July 3, 2013

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When a substantial number of us gathered at Oaklawn for a memorial service to Donnie Ellison, longtime staffer and track superintendent, I was reminded of just what Oaklawn has meant to many of us and may mean to many in the future.

Donnie Ellison was at work at Oaklawn for a decade by the time I came on in 1975.  He was a soft-spoken individual, but make no mistake, he was a man’s man.  He did everything required by his job and he could take the heat.  When there was a horseman who had a complaint about the track, he took it to Donnie and Donnie stood the heat without flinching.  Old-school, to be sure, Donnie was always on the job and earned the huge respect shown him by his co-workers and Arkansas horsemen.

One of the great values of a guy like Donnie Ellison was his dedication to the job and getting it right.  Whatever time was necessary, he put in that time.  Whatever he needed to learn, he made his business to discover and when it came to passing on his knowledge, he was never too arrogant to hold back that information.

Oaklawn General Manager Eric Jackson said as much when he addressed the memorial service on Tuesday.  Jackson admitted being a novice at the business of maintaining a racetrack when he first arrived and was quite willing to credit Donnie with guiding him through all of the basics.  Now Jackson is pleased to note that the very racetrack which was Donnie’s project for so many years was honored as the safest track in America in a recent study.

What I learned to admire about Donnie Ellison over the years was his apparent love for his work.  I’ve tried to emulate that in my own life.  I work with many others who seem to have the same feeling.  There is a certain loyalty to Oaklawn which is deeply woven into the staff here.  It was evident in the dozens who were on hand to pay last respects to a guy who quietly taught those fine old-school values, including loyalty, by his very actions.

Lengthy devotion to a job is hardly a hallmark in our modern world, especially the world of sports.  Racetrackers show that special devotion to the horse and it’s one of the elements of working in this industry which is so special.  The love of the horse was evident in Donnie’s work. Of course horsemen are in it to make a living, but even moreso they seem to enjoy those special moments.  Moments when a horse shows all the talent they hoped he or she would show.  Moments when a finish became memorable. Or times when a result seemed to make a strong impression on the national sports scene.  It makes the early hours and tough times worthwhile.

Annually in racing the Triple Crown events or even the Breeders’ Cup races vie for the moments in the eye of the sports couch potato.  They often fill that bill.  I saw a couple of those events the last two days, when Cincinnati pitcher Homer Bailey pitched a no-hitter on Tuesday evening and on Wednesday midday when British tennis star Andy Murray appears to have created national thrills when he came from two sets down to win a five-set match at Wimbledon and win a spot in the semi-finals of the event which ranks, along with World Cup Soccer, as the most important event on the British sports calendar.

Those sports moments linger and keep us fans clamoring for more.  Zenyatta did that for us during her career, especially when she bowed to the crowd at Oaklawn.  It was allegedly the only time she did that in her career.  Her many fans at Oaklawn will never forget it.   She won her two races here, but it was her bow which fans remember so fondly.  We have been blessed to see many great finishes, which have created a lingering spot for Oaklawn racing in Arkansas sports history.  All involving the very horses which local racing fans recall, sometimes many years after they called Hot Springs their temporary home.  They came here safely and left here the same way.

Through those great competitive moments in all sports of the past half-century, there have always been key people who quietly built the stage on which the events were played.  Donnie Ellison was one of those people to Oaklawn and Arkansas.  In many ways it was Donnie Ellison who gave us moments to remember. 

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