Not many people who crossed notorious gangster Whitey Bulger or his cohorts lived to tell their stories. Eddie Donnally claims he somehow did. Today, he's a 69-year-old ordained minister with a checkered past and a story to tell about gangsters, downfall and redemption. Bulger is currently on trial, accused of participating in 19 murders. Could it very well have been 20?
I walked out of a barn at Suffolk Downs and this rider walked up to me and asked me if I'd take $800 to finish worse than third.
"-- the Rev. Eddie Donnally, former jockey
Donnally never made it to the big leagues as a jockey, but he won enough races at the New England tracks in the 1970s that he was on the radar of Bulger's alleged henchmen the Winter Hill Gang, whose long list of crimes included fixing horse races.
In mid-October 1974, Donnally was approached by another jockey claiming to represent the Winter Hill Gang and offered a bribe to restrain a horse in a race.
"I walked out of a barn at Suffolk Downs and this rider walked up to me and asked me if I'd take $800 to finish worse than third," Donnally recalled. "I took the $800. Pure greed. Worst decision I made in my life."
The mobsters needed Donnally's mount, Society Boy, to finish out of the top three so they could cash a trifecta bet, which requires picking the top three finishers. The fixers would bribe several jockeys riding the favorites and then make bets using only the long-shot horses ridden by jockeys not in on the rigged outcome. Donnally confessed that he had every intention of finishing out of the money but had trouble doing so because so many other jockeys were also restraining their horses.
"I decided at a point in the race to just let the horse go ahead and win," he said. "I was more afraid of what the track stewards might do to me than the Winter Hill Gang because I didn't really know who was fixing the race."
Society Boy won, and the Winter Hill Gang dropped a bundle on the race. They later told him they lost $50,000 in bets.
The next day Donnally was told to meet some people at a bar in Somerville, Mass.
"I had given the $800 back, but they told me I had to talk to the people who had tried to fix the race," Donnally said. "I walked into this restaurant that was full of people. I walked in and sat down and everyone else in the restaurant walked out except for these gangsters who sat on both sides of me. One told me if he killed me and put me in back of his Cadillac, I wouldn't be the first person. I believed him then and I believe him now."
One hit him, and another said he was going to dump his dead, naked body on the backstretch of Suffolk Downs to send a message to other jockeys. Thinking fast, Donnally said he offered to give the mobsters $8,000 and tips on future horses they could bet on. A couple of months later, he tipped them on a horse that won at Churchill Downs, and the Winter Hill Gang recouped its losses from the botched fix at Suffolk Downs.
Donnally said one of the mobsters who confronted him at the bar was Winter Hill soldier Joe McDonald. To this day he is unsure who the others were, though he says it's possible one could have been Bulger, who he would not have recognized at the time.
The ex-jockey said the overtures to fix races after the Society Boy fiasco continued, but he refused to do so.
Donnally thought his problems were behind him, but that changed in 1979 when a notorious race-fixer named "Fat Tony" Ciulla, who was working with the Winter Hill Gang, agreed to testify against the mobsters. Because of his meeting in the Somerville bar, which Ciulla also attended, Donnally was forced to testify in the trial to corroborate Ciulla's testimony.
"I was very scared," Donnally said. "If they thought I was going to testify against them they probably would have killed me. But they apparently didn't know I was going to testify."
Ciulla's testimony led to the indictment of 20 jockeys and members of the Winter Hill Gang. But Bulger and chief lieutenant Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi were never indicted. The reason, it was later alleged, was that they were being protected by the FBI because they were working as informants.
Ciulla entered the witness protection program. Donnally said he was offered the chance to enter the same program and move to Australia, but he decided to take his chances.
"What I think really saved me in the end was the fact that Bulger and Flemmi were not indicted," he said. "Had Bulger and Flemmi been indicted I probably wouldn't be alive today. It's a miracle that I am."
Despite cooperating with authorities, Donnally was charged with a felony: sports bribery. He was found not guilty, presumably because he won the race.
"I am saying for the first time publicly that I did take that money to fix that race and I suffered because of it," he said. "It was a terrible thing to do and I hope the fans forgive me."
It was a terrible thing to do and I hope the fans forgive me.
Donnally's full story will soon be unveiled in a book he has written, "Ride the White Horse: A Checkered Jockey's Story of Racing, Rage and Redemption." In it, he also admits to frequently using electrical devices called batteries to shock his mounts in order to get them to run faster.
But there's much more to this book and his story than his problems with the Winter Hill Gang and his transgressions at the racetrack. Donnally has lived a fascinating but troubled life.
After he retired from riding, he became the horse racing writer for the Dallas Morning News and won an Eclipse Award for writing excellence. After he left that job to try his hand in television, his life spiraled out of control. He wound up addicted to crack and living on the backstretch at Hollywood Park, working in low-paying jobs at the stables.
He says he attempted suicide, had stays in psychiatric wards and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Eventually he wound up in jail, where, in 1996, he had a religious conversion. He became an ordained minister and later earned a Doctorate of Ministry after completing a 16-month hospital residency. Today, he is a clinical healthcare chaplain, and one of his passions is working with jockeys who have substance abuse issues and other problems.
For the last several years Donnally has devoted himself to helping others. It's a blessing he's alive to do so.