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The sad saga of thoroughbred D.J. Trump, Donald Trump’s lone foray into horse racing

D.J. Trump, the ill-fated horse that Donald Trump planned to purchase in 1988. (Photo by Lisa O’Donnell)

D.J. Trump had everything a young racehorse needed to become a champion: great genes, a wise trainer, and an owner with deep pockets. But then, as the story goes, the horse’s casino magnate owner made an ill-informed, impatient decision that nearly killed the horse, ultimately costing the thoroughbred its front hoofs.

As Saturday’s Preakness Stakes brings championship thoroughbred racing back to a region transfixed by the Trump Administration, it’s worth revisiting the disputed tale of Trump’s only documented foray into the sport of kings.

The story of D.J. Trump the racehorse comes from a 1991 tell-all book by former Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino president Jack O’Donnell. Trump previously has dismissed the story as “totally unsubstantiated and false” and derided O’Donnell as a “disgruntled former employee.” Trump Organization and White House press staffers did not reply to requests to comment this week.

In a recent phone interview, O’Donnell said he stands by the story. The other major witnesses are all dead or incommunicado, but there are a few pieces of documentary evidence of D.J. Trump’s short life that comport with aspects of O’Donnell’s recollection.   

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In the late 1980s, Trump was a highflying casino magnate in the midst of a frenzy of splashy purchases that spread his name and brand. He bought an airline (Trump Shuttle, which he gave up in 1992 after defaulting on payments), a power boat race (the 1989 Trump Castle World Championships, marred by rain, high seas, and a fatal wreck) and launched a bike race (the Tour de Trump, which turned out all right).

In 1988, according to O’Donnell, a big-spending customer of Trump’s casinos approached executives about getting their boss into horse racing. Robert LiButti was a portly, sometimes abrasive racehorse trader who got along well with Trump, according to O’Donnell. Trump and LiButti shared a fondness for large sums of money, tendencies to speak in grandiose terms, and explosive tempers.

LiButti owned a horse named Alibi that had Triple Crown potential, he told Trump executives. While LiButti was a braggart, the horse did have an impressive bloodline. Alibi’s father was Raise A Native, whom the New York Times called “the most influential sire of American thoroughbred stallions over the last 20 years” in his 1988 obituary. Among Raise A Native’s many champion offspring: Majestic Prince, the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and Alydar, runner-up to Affirmed in all three 1978 Triple Crown races. LiButti wanted $500,000 for the horse. 

Stephen Hyde, Trump casinos CEO, immediately saw the potential benefits to a deal with LiButti, who lost an estimated $11 million at Trump casinos from 1986 to 1989, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Hyde schemed it as a great investment,” O’Donnell said in a recent interview. “It’d be good publicity and an opportunity to reward a high-roller and good customer they wanted to keep happy.”

The handshake deal was struck in the skies over New Jersey, in Trump’s black Super Puma helicopter, in a scene O’Donnell described in his book, “Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump — His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall.”  

LiButti brought photographs of Alibi, which O’Donnell described as “a luxurious chestnut brown, with a shimmering coat and a princely bearing.”  

“It’s a great horse, Donald, a champion,” LiButti said. “He’s gonna be another Secretariat.”

Trump reviewed the photographs, nonchalantly, before agreeing to buy the horse. There was one requirement, though: a name change. Alibi became D.J. Trump.   

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The plan was for the horse to work out in Ocala, Fla., for several months under legendary trainer Allen Jerkens. That fall, D.J. Trump would head north for a few races, to build momentum before the 1989 Triple Crown races.

As weeks passed however, Trump still hadn’t paid. LiButti involved lawyers, and angry letters were exchanged, according to O’Donnell. Eventually, Trump agreed to a reduced price. His name was worth at least $250,000, Trump argued, so he should only have to pay an additional $250,000 to complete the purchase.  

A few days before D.J. Trump was due to head north, according to O’Donnell, a virus ripped through the horse farm. D.J. Trump didn’t appear sick, but the trainer Jerkens recommended postponing a final workout in Florida, and the move north, for a few weeks. If the horse was sick, the trainer said, working him out risked a high fever, and possibly death.

