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Arrangements For Mary Lou Dondarski

Published: November 9, 2018 4:55 pm ET

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On Thursday, November 8, Mary Lou Dondarski, 74, of Jackson, New Jersey, passed away at Centrastate Hospital in Freehold after a brief illness.

A native of New Jersey, Dondarski was an accomplished artist, a skilled racing operations manager, and a creative force dedicated to preserving and enhancing harness racing history.

Her friends and family are invited to join in a memorial celebration of her life on December 8, from 1-4 p.m. at the American Hotel, 18 E Main St, Freehold, NJ 07728.

Without her contributions over the past 30 years, the Dan Patch Museum in Savage, Minnesota, the Round Barn/Stable of Memories in Lexington, Kentucky, the Greyhound exhibit at the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, New York, and the offices of the Hambletonian Society would be lacking in their scope and depth of harness racing history.

Dondarski began her career in harness racing when she transitioned from a local insurance office to the stable, working as a groom for entrepreneur and horse owner Bill Brooks and the Benny Webster Stable. She cared for open pacer Afella Rainbow (p, 4, 1:55.4M, $323,860) among many others in the late ‘70s.

She then returned ‘frontside,’ working in the race office at Freehold Raceway, at Los Alamitos Racecourse and at the Daily Racing Form before being hired at the Hambletonian Society in New Jersey in 1993, where she remained until her passing. She was also the assistant race secretary for the NJ Sire Stakes Fair program when New Jersey-breds had a flourishing state-bred program.

Though she started as an accounts payable manager, there was very little that she didn’t help expedite or execute at the society, from stakes payments to sponsorships. She was a detailed and thorough financial manager, but what she loved the most and was perhaps best recognized for was her tremendous creativity.

“I know it’s said that nobody is irreplaceable,” said Tom Charters, former president of the Hambletonian Society. “But the precision, talent and imagination that Mary Lou brought to the society over the past 25 years may be just that – irreplaceable. She never failed to surprise us and we will miss her dearly.”

One of her most popular projects was the Hambletonian buttons, which she started designing in 1998. Months before the race she took the list of Hambo eligibles and pored over clip art and illustrations to create buttons specific to each horse that might enter the race. They were an instant tradition, and can be seen in every Hambletonian winner circle photo through 2018, adorning owners and fans lapel pins.

An accomplished equine artist, Dondarski’s portraits were highly sought after, and grace the walls of racetracks and homes of Hall of Famers as well as those who were simply fans of her portraits of champion Standardbreds, favourite racehorses, pets and glimpses of all facets of racetrack life.

She was also an expert and dogged collector that spent weekends scouring flea markets and auctions for memorabilia, and when a fledgling site for collectors called was created, Dondarski quickly had the internet at her mercy. Once she set her sights on a genre, harness racing postcards, or advertising, or cigar box labels, buttons, or matchbooks, she would soon have a museum-quality collection.

Legendary Hall of Fame horses Dan Patch and Greyhound were her favourites, and her beautifully decorated office at the Hambletonian Society resembled a mini-museum of two of the most famous harness horses in history.

Dondarski was a seemingly endless source of unique donations and often offered her own paintings for every charity auction, horse rescue group, museum event, fundraiser, retirement ceremony or any important event that followed her life’s work of supporting harness racing or marking harness racing’s historical importance.

For her selfless and benevolent efforts, she was recognized by the U.S. Harness Writers in 2006 with the sport’s LeeAnne Pooler Memorial Unsung Hero award; in 2013 with a President’s Award for support of the organization; and again as one of only 50 honourary USHWA members inducted since the organization was started in 1947, which is an honour that comprises 20 Hall of Famers past and present such as John Campbell, Delvin Miller, E. Roland Harriman and George Morton Levy.

Despite failing health that made everyday tasks difficult, Dondarski spent her last weeks assembling and shipping a large collection of memorabilia and art to the Round Barn in Lexington, KY, for their Fall Stable of Memories fundraiser. She cherished her vacations in Lexington, and felt a personal responsibility to preserve the legacy and history of the Round Barn.

She is survived by sons Anthony Dias, (and granddaughters Morgan, Jessica and Courtney Dias), Raymond Dias (and grandsons Quentin and Jake) and William ‘BJ’ Richards and was preceded in death by her son Kevin Dias. Mary Lou will be sorely missed by her family, many friends and large network of passionate and like-minded collectors.

Dondarski did not like the limelight and never sought credit or attention for her many, many acts of kindness and benevolence. Nonetheless, her harness racing family is determined to honour her memory with sadness but mostly joy for having known her.

Please join us at the American Hotel in Freehold, NJ on Saturday, December 8 from 1-4:00 p.m. All those who knew her, or were the recipient of her unending largesse, or simply appreciate harness racing history, are welcome to attend.

Donations can be made to her favourite causes:

Stable of Memories
PO Box 11073
Lexington KY 40512-1073

Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame
240 Main Street
Goshen, NY 10924

Please join Standardbred Canada in offering condolences to the family and friends of Mary Lou Dondarski.

(Hambletonian Society)

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