Racing Royalty: The Story Of Horseman And Steward Don Le Vine

by | 07.29.2019 | 3:34pm
Donald Caldwell Le Vine, winner of the Pete Pedersen Award from the Racing Officials and Accreditation Program

Over an excruciating and tension-filled 21 minutes and 57 seconds on the first Saturday in May, many Americans learned of the work performed by stewards at racetracks. In that time, the three stewards at Churchill Downs reluctantly made history by disqualifying the first-place finisher in the 145th Kentucky Derby and awarded the victory — meaningful both because of tradition and a $1,860,000 winner's prize — to the horse who had finished second.

Stewards at Churchill Downs and race courses around the world are the arbiters of the rules that regulate the Sport of Kings. Like baseball umpires, they are judge and jury of their game, and the very existence of the sport depends on their knowledge and integrity. And, as the 2019 Kentucky Derby made clear, the job often involves making some close, tough calls.

Donald Caldwell Le Vine was a steward, and a very good one. He was respected by his peers and horse people during his lifetime, and he was honored with the Racing Officials Accreditation Program's Pete Pedersen Award in late 2018, 18 years following his death.

Pete Pedersen, for whom the ROAP award is named.

Pete Pedersen was a universally respected steward in California, and his contemporary Don Le Vine shared many attributes with his colleague from across the continent. They were unwaveringly fair, they were dignified, and they commanded respect. Both loved the written word — Pedersen as a writer and raconteur while Le Vine did the crossword puzzle every day, in ink — and both elevated the sport of Thoroughbred racing by their presence. Pedersen had a touch of Hollywood about him, while an associate noted that Le Vine “moved with the grace of Fred Astaire replete with his Panama hat and shiny wing tipped cordovans. When I first encountered the soft-spoken and unassuming Le Vine in the 1990s, I was spellbound by his regal aura.

Of the two, Pedersen was by far the more outgoing, though Don Le Vine certainly was charming. “He could charm the hat off your head,” said his niece, trainer Carol “Lynn” Le Vine.

Le Vine had married into royalty from commoner origins. His sister-in-law was Princess Grace of Monaco, the former Grace Kelly who was an Academy Award-winning actress before a whirlwind storybook romance with Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, that culminated in their marriage in April 1956.

That was less than 10 months after her younger sister, Elizabeth Anne “Lizanne” Kelly, married Don Le Vine in St. Bridget's Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia's East Falls neighborhood, where the Kelly family lived. Grace was Lizanne's maid of honor.

Don Le Vine also had married into Philadelphia's royalty. His father-in-law, John B. “Jack” Kelly Sr., was the son of Irish immigrants who developed into a three-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower on Philadelphia's Schuylkill. He had parlayed his Olympic fame into a huge masonry company. “KELLY FOR BRICKWORK” banners hung on construction projects around the city and region.  Le Vine's brother-in-law, John B. Kelly Jr., was an Olympic rowing medalist who became a Philadelphia city councilman and president of the United States Olympic Committee before his premature death while jogging in March 1985.

Le Vine was from the other side of Pennsylvania, in one of Pittsburgh's southern neighborhoods, Brookline, which was not entirely dissimilar from the Kelly clan's East Falls. Brookline was high ground, across the Monongahela River and up the hill from Pittsburgh's teeming downtown and steel mills. For Pittsburgh, Brookline was a first-rim suburb and had been farmland not many years before Don Le Vine was born on June 10, 1928, to Harry and Mary Le Vine.

Their son was an athlete and a star football running back for Brookline High School. He went on to Washington and Jefferson College in nearby Washington, Pa., but he ended up playing behind another star halfback, decided that college wasn't everything he wanted at that time, and joined the Army. He served in postwar Japan before his discharge and then graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia after a successful football career there.

Lizanne Kelly (left) and her sister, the Oscar-winning actress who would become Princess Grace

Academy Award-nominated actress Olivia de Havilland engineered the first encounter between Rainier and Grace Kelly; a cousin in need of swimming lessons led to the meeting of Don Le Vine and Lizanne Kelly. Le Vine and friends spent summers at the Jersey Shore, where he was a lifeguard and taught swimming at the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City. The hotel was close to the Kellys' summer home in Ocean City, and University of Pennsylvania student Lizanne accompanied her cousin to the lesson and met this tall, lithe, athletic instructor. To say that it was love at first sight probably does not fully capture the intensity of their romance. They wanted to marry two years before Lizanne finished at Penn, but her family insisted on a degree first, then marriage.

