horses then—although later he developed into an accomplished blacksmith and then began the "Elite Harness Racing” company, which manufactures race bike wheels. He’s also became a Will Co. (IL) Sherriff after serving three years in Korea in the military.”
Donna says that Tony was super focused on learning about horses, even as a toddler.
"When Tony was three, I bought him a small welsh pony that he rode everywhere around the track. When he was a few years older I got him a quarter horse and he started jumping him bareback over the racetrack hub rail in the afternoons. He always had a bond with horses. When other kids were out playing ball or running around the playground he wanted to be in the barn. "
At 9-years-old, Tony’s favorite books were Donna’s collection of Sires & Dams that sat on the family’s shelves.
"We’d be watching TV and Tony would be reading the Sires & Dams, and ask me questions like, ‘who was Victory Song by?’ He was unreal about wanting to study bloodlines, and was always focused on the horses even when he was that little; he never had any outside interest, and he always seemed like an older soul, like an 8-year-old going on 25. He was like me, he had the passion for these animals since day one.”
"I just loved being in the barn from day one,” Tony acknowledged. "Our school was very close, and we’d head right to the barn as soon as school was out. Mom would still be at the fairgrounds, and Petey and I would go there to help put horses away right after school.”
Tony agreed with his mom that in his mind, the horses always came first.
"The first horse I ever took care of, that was my full-time responsibility, was a filly pacer named Kay Rick,” Tony remembered. "One day, mom went out to train her to the race bike and I was watching from the backside. I watched her go by and I’m looking and looking but I don’t see her coming down the front side, down the homestretch. I wait but I still don’t see my mom—so I go running across the infield, and I see my mom sitting on Kay Rick’s head, who is lying on the racetrack.
"I’m nearly out of breath and there’s my mom sitting there—covered in dust , bloody and dirty, and the only thing I say is, ‘Is Kay alright?’
"As you can imagine, the look on my mom’s face was priceless, because I didn’t ask about her, just about the horse,” Tony laughed. "To this day, we always laugh about this story.”
Tony was ten at the time.
After high school, Tony worked with Morgan horses at the Springfield, IL-based Cotton Hill Farms for several years before joining his mother at Quad City Downs, where he helped her condition her stable of pacers and trotters for another six years. He then joined trainer Brian Pinske as an assistant for several years, before finishing up his college degree at Florida’s Seminole College in 1997.
After college, Tony worked for Pat and Ken Walker’s Fox Valley Standardbreds in Sherman, IL as their private trainer for three years, before going to work for conditioner Erv Miller for six years. Tony helped to train such standouts as Lisa Mara, Shark Gesture, Classic Photo, and Muscle Mass, to name a few.
"The biggest advantage to working for top trainers like Erv and Brian is that you learn to manage a large stable, and you learn how to maintain consistency week-in and week-out with racehorses . Both Erv and Brian were very good at managing their horses and running a large stable.”
Those years definitely paid off for Tony, who will harness favorite Captaintreacherous in the 2-year-old colt pace; Nikki Beach in the 2-year-old filly pace; Rockaround Sue in the 3-year-old filly pace; Handover Belle in the 2-year-old filly trot; Mel Mara in the 3-year-old colt pace; and Mr Chicago in the 3-year-old colt trot.
"Tony said he didn’t want to have over 35 horses and that’s how it worked out his first year,” Donna offered. "Then it went up to 50 horses and now he’s at 65. It can make the book keeping a little tough, but it works out.”
Donna does the book-keeping for the Alagna Stable and also takes horses from her son to freshen up.
"The competition in Chicago is a lot softer than what they face out East, so Tony will send me some of his that need a little break from time to time,” Donna said. "It works out well for both of us.”
He said he didn’t want over 35 horses and that’s how it was the first year, then 50 the second, and now 65.
"I definitely get my work ethic from my mom,” Tony stressed. "She instilled in me that if you don’t work hard, you’re not going to be successful. Mom always told me that if you don’t take care of the horse, the horse won’t take care of you.”