Trump was impatient, O’Donnell wrote. He wanted his horse racing, up north, with no delays. Hyde, the casino executive, relayed the order reluctantly: “He wants the horse to work.”

D.J. Trump’s last workout in Ocala was, in Trump parlance, a total disaster. A few hours after running, the horse’s legs began shaking uncontrollably, then he collapsed in a heap. D.J. Trump had contracted the virus without showing symptoms, veterinarians concluded, and the workout had exacerbated his condition.

Veterinarians detected blood flow slowing in the horse’s front legs, and recommended a drastic procedure: amputating both front hoofs. The horse would never race, but might at least live, and the hoofs would grow back. Jerkens, the trainer, sobbed as he explained the developments over the phone to LiButti, O’Donnell wrote.

Trump, however, was unmoved. And, conveniently, he hadn’t cut that $250,000 check yet. When informed of D.J. Trump’s sudden illness, and surgery, Trump told his top executive Hyde he had decided to back out of the deal. Hyde was furious, O’Donnell said. Enraging LiButti was a horrible business decision, as it would send him gambling elsewhere.

Hyde also seemed troubled by Trump’s lack of remorse when told he had set in motion a series of events that had effectively maimed a prized racehorse, O’Donnell said.

“His cavalier attitude about the horse, I think, bothered Steve,” O’Donnell said. “That [Trump] didn’t care, that it was just a piece of flesh … That really disturbed him.”

After Trump reneged, Hyde agreed to buy the horse for $150,000, preserving the relationship with LiButti. A year later, O’Donnell flew down to Ocala with LiButti and Hyde to check in on D.J. Trump. The hoofs had grown back, but the thoroughbred moved gingerly.

Over the years, Trump repeatedly has dismissed O’Donnell’s book as fiction. They haven’t spoken since 1991, O’Donnell said.

No one else directly involved in D.J. Trump’s ordeal is alive, or willing to discuss it. Jerkens died in 2015. Hyde died in an October 1989 helicopter crash in New Jersey, along with two other Trump casino executives.  Hyde’s wife, Donna, did not return calls this week.  O’Donnell said he was not surprised; he had heard she also did not reply to dozens of calls last year from reporters.

LiButti died in 2014, but his name resurfaced last year on the campaign trail. In 1991, New Jersey casino regulators fined Trump Plaza $200,000 for removing black and female employees from tables when LiButti was playing. State casino regulators alleged LiButti “would fly into a rage when losing and make racially and sexually derogatory remarks toward blacks, Jews, Asians and women,” according to a 1992 Associated Press article. State regulators later banned LiButti from all Atlantic City casinos.

LiButti’s significance during the campaign was owed to his reputed mob ties. A Trump casino employee told state regulators LiButti had bragged about working for John Gotti. When asked about LiButti last year, Trump denied knowing him.

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O’Donnell is now a gaming consultant in Arizona, where he follows developments in D.C. warily. People regularly ask him if he’s surprised by the latest news from the White House, O’Donnell said, and he tells them, “No, I’m not.”

According to records maintained by The Jockey Club, a thoroughbred registry, a horse named D.J. Trump was born on March 3, 1986, outside Lexington, Ky. D.J. Trump was indeed the offspring of Raise A Native, records show.

In 1987, LiButti paid $90,000 for D.J. Trump at a Kentucky auction reserved for “the best of the best,” according Eric Mitchell, bloodstock editor at Blood Horse Magazine, who — along with Bob Curran, a vice president of The Jockey Club — reviewed and deciphered horse registry records for The Washington Post.

D.J. Trump never raced, records show, and his owners put him on the stud market in 1989. His stud career was brief and unremarkable; he fathered 15 foals in three years, and none developed into a prizewinner worthy of the horse’s regal bloodline. 

D.J. Trump died in 1991, and records do not list a cause of death. An employee at the Ocala farm where the horse lived said only one employee remains from the late 1980s, and he has no recollection of a horse called D.J. Trump or the events described by O’Donnell.

Whoever was in charge of naming D.J. Trump’s foals, however, apparently had a fascination with Donald Trump. In early 1990, Trump left his first wife, Ivana, for the model Marla Maples, fueling months of feverish coverage by New York City tabloids.

That April in Florida, records show, D.J. Trump fathered a filly. Its name: A Date With Marla.