Calling it “baptism by fire” she recalls, “At first I was such a fish out of water. I was lucky enough to be successful as a jockey, so I was interviewed a lot, but when you’re on the other side of that and there’s a camera watching, the hardest part is figuring out what questions to ask of people, because I already knew the answer to them. But the questions are for the viewers, not for me.”
“I got a little bit lost with [retiring], and I am in total awe of the energy she put into recreating herself,” says friend and former jockey Julie Krone. “I think she is flippin’ amazing. She’s phenomenal.”
In 2002, Donna finally realized her dream of attending college, where she once again found success. Majoring in psychology, she received not only the highest semester score out of her 600 fellow students in Psychology 101, but the highest score ever in the history of the University of Louisville (Ky.).
Just as with racing, Donna became enthralled by her studies and was determined to wholly pursue them. “I just loved psychology. I just absorbed it, and if I didn’t understand something, I had to sort it out to understand it, to get the answer right,” she says.
College and her gig for NBC Sports overlapped, and what started as four shows a year for NBC exploded to 20 by 2005.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t do both well. My grades were still great, my work appeared to be good, but the last Breeders’ Cup I did while going to college was at Lone Star [Park (Texas)] in 2005. I realized that it wasn’t my best show,” she says. “Nobody knows what I couldn’t ask because I didn’t know the follow up to it, but I knew.”
Unwilling to give less than her best to either work or school, practicality won out. She went with the one that paid.
That was seven years ago, and her role at NBC continues to expand. She’s been a fixture at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** for the past six years, and while she had little knowledge of eventing to begin with, Donna dove right in, dissecting the sport.
“I really needed to understand it,” she says. “I walked the courses. I wanted to be able to speak their language.”
“Anything she [does], she becomes fully devoted,” explains Donna’s mother. “She doesn’t allow other things to sideline her. That’s Donna—she’s a 110 percent kid.”
Krone echoes that sentiment. “I think there’s hardly anything she has been just ‘slightly interested’ by,” she says. “Donna finds out about something and devours it. She has this ability to be so thorough and so complete.”
She’s Earned It
That curiosity, combined with a passion for sharing information with others, culminates in Donna’s book, Inside Track. “For so many years, I just kept thinking, ‘Somebody needs to write a book [explaining the ins-and-outs of horse racing],’ ” she says. “I was at the bookstore one day and saw this Girls’ Guide To Nascar Racing, and it was written by a woman who did the television coverage and whose family was in NASCAR. And I thought, ‘Wait, that sounds strangely familiar. Maybe I would be equipped to write this book.’ ”
Inside Track is written in a friendly, conversational tone with each chapter covering a topic that gets more specific and detailed as you go. “I just wanted [the reader] to think, ‘Do I care about this?’ and if so, read more. If they read the first page on jockeys and think, ‘Oh, I never did care where those little people came from,’ then done!” Donna says, laughing. “Done with this! And you move on.”
True to form, Donna is moving on herself. She rather reluctantly confesses she has another book in the works, less of a how-to manual and more of a window through which we can look at the world of racing, told by someone who lived it.
In addition to that and her work with NBC and TVG, she was recently named COO of the Starlight Racing team, handling partnership development and client relations. Her role is to bring new partners into the group and see to the needs of current members. It’s a higher level of play than most racing teams, with a limited number of investors each owning a share of all of the horses in that year’s crop.
Donna joins her husband, Frank, who, as the group’s bloodstock agent, is in charge of purchases and consulting. Todd Pletcher serves as Starlight’s head trainer.
The Brotherses currently live in a condo in Louisville with their dog, Molly. They decided not to have children. While “delighting” in Donna’s nieces and nephews, the couple never felt their lifestyle was conducive to raising a family—a decision consistent with Donna’s all-or-nothing personality.
“It was something they agreed upon before they married,” says Donna’s mother, Browne. “They couldn’t be the kind of parents they would want [to be], and they didn’t want to be half-assed parents.”
“[Donna] invests great amounts of energies into human beings as well,” Krone adds. “I know one thing, as her friend and as a person she loves, it is a wonderful position to be in, because she is incredibly loyal and dedicated. Spending time with her is rich, quality life time. She makes everything more colorful and more fun.”
Like that winning filly all those years ago at the Kentucky Derby, Donna continues to exuberantly approach each new challenge. When asked what gives her the most joy, looking back over a fascinating and varied career that’s still far from over, she pauses before answering.