Eddie Donnally looks at the chapters of his life with amazement, knowing he is blessed by God to have the opportunity to spread his story of personal salvation.
Considering the depths to which Donnally sunk at various times, it seems almost incredible he is around to recount the details.
But the 70-year-old ordained minister – a former jockey who won an Eclipse Award for writing with the Dallas Morning News, and a former crack cocaine addict who was charged with sports bribery for attempting to fix a race – isn't seeking applause for his numerous accomplishments, nor for owning up to his countless mistakes.
The charismatic Donnally, a staff chaplain for Suncoast Hospice and Mease Dunedin Hospital who lives in Clearwater with his wife, Sandi, will be at Tampa Bay Downs from noon-4 p.m. on Saturday to sign his book “Ride The White Horse: A Checkered Jockey's Story of Racing, Rage & Redemption.”
Despite all his setbacks and heartbreaks, Donnally says his story has a happy ending. “It is a story of redemption – of somebody who, by the grace of God, changed their life around,” he says. “I tell people I experienced racing from the hooves up, rage from the inside out and redemption from heaven down.”
Donnally admits it was painful to write much of the negative stuff, such as his struggles with bulimia; a suicide attempt; sexual promiscuity; getting involved with the notorious Winter Hill Gang (run by convicted mob boss and murderer Whitey Bulger); and rubbing horses on the backside at Hollywood Park after a drug addiction derailed his journalism career.
But during the writing of the book, he never lost sight of his goal of delivering a message that hope endures through a relationship with God and acceptance of one's own humanity.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why do I need to write this?', and I came to the conclusion that if I could help anybody else avoid the mistakes I made or get through some of the things I got through, I wanted to keep going,” says Donnally, who has distributed copies of the book free of charge at homeless shelters. “My real passion is getting the book in the hands of people who need it.”
Donnally – who competed at Tampa Bay Downs as a jockey and worked for a short time as the track's publicity director – says he first reached out to God at a 1979 Billy Graham crusade at the old Tampa Stadium after his indictment for sports bribery. “I made a promise that if God would get me out of the mess I was in, I would always work to try to bring Jesus to horse racing,” he says.
But it wasn't until after his subsequent troubles with addiction, a suicide attempt and an arrest for hitting a former girlfriend that he experienced a true epiphany in a Los Angeles jail cell in 1996.
“I was on an iron bus heading to a pretrial hearing, and I was chained to a kid wearing a silver cross, which was unusual because they normally remove jewelry from prisoners,” Donnally recalls. “I had a New Testament the prison chaplain had given me in my back pocket (which, like the other man's cross, had escaped detection) and I felt that if I could get it out, everything would be all right.”
After several minutes of twisting in his seat, Donnally managed to secure the Bible, and he and the other man held it while asking God to perform a miracle in their lives.
The rest of that episode is best told in “Ride The White Horse,” but suffice to say here, Donnally met Sandi a few years later, married her and soon after was licensed as a minister in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination.
In addition to his work as a chaplain, Donnally also serves as a trauma counselor, leading first-responder teams to disaster sites to provide spiritual care to survivors. “After the 2008 Los Angeles train crash that killed 25 people, I took part in seven death notifications. It was emotionally draining and I went home crying, but something clicked into my heart that as painful as it was, this was where I needed to be,” Donnally says.
Donnally believes his career as a jockey has enabled him to be effective in that role. “A horse race is a form of controlled chaos that requires you to stay pretty calm, and I noticed early on I could be in the midst of all this chaos (at a disaster site) and it was something that quieted me down,” he says.
Donnally knows there are skeptics who question the details of his story and others who scoff at his message. None of which will deter him from opening his heart to those willing to listen.
“I don't think my path is the only way to recovery, but my story is my story,” he says. “God rearranged my DNA. He broke my hardened heart – now I want to reach the broken.”
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