Over 65 years ago, a standardbred trainer at the Gratz Fairgrounds approached an impressionable young 14-year old that he had seen hanging around, and offered him a job helping with his stable. Today at the age of 90, that hard-working man is still dedicated to harness racing. With a constant smile and friendly personality, trainer Don Wiest is still doing what he loves, and he’s not slowing down!
Looking back, Don remembers it as if it were yesterday. “This older gentleman at the fairgrounds had 5 horses, and his boy was drafted into the army. This was during World War II. I used to run around and play on the fairground, so he offered me a job pumping water for his horses twice a day. He gave me a dollar a week! That was great! My family didn’t have a lot of money, and that money went a long way in the 1940’s. That’s how I got started in the horse business.” In 1946, right after World War II, Roosevelt Raceway opened, and the trainer was getting ready to move his horses there, and he invited Don to come along and work for him. “I was still in school,” he said, “but I didn’t like school anymore, so I quit and headed to Roosevelt!” He was thrilled to get a raise, now making $50 a week taking care of the 5 horses.
In 1947, he drove his first race at Roosevelt Raceway, along with Stanley Dancer and Eddie Wheeler. “We were three young kids getting in the racehorse business. In those years, it was an old man’s game, and they were thrilled to see us young guys. I finished last,” he laughed. Through his Alabama friends that he knew while working there, he met Sanders Russell, one of the leading drivers in the country, who was looking for a second trainer, and he was offered a job with him. Soon after, he headed down south to begin working with the new stable.
Don got drafted into the Korean War while in Alabama, and his plans were to return to work for Mr. Russell after he served his time. On February 23, 1953, he was discharged, but Roosevelt Raceway didn’t open until May 30th, so he and Mr. Russell decided to meet there in April to get ready for the season. In the meantime, Don met a pretty girl named Beverly, but she didn’t think working back in New York was a good idea. “Well, love won out,” Don said, “and we got married in the fall of 1953. I stayed in Pennsylvania and got a job as a tile setter, but was driving horses at the fairs for people. In 1965, when we got parimutuel in PA, I said I was going back in the horse business and in a week’s time, I had 20 horses and went back to racing horses.” His wife worked side-by-side with him, caring for the horses, all while raising a family.
He considers Pocono his “home track”, and has always looked forward to racing there. “I was at Pocono Downs when they opened in 1965, and I’ve raced there every year since they opened, and I’ve won a race there every year since they opened!” During the track’s 50th Anniversary celebration of in 2015, Don drove in the Legends Race alongside fellow long-time harness racing greats Bill Mullin; Hall of Famer Bill Popfinger; Joe Antonelli; Eddie Nickle; and Jim Williard; winning the race in front of a cheering crowd of fans and horsemen from the past and present in the Winner’s Circle.
Often asked what the biggest change he’s seen in the last 50 to 60 years, he’s quick to respond that it’s catch drivers. “Years back, there were older men driving horses. Back in the mid-’80s, Billy Haughton, the leading driver in the country, got Bill O’Donnell to drive one of his best horses in the Adios at the Meadows, and that started the catch driving business. Before that, trainers drove their own horses and they knew their horse. Today, catch drivers jump right on them and go all they can go because that’s their living. You have to find a catch driver that you know will listen to you, especially with a young horse.” He also points out that speed has changed dramatically, remembering that when Pocono opened, the races were going in 2:09 or 2:10 with a good one may be going in 2:06; today you have to qualify in 2:00, and trotters are clocking times of 55 or less in races.
On July 18, 2020, Don set a track record of 2:03.01 for two-year-old trotting fillies with the Winbak Farm-bred Andover Hall filly Divainthereddress at Silver Springs Ranch. When the gate opened, she took off and won by 18 lengths – and in her first start! Coming off the track, he was met by the “paparazzi” from Penn Horse Racing Association and the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame who captured the moment and his comments for posterity. “The filly was doing all the work, I was just trying to hold her!” he told Chris Tully from the Museum. He also announced his decision to retire from driving, making that winning one his last official drive.
He’s passed his love and passion for harness racing onto his son David and grandson Justin, who are following in his footsteps and making a name for themselves in the business. “My clock is ticking,” Don said with a laugh, “I’m turning 91 in October, and David stepped right in.” His son drove at the fairs from when he was 16 years old and then got a job at a trucking company. Since retiring from his job, he’s back in the biz, with 10 horses in training. The younger Wiest works with several good owners, one who is a doctor from the Shamokin area who recently got into the business. “They’re getting in the business the right way, buying the horses with the pedigree, and his son Justin helps him.” In 2017, all three drove in the same race at the Gratz Fair, with Don’s daughter Jill and wife Beverly, who has since passed on, right in the front row of the grandstand cheering them on. Jill was never in the business with her dad and brother but has always been his and the family’s biggest fan.
Whether he’s at the county fairs this season, or in the paddock at Pocono, the easy-going “Donnie” is excited to continue training and racing his beloved horses, especially alongside his son and grandson. What keeps him going every day? “He always said it’s not really a job, it’s what he loves,” Jill said. “Caring for the horses keeps him young. It’s all for the love of horses.”
*477 driving wins since 1977 when records were first recorded
*Won at Batavia on 9/1/07 with Icy Cream in a stakes race
*Won a race for purse money in each of the last four years (2017-2020)
*Trainer of Tui, World Record for four-year-old Trotting Mare on 5/8 mi. Track 1:52.3.
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