A maverick on horseback, as jockey and TV racing analyst
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Many casual racing fans who have watched a leg of the Triple Crown on television or the Internet are familiar with Donna Barton Brothers, even if they don't recognize her name.
Brothers is the rider on the track moments after the winning thoroughbred crosses the wire, trotting up to the first-place team before the victorious jockey even has a chance to wipe the sand, dirt or mud from his or her face. In her role as a post-race interviewer, Brothers is at the ready -- microphone in hand, question and follow-up question on her lips.
Brothers, 48, has been a broadcaster and horse racing analyst for NBC since her first show at the Breeders' Cup in 2000. But she had no background as a broadcast reporter: She grew up riding horses, and was a well-known, purse-winning jockey in the male-dominated sport.
When she made the big career jump, Brothers said, she had to learn how to ask questions in a way that millions of viewers, not just racing insiders, could understand.
"The first show I did, I remember coming home, and I told my husband it's just so hard, it's not worth it," she said. "It was because I was so nervous."
At 5-foot-3 and 100 pounds, the slender blonde with a pixie haircut still could be a jockey if she wanted to; her peak racing weight was 104 pounds.
She has long since worked out the kinks in her second career. She said she loves the broadcasting gig because it keeps her grounded in the industry in which she grew up. Her mother, Patti Barton, was one of the first women to be licensed as a jockey, in the late 1960s, and her brother and sister have been professional jockeys as well.
As a child, Brothers said, she didn't consider a career on the track. Then, after high school, she turned to working as a groom to earn money for college. Soon, she was galloping horses. And before long, she was in racing silks.
"You start at the bottom and work your way up. I had to do that even though I had family in racing," she said. She rode in her first race thinking she would just do one -- to be able to say she had done it. But when she hopped off her mount, she was beaming.
Retiring 'on my own terms'
At the time of her retirement 11 years later, in 1998, Brothers was the second winningest female jockey by money earned, and earned 1,171 victories. But racing had begun to feel like work, she said, and the fear of disabling injury loomed.
She was 32, in love with thoroughbred trainer Frank Brothers, and ready to get married.
"I was fortunate in that I retired on my own terms," Brothers said. "I loved being a jockey for 11 years -- for me, it was like when I rode my first race, I had suddenly discovered something exciting and challenging, and I had this passion ignite in me that I had never had before."
After her retirement, Brothers started in TV by doing post-race jockey interviews at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. Then Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, asked her to do a handicapping segment for them. In 2000, NBC saw what she was doing and liked it.
Mike Battaglia, an NBC horse racing analyst and former handicapper who worked with Brothers at Churchill Downs, said her bright personality and deep knowledge of the industry are big assets.
"She's excellent. Being an ex-jockey, she knows the business, and she really adapted herself to broadcasting very quickly," Battaglia said. "She's smart, she picked up on it and she really does her homework."
Homework is a huge part of her job, especially before the Triple Crown races, Brothers said. She does extensive research and prepares fact sheets on the breeding, race history, jockeys, trainers and owners of each horse, to be certain she is prepared, whichever horse wins.
She learned of the need for full-out preparation the hard way: At the 2002 Belmont Stakes, when War Emblem was making his Triple Crown bid in an 11-horse field, "We were walking out of the trailer, time to go for the live show, and I remember saying, 'If anybody wins this race besides Sarava, I'm all set,' " Brothers said.
War Emblem stumbled at the start. Sarava, a 70-1 long shot, won -- and still holds the record for the longest odds of any Belmont Stakes winner.
Picking out her own ride
Brothers, who lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, also has to do some non-race horse research before each show to find out who she'll be riding herself. NBC provides her with a budget, and usually she rents a horse from a local trainer stabled at the track.
Saturday, she plans to ride a thoroughbred named Tucker, owned by trainer Abigail Adsit.
And while preparation is vitally important, Brothers learned in 2007 that sometimes it pays to ignore her fact sheets and go with the flow.
That year, jockey Calvin Borel was overcome with emotion after he won the Kentucky Derby on Street Sense -- his first win in a Triple Crown contest. Instead of talking about the horse and the race, a weeping Borel said he wished his parents were there, calling it the greatest moment of his life.
"Because he was so emotional, I totally forgot all of my questions. All I could do is react to everything he said," Brothers said. "You have to be completely ready to go with the conversation and where their emotions take you. I learned a lot from that."