From hall of fame to City Hall

BY BRAD ROGERS  |  PHOTOGRAPHY BY RALPH DEMILIO

Award-winning horse trainer Bill White finds new kind of challenge as mayor of Dunnellon

Bill White photo by Ralph Demilio

The glass case in the small den in Bill White’s Dunnellon home is crammed with elegant crystal and wood-carved trophies recognizing the 17 individual trainer of the year awards White won during two decades of training race horses at Miami’s legendary trio of tracks, Calder, Gulfstream and Hialeah.

There’s also an 18th trophy. It sits somewhat hidden behind the more ornate awards that propelled White into the Calder Hall of Fame. This award stands out because of its simplicity – it’s homemade, just a board with four horseshoes nailed to it, with the name Satu in the middle. Satu was White’s first winner as a trainer. Yes, No. 18 is White’s favorite because it was No. 1.

“It was a $3,500 maiden claiming race with a $1,500 purse,” White reminisced. “She won by a neck. She went wire to wire. I remember how exhilarated I was.”

That was 1982.

Fast forward almost 40 years and White’s days as one of Florida’s most successful and respected horse trainers are behind him, but he is hardly just sitting on his porch watching the Rainbow River flow by.

No, today White is the mayor of Dunnellon, a remarkable happenstance given that he and his wife of 42 years, Laura, just moved to Dunnellon in 2017.

“I’m really enjoying it,” White said. “It’s something really new, something fresh. Being in a small town, you can really see the changes you affect. And it feels good. You’re not going to satisfy all the people all the time.”

 

From teaching to training

White’s sudden arrival to local politics is not all that different from his sudden arrival to the world of horse racing.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a master’s degree in special education, White went to work teaching elementary special education in Sarasota County. He also coached the high school baseball team, which had gone winless the season before he arrived and won a district championship his final season, and the JV high school football team.

But White had a love for horse racing that had been instilled in him by his grandfather while he was growing up in Southern Illinois. So, he would go on weekends to Tampa Bay Downs to get his horse racing fix. During those visits, he met a Sarasota businessman named Burt Butker, who owned and raced a few horses. They became friends.

One day, Butker called White, then 30, and asked him if he wanted to train his small stable of horses.

“I thought, ‘When am I going to have another shot?’” White said. He took the job, while maintaining his teaching position. In fact, Satu’s win came while he was still teaching – he had called in sick that day.

White soon realized training horses was what he really wanted to do, so he resigned his teaching job of six years in the middle of the school year and went to work managing Butker’s modest stable of horses at Tampa Bay Downs.

Despite Satu’s win, success did not come quickly. White said it took about three years before he began to see measurable success, and after five years with Butker he headed south to Miami, which with three big tracks was the epicenter of horse racing during the winter months. His main barn was at Calder Race Course, although he also raced horses at Gulfstream Park and Hialeah Park.

He admits he had to “learn on the job,” but because most of the horse racing world flocked to Miami during the winters in those days, it exposed him to the best competition, whether it be horses, jockeys or fellow trainers.

“I think being involved in that environment accelerated my success,” he said. “And when you’re having success at that level, you say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Bill White

Making a name for himself

And do this he did. He won his first trainer of the year award – based on a combination of wins and earnings – in 1991 and would go on to win 9 total at Calder, including eight in a row from 1997 to 2004. The others were won at Gulfstream and the Tropical Park Meet at Calder.

The trainer of the year trophies are the only awards on display in the White household, although wife Laura said there are boxes of more awards stored in the attic.

Over the course of his 32-year career, White entered 12,052 horses in races, mostly in Florida. Of those, 2,034 finished first, 1,776 finished second and 1,676 finished third. His total career winnings were $34,839,761.

“He never trained big stakes horses,” said Jan Cubbage, a former jockey and horsewoman who now serves on the Dunnellon City Council with White. “He was known as the claiming horse king in South Florida. Nobody was better at picking a horse out of a race for an owner than Bill White.”

For all his success and recognition, White concedes one of the few regrets he has about his award-winning career is that he never got to train a big-name horse to its greatest glory. Oh, he trained such champions Mucho Macho Man, Little Mike and Not Surprising, but never got to train them for their biggest races.

“I trained some big-time horses,” White said. “I guess my regret is I never got to ride the wave with them.”

While White spent the majority of his horse training career in South Florida, it was an Ocala connection that both elevated his stature in the business and introduced him to Marion County.

“My first big break was when Fred Hooper called me,” he said, referring to the legendary Marion County horseman who owned the 1,100-acre Circle H Farm. Hooper, who is a fellow member of the Calder Hall of Fame with White, not only owned 1945 Kentucky Derby winner Hoop Jr., but also more than 100 stakes winners and is generally credited with bringing jockeys from Latin America to the United States. Familiar names like Laffit Pincay Jr., Braulio Baeza and Jorge Velasquez all got their starts with Hooper.

Hooper’s widow and partner, Wanda Hooper Quigley, remains in contact with White.

“Fred liked young trainers who were coming along, and Bill was doing good,” she said. “Fred liked his operation, plus he had integrity. Bill knew his horses. He knew what was good for them and what wasn’t. He could bring the best out of them – and he didn’t use much medication.

“Whatever Bill White was given, he developed. He could really bring out the best in a horse.”

White also trained horses, for other prominent Florida owners, including John Franks, Georgia Hofmann, Eugene and Laura Melnyk, the Steinbrenner family and Live Oak Plantation.

 

Luck is just part of it

While White had a gift for horses, he is quick to point out being successful in horse racing takes more than a good eye or a hunch.

