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 horseâs casino magnate owner made an ill-informed, impatient decision that nearly killed the horse, ultimately costing the thoroughbred its front hoofs.
As Saturdayâs Preakness Stakes brings championship thoroughbred racing back to a region transfixed by the Trump Administration, itâs worth revisiting the disputed tale of Trumpâs 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 OâDonnell. Trump previously has dismissed the story as âtotally unsubstantiated and falseâ and derided OâDonnell as a âdisgruntled former employee.â Trump Organization and White House press staffers did not reply to requests to comment this week.
In a recent phone interview, OâDonnell 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. Trumpâs short life that comport with aspects of OâDonnellâs recollection. Â Â
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 OâDonnell, a big-spending customer of Trumpâs 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 OâDonnell. 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. Alibiâs father was Raise A Native, whom the New York Times called âthe most influential sire of American thoroughbred stallions over the last 20 yearsâ in his 1988 obituary. Among Raise A Nativeâs 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.Â
Stephen Hyde, Trump casinos CEO, immediately saw the potential benefits to a deal withÂ LiButti, who lost an estimated $11 million at Trump casinos from 1986 to 1989, according to the Wall Street Journal.
âHyde schemed it as a great investment,â OâDonnell said in a recent interview. âItâd be good publicity and an opportunity to reward a high-roller and good customer they wanted to keep happy.â
The handshake deal was struck in the skies over New Jersey, in Trumpâs black Super Puma helicopter, in a scene OâDonnell described in his book, âTrumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump â His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall.â Â
LiButti brought photographs of Alibi, which OâDonnell described as âa luxurious chestnut brown, with a shimmering coat and a princely bearing.â Â
âItâs a great horse, Donald, a champion,â LiButti said. âHeâs gonna be another Secretariat.â
Trump reviewed the photographs, nonchalantly, before agreeing to buy the horse. There was one requirement, though: a name change. Alibi became D.J. Trump. Â Â
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 hadnât paid. LiButti involved lawyers, and angry letters were exchanged, according to OâDonnell. 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. Â
A few days before D.J. Trump was due to head north, according to OâDonnell, a virus ripped through the horse farm. D.J. Trump didnât 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, OâDonnell wrote. He wanted his horse racing, up north, with no delays. Hyde, the casino executive, relayed the order reluctantly: âHe wants the horse to work.â
D.J. Trumpâs last workout in Ocala was, in Trump parlance, a total disaster. A few hours after running, the horseâs 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 horseâs 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, OâDonnell wrote.
Trump, however, was unmoved. And, conveniently, he hadnât cut that $250,000 check yet. When informed of D.J. Trumpâs sudden illness, and surgery, Trump told his top executive Hyde he had decided to back out of the deal. Hyde was furious, OâDonnell said. Enraging LiButti was a horrible business decision, as it would send him gambling elsewhere.
Hyde also seemed troubled by Trumpâs lack of remorse when told he had set in motion a series of events that had effectively maimed a prized racehorse, OâDonnell said.
âHis cavalier attitude about the horse, I think, bothered Steve,â OâDonnell said. âThat [Trump] didnât care, that it was just a piece of flesh â¦ That really disturbed him.â
After Trump reneged, Hyde agreed to buy the horse for $150,000, preserving the relationship with LiButti. A year later, OâDonnell 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 OâDonnellâs book as fiction. They havenât spoken since 1991, OâDonnell said.
No one else directly involved in D.J. Trumpâs 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. Â Hydeâs wife, Donna, did not return calls this week. Â OâDonnell 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 âwould fly into a rage when losing and make racially and sexually derogatory remarks toward blacks, Jews, Asians and women,â according to a 1992 Associated Press article. State regulators later banned LiButti from all Atlantic City casinos.
LiButtiâs 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.
OâDonnell is now a gaming consultant in Arizona, where he follows developments in D.C. warily. People regularly ask him if heâs surprised by the latest news from the White House, OâDonnell said, and he tells them, âNo, Iâm not.â
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 âthe best of the best,â according Eric Mitchell, bloodstock editor at Blood Horse Magazine, who â along withÂ Bob Curran, a vice president of The Jockey Club â reviewed andÂ 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 horseâs regal bloodline.Â
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 OâDonnell.
Whoever was in charge of naming D.J. Trumpâs 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. Â