But all of that changed Saturday at Batavia Downs where 23-year-old provisional driver concluded the meet at the Western New York track by becoming the first "P" driver in harness racing history to win a track's dash title. And in the end, it wasn't even close.
McDonough took the lead atop the driver standings over the summer and entered the final week of the meet holding a 93 to 84 win advantage over the next closest driver, Ray Fisher. In the final three days of the meet, McDonough won three races Wednesday, another three on Friday, and for just good measure scored a grand slam on the meet's final night putting him over the 100 win mark.
A strong Buffalo meet in the first half of the year that saw McDonough win 71 times from 591 starts gave the young driver a wave of momentum heading into the new meet at Batavia. There, a number of factors played a role in McDonough's record breaking success. McDonough said, "John Cummings left here and that opened spots up. A couple drivers got hurt (Ray Fisher and nearing the end of at Buffalo), and that opened up opportunities. I did well for a number of the trainers and they kept with me."
McDonough credits the Empowered Racing Stable and Resilient Racing Stable as a large part of his success at Batavia. I was working for Empowered Racing Stable with Carl Smith and they put me on the right foot with some power to drive. My own owners, the Resilient Stable, they gave me a great opportunity to train horses and I've done well. In regards to Empowered, "You know, they have great horses and spend a lot of money on horses and bring them to these tracks. I broke the track trotting record this year with their mare Mystical Escapade," said McDonough.
In addition to the smashing record setting performance by Mystical Escapade who would go onto be named Trotter of the Year at Batavia, McDonough also broke a track record with the pacing mare Xenia Hanover by virtue of a blowout eight length win in 1:53. Other horses of note from McDonough are Cactus Jack and Resilient Stable's millionaire trotter, Self Professed. McDonough said that his best of claim of the year was Debs Girloffortune. "I claimed her for $4,000 and she made almost $16,000 just at Batavia for me. I think she missed one check in about twenty starts."
Even with the breakout success at Buffalo, it was hard for McDonough to envision just how much of that would carry over into the Batavia season. "Heading into the meet someone had asked me how many wins I'd get, and I thought maybe 75 or so. I can't explain it but for some reason every year I have better luck at Batavia than I do at Buffalo. Being a provisional driver I didn't know what the opportunities would be like, but a lot of my buddies are good trainers and they all helped to put me on the map pretty good." McDonough continued, "I never thought realistically I would hit the 100 mark; it was just a great year. I'm thankful for my owners, all my family and friends. I've got a good helper too with my girlfriend Ashley Holiday who helps out a lot. We've got a really great team here and everything clicked."
In becoming the first provisional driver to ever win a track dash title, it does beg the question: Why is McDonough still a provisional driver in the first place? By the very definition of what a provisional license essentially is, it's almost inexplicable that McDonough remains under that classification.
Ultimately, it is only the state appointed judges presiding at Buffalo/Batavia that can grant McDonough to a full "A" driver status. But despite the subjective nature at which that determination is made, McDonough has laughably outpaced what the standard minimum requirements are, pursuant to the United States Trotting Association 2014 Bylaws.
There are a number of different ways that minimum requirements can be met, but generally speaking what's required while holding a 'P' license is one year driving experience, plus 25 satisfactory pari-mutuel starts and a win requirement of 5 wins. McDonough has held a 'P' license now for 4 years and in just this single year alone, he has won 174 times with earnings in excess of $900,000.
Searching for an answer, McDonough said "I asked at the beginning of the Batavia meet why I can't yet have an 'A' license and didn't really get an answer, so I told myself that I'm going to have to go out there and try to win a title to show the judges. I'm not sure how it makes them look having a 'P' driver go out there and win a title, but you can't argue with them."
He continued, "They're actually the ones that told me towards the end of the meet that I was going to be the first 'P' driver to win a dash title and break history, I didn't even know that." McDonough added, "I had an opportunity to go to the Meadowlands and drive for Empowered Racing. They asked me to go with them but I wasn't able to (because of the 'P' status). All I can do is be patient and keep it going. Just this year I've had close to 180 wins; I'm not dangerous and haven't caused any accidents - nothing."
The next time we'll see McDonough in action is when Buffalo starts their new season on January 8. Until then, he's giving his horses time off for a little break. As for plans later down the road McDonough says "I'm just being patient. If I have a good year again maybe we'll look at trying Pocono. If I get a couple of my guys to go and get owners like Empowered and Resilient to move their stock we'll see what happens."
In the meanwhile, McDonough will enter 2014 seeking his second consecutive track title in Western New York. Unheard of for a 'provisional' driver.
by, Brett Sturman for The Racing Beard