Lizanne was as lovely as her older sister Grace. Like Grace, she acted in local theater productions, but she did not have the passion for the stage that carried Grace to Hollywood stardom. Like her future husband, Lizanne was a star athlete. She led the field hockey team at Ravenhill Academy, a private girls Catholic school in East Falls, and was the captain of Penn's team in her senior year. She and Le Vine were married on June 26, 1955, her 22nd birthday. The groom had just turned 27. They settled in Gladwyne, a Main Line suburb, to raise a family. Lizanne missed sister Grace's wedding in 1956 because she was about to deliver their first child, Grace. A sprightly son, Chris, followed a few years later.

At the time of their marriage, Le Vine had begun a career as a stockbroker, but he was a sportsman at heart who had married into a family of sportsmen. In 1946 Jack Kelly and his partners had built Atlantic City Race Course. The massive Kelly brickwork facade was a distinguishing feature, as was its renowned turf course. Retired jockey and Le Vine-trained steward, Sam Boulmetis Jr., called the grass inner course, “The Magic Carpet.”

The elder Kelly had partnered with Leon and Robert Levy to build the track and had attracted investors including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. In 1954, Crosby co-starred with Grace Kelly and William Holden in “The Country Girl,” which garnered her the Academy Award for best actress two years before she became the iconic Princess Grace of Monaco. The Kelly's penchant for acting traces its roots to Grace's uncle, George Kelly, a Pulitzer Priize-winning playwright who helped his niece initiate her acting career

Don Le Vine caught the racing bug – big time. He was an athlete who understood the training of athletes, and before long he found his way into training Thoroughbred athletes. It certainly helped to have the support of the Kelly family 's network for the aptly named Red Brick Stable. Most likely Her Royal Highness would be rooting for Don's horses with their jockeys attired in the white silks emblazoned appropriately with the red brick wall! Don was an active trainer in the 1960s and '70s, racing on both the Mid-Atlantic and Florida circuits

The Kelly family's Red Brick Stable silks

Summers were spent at Atlantic City Race Course, 13 miles up the Black Horse Pike from Atlantic City and an easy commute from the Kelly compound in Ocean City. In his formative years, Chris Le Vine tagged along with his dad in the barn shedrows and the track saddling enclosures. Princess Grace and her three children visited the family home hosted by Lizanne and Don and frolicking with Chris and his sister Grace.

Don had his share of success and, like relatively few trainers, had one big horse. The horse was a 2-year-old colt by Run for Nurse named Ring for Nurse. Kenny Noe Sr. had the shiny chestnut colt and wanted $40,000 for him. Although the colt had lost its first three races by a combined total of 51 lengths, Le Vine was not deterred. He had done his homework and learned that the colt with the shiny copper penny colt was one of the few horses at Gulfstream to work five furlongs in :58 and change breezing. Kenny's asking price of $40,000 was a princely sum for a horse that by now had only won a cheap Gulfstream claiming race. After weeks of nagging, Le Vine got him down to $25,000 and quickly wrote a check. The only problem was that he didn't have $25,000 in the account, Le Vine told Billy Reed for a 1969 Sports Illustratedstory. The trainer then badgered Bob Levy into covering his check.

Levy, CBS television producer Frank Chirkinian, and Red Brick were partners in Ring for Nurse, who possessed a good turn of foot but rarely deigned to use it in his workouts or early starts. Le Vine figured him out. Over the course of the next two months, his astute instincts paid off. Ring for Nurse was lazy in the mornings but rose to the occasion in the afternoons. He won a Monmouth Park allowance race on  June 21 and a week later won the Dragoon Stakes in track-record time at Northeast Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Park.

