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Last Update Monday, June 23, 2008
A passion for ponies and paint:
Pioneering jockey's painting to benefit Grants Pass Downs
KEVIN LAUNIUS/Daily Courier Former jockey Donna Walsh works on an oil painting of Grants Pass Downs racehorses at Treasured Memories gallery on Sixth Street. She will sell reproductions of the painting beginning in July to benefit the track
By Jeff Duewel of the Daily Courier
Donna Hillman won dozens of horse races at Belmont, Aqueduct, Gulfstream and other big-time East Coast tracks in the early 1970s. She went head to head with Angel Cordero, Ron Turcotte and other male jockeys.
She broke in just two years after Diane Crump became the first female to ride in a pari-mutuel race in the United States. Her pinup looks also landed her on television commercials for A&W Root Beer, Burger Chef and Lady Clairol.
And she's one of 11 pioneer women jockeys to be featured in a documentary "Jock" being shot this summer."They used to yell at me to go home and do the dishes," she recalled, and she thinks it's great that women have won numerous jockey titles at Grants Pass Downs over the years.
Today, the 59-year-old Applegate Valley resident, now Donna Walsh, would like to help her local horse track by selling 250 reproductions of an oil painting she's just about finished.
She modeled "Dash for Cash" after a photograph taken by Thomas Kirchen in 2007, showing three thoroughbreds barreling around down the clubhouse turn at Grants Pass Downs.
"The track was good to me, why not give something back to the town I love?" said Walsh, whose work is on display at Treasured Memories in downtown Grants Pass.
The painting should be unveiled on First Friday weekend, which is actually July 11 because of the July 4 holiday. The special reproductions, known as Giclees, will sell for $295, $495 and $695 and should be ready by late July, Walsh said. All of Walsh's proceeds will benefit Grants Pass Downs, and Treasured Memories owner Carol Rhodes will donate 25 percent of her take to the Josephine County Fairgrounds. They hope to raise more than $40,000.Walsh, who has lived here since 2002, got the idea after she was contacted two months ago by Inner View Entertainment to participate in the documentary. Later, local horse trainer Brenda Bacon, also a former jockey, dropped off a promotional poster for Grants Pass Downs with Kirchen's photo, which was the best Walsh had seen, inspiring the idea for the painting.
Walsh started early in her two passions, horses and painting.
When Walsh was 14 and living outside Los Angeles, she sold her first two paintings and bought a horse, Tawni, and trained it to do tricks and later galloped it at the track.
One day at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, she can't remember, a friend of her father's suggested she get into horse racing, and eventually introduced her to trainer Willard Proctor.
She walked horses on the hot-walker, and bugged Proctor to let her gallop. Proctor promised to put her on horses if she helped handle horses on a cross-country flight to Saratoga in New York, but he reneged.
Hillman stayed on the East Coast, hooked up with another trainer and began turning heads with her skills galloping horses. But women had just cracked the gender barrier at the track, and she had trouble getting in a race.
She said she had to prove her strength by beating men in arm wrestling, stories verified by her former agent Tony Passaro, now 82 and living in New York.
A writer she out-wrestled wrote, "She's so strong she could hold an elephant away from a bale of hay." Walsh to this day has a crushing grip.
Passaro finally got her in a race, on Oct. 11, 1971, at Belmont Park, riding Till Hold. She lost by a nose."They all thought I was crazy," Passaro recalled.
"They said, 'Tony don't you feel the shame in bringing a girl around.' She proved herself.
"In 1972 she tore up the track at Atlantic City, with the highest win percentage."She took on riders that were tough riders, challenged and beat them," Passaro said.
Walsh grew tired of the business and quit in 1976 after a five-year run, saying it was difficult for women to get equal treatment in horse racing.
"She was as good as anybody," Passaro said, adding that "It should have been Donna," instead of Julie Krone to be the first woman to win a Triple Crown race.
Krone won the Belmont Stakes in 1993 aboard Colonial Affair.
Walsh moved to Grants Pass after living in California, Texas and New York because she loves the mountains of Oregon.
Walsh has many paintings at Treasured Memories, at 420 S.W. Sixth St., focusing on portraits, wildlife and western scenes.
Photos by Kirchen, who agreed to have his photograph reproduced to benefit the track, can also be found at tkirchen.digitalphotochat.com.
Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 474-3720 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On the Web: www.tmfineart.com/events.html www.jockthemovie.com/