“A trainer is ultimately responsible for everything and anything that happens to his horse,” he said. “It’s seven days a week, 24 hours a day. So, the passion for the game and the responsibilities make it a lifestyle.”

“Then it’s a combination of having the talent, having the desire, plus you need a little luck.”

After retiring from horse racing in 2014, White served as president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents 5,000 Florida owners and trainers, crisscrossing the state and lobbying the legislature in an effort to boost purses and save horse racing in Florida. It worked.

Today, White is removed from horse racing, saying he hasn’t been to a track since he moved to Dunnellon four years ago. But he still observes and laments the changes in horse racing since he first got into it.

“From the time I got in racing until now, it’s almost unrecognizable,” he said. “And what I mean by that is the number of people you race in front of. When I started the grandstands would be full. Now, race tracks are like an empty bus station.”

Beyond the lack of crowds, White believes criticism from animal rights activists has hurt the sport’s image.

“What horse racing deals with now is any animal used for entertainment draws a lot of criticism,” he said. “It is now being looked at as something that is cruel to animals. So, the public perception of horse racing isn’t as positive as it used to be.”

That said, White misses the “thrill of bringing your horse from basic light training to the winner’s circle.”

There’s a part of it he doesn’t miss, as well.

“Even if you’re a highly successful trainer and win 20 percent of your races, you’re living in a mentality where most of the time you’re losing.” For the record, White won 17 percent of his races, although he finished in the money – first, second or third – 29 percent of the time.

Cubbage, the ex-jockey and now Dunnellon city councilwoman, put White’s career into perspective:

“How big was Bill White? Well, every time you picked up a program, Bill White was all over it.”

After years of visiting Marion County to meet with horse owners and attend Ocala Breeders’ Sales, he bought land in Dunnellon. It would be where White and wife Laura – they met in high school as co-workers in a grocery store – would settle, on the banks of the Rainbow River.

Once a resident, White began attending Dunnellon City Council meetings. He didn’t like what he saw and decided to run for an open council seat. He won, running unopposed.

The city was grappling with potentially devastating financial problems – it was on the verge of bankruptcy – and there was discord among council members and between the council and the community.

White decided he wanted to take on a bigger role, so in 2020 he decided to challenge incumbent Mayor Dale Burns. The two had clashed repeatedly over fiscal matters. “Often, the mayor and I didn’t see the world through similar lenses,” as White now puts it.

He had to resign his council seat to run for the $150-a-month mayor’s post.

Some heavyweight political names in town, namely former Congresswoman Karen Thurman – herself a former mayor of Dunnellon – and longtime state legislator Dennis Jones, lent their expertise and support to White.

Thurman said White recognized that the council was dysfunctional and not responsive to the citizens’ needs. While campaigning, he knocked on almost every door in town… three times.

“He listened to people,” she said. “He really sat down and tried to listen to people.”

The result of the campaign was a 10-percentge point victory over Burns, 560-463.

Not unlike horse training, the mayor’s job requires commitment, desire and a little luck.
To get out of financial trouble, the city sold its utility. Not only that, while growth has exploded around Dunnellon, White said the city itself has not grown over the past decade. With no revenue generator and no growth, tax revenues are stagnant. White is looking for solutions.

“Dunnellon has fought through (its near-bankruptcy) and only has $2 million in debt,” he said, assessing the state of the city.

For now, the city is solvent “and paying the bills.” But because of the depth of its recent fiscal problems, White said the city has neglected its infrastructure to where it is a problem, and a huge financial challenge.

Moreover, the current citizenry is passionate about protecting the rivers and Dunnellon’s small town charm, making it difficult to bring in significant growth.

Some people have suggested letting Dunnellon become part of the county and dissolving the municipality. The idea has been a non-starter.

“You get pushback to that because we love home rule,” White said. Also, “They like the quaintness. They like the rivers. They like the Old Florida feel.”

For now, White said his strategy is to make the council more citizen-friendly and more responsible to the public. He also believes the city has to be more aggressive in seeking state and federal grants, whether they are for environmental protection, infrastructure improvements or social initiatives. Regardless, White said the city’s $4 million tax base is insufficient to meet the city’s needs. He believes a more engaged City Council is essential to meeting the challenge.

“I’m trying to change the culture,” the mayor said. “I want this council to be an open council, a welcoming council. We want you to come to us.”

A big change that occurred this year was the elimination of the city administrator’s position. The council turned some of those responsibilities over to the city clerk and took some on themselves.

“The City Council, which delegated much of its authority to the city administrator, has taken back that authority. So now, we have a strong city council form of government,” the mayor said.

White, however, knows that addressing all of Dunnellon’s problems, like training a horse to win, will take time and slow-but-steady development.

For Thurman, he is on the right track.

“I give Bill credit for recognizing the direction the Council was going,” she said. “He is what a small city mayor should be. He’s very visible, and I appreciate that. He’s very old school.”

Bill White with wife Laura photo by Ralph Demilio

 

Where is horse racing?

As for the future of horse racing, White believes it will continue but will be different.

“Yes, horse racing will survive,” he said. “But, what mostly will be left will be the big tracks. You just see a contraction of the game, the closing of the smaller tracks, so all that’s left will be places like Gulfstream and New York.”

Marion County, in turn, will continue to thrive as the Horse Capital of the World, too – but not just because of racing horses.

“The Ocala area is being discovered by the show horse world, with the World Equestrian Center. That is going to pay big dividends.”

White’s love for horse racing is palpable when he talks about it, and he gets sentimental when he talks about his years as one of Florida’s premier horse trainers.

“It’s numbing now that I look back on it; it’s a blur” he said. “I have to pinch myself and ask, did it really happen?”  

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