Rock Hill family dreams of big Kentucky Derby day

Kentucky Derby hopeful Keen Ice is put through a morning workout by jockey Tammy Fox from trainer Dale Romans at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on April 25.
Kentucky Derby hopeful Keen Ice is put through a morning workout by jockey Tammy Fox from trainer Dale Romans at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on April 25. AP

The Kentucky Derby weekend is always big on a national scale, but this year’s race has become big for a local family.

Amanda Gillman, the 15-year-old daughter of Don and Paula Gillman of Rock Hill, is an investor in Donegal Racing of Iowa, which has four horses running in this weekend’s races in Louisville, Ky. Amanda received the investment as a Christmas present several years ago.

Three of the horses are running in the three signature events. It is only the second time in the Derby’s 141-year history that one stable has put three horses in those events.

Puca raced in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday afternoon. Finnegan’s Wake will race on Saturday in the Woodford Reserve, and Keen Ice will cap the weekend by running in the Kentucky Derby.

The group has one other horse – Irish You Well – also running in another race this weekend.

Amanda’s