Le Vine returned to Liberty Bell for the $59,000 Kindergarten Stakes on Aug. 2, and the flashy colt won by eight lengths. Ring for Nurse recovered from the race well, and Le Vine — knowing that you run horses when they're in peak condition — brought him back (over the protests of his partners) in  a mere five days for Monmouth's prestigious $112,500  Sapling Stakes. Ring for Nurse may have been beating up on lightweights at Liberty Bell, but the Sapling contained heavyweights, including several who went on to prominent careers both on the racetrack and as stallions. Sent off at 7.90-to-1, Ring for Nurse won by three-quarters of a length with Mike Micelli in the irons. Astoundingly, in less than two months, the triumvirate of owners had realized a five-fold return on their investments

The Sapling victory prompted talk of the 1970 Derby, but it was not to be. Besides, the horse racing game was taking its toll on Don's health. During Ring for Nurse's brief career, Le Vine underwent surgery for a bleeding ulcer. The pressure of caring for the horses and delivering for the owners was overwhelming his body.

In that era, many stewards were drawn from the ranks of former trainers, and Le Vine had the experience and the connections to make the transition. He moved into the stewards' stand in 1978 and never left it. Over the years, he served as a steward at Atlantic City; Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay in Florida; and Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz. His principal domain was Keystone Race Track, which became Philadelphia Park in 1985 and subsequently Parx Racing.

Le Vine possessed the dignified command of a judge, which is what a steward is in the racetrack world. He was slow to anger and kept his cool. He dressed the part, always in a suit or sportcoat, and often wearing a Panama hat on warm summer days in lower Bucks County. “As a steward, he brought a lot of dignity to the stand,” said now-retired steward Sam Boulmetis Jr., who was coached by Le Vine when making his own transition to the stewards' perch after a fall ended his riding career. “He did not get real technical or depend on the rulebook in judging races, but he was very fair and true to the sport.”

As pleasant as he was, Le Vine was not to be crossed. Profanity flows like water on the racetrack backstretch, and any offender swearing in Le Vine's presence found his wallet a bit lighter. “He never raised his voice or used swear words,” said his longtime secretary, Sandy Caruso. “Each time a protesting jockeys cursed, his fine went up $50.”

The active jockeys at Keystone-Philadelphia Park could rely on his fairness. “The younger riders always learned from Mr. Le Vine, and the veteran jockeys respected his judgment,” said Tony Black, who rode throughout Le Vine's tenure and was the de facto leader of the jockeys' room.

Chris Le Vine accepting Pedersen Award on behalf of his late father (UofA Racetrack Industry Program photo by Veronica R. Branson)

In his first decade as a steward, more and more jockeys were making the transition from riding to the judges' stand, and often they carried different temperaments and attitudes than their predecessors. Some of those riders-turned-stewards at Keystone were vaguely critical of Le Vine. But he never bad-mouthed them in turn, at least not in public. And he outlasted them all, serving as the senior Pennsylvania steward until shortly before his death in 2000.

It was in those latter days, when lung cancer was ravaging his body, that this writer got to know Don Le Vine. Cancer was winning the battle for his body, but not for his spirit. He bravely continued to do his job even through the raging discomfort of his treatment regimen. On several occasions, he would stop by the first-aid station where I was on duty as the track physician, and I'd minister to his needs. It was my honor and privilege. At most being able to offer some compassion and soothing words.He needed someone to confide in and I was blessed to be in a position to provide that to a man so revered. Through the fatal disease and the pain that accompanied it, his dignity and character were proudly and defiantly intact.

The racing world lost him on December 16, 2000.

Although he never made a big deal of it, Le Vine cared deeply about the backstretch community. He knew firsthand, as a trainer and a steward, the challenges of all sorts that the racetrack grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, and assistant trainers encounter every day. We shared that concern. In 2000, I had begged some unused space in the backstretch recreation center, pulled some medical-office equipment out of storage, and opened a free clinic for stable-area workers.

On August 18, 2001, the Donald C. Le Vine Memorial Clinic was dedicated. Nurses and students from the LaSalle Neighborhood Nursing Association and I operate the clinic two days a week. Through his life, Don Le Vine never sought the limelight and very effectively avoided it. Today, the Memorial Clinic stands as a living tribute to his values and his devotion to the people that lovingly care for the Thoroughbreds each and every day.

Brian K. Rizen, M.D., is a lifelong horse racing fan who has been the doctor at Parx Racing since 1993 and established the Don Le Vine Memorial Clinic, which primarily treats backstretch workers at the Bensalem, Pa., track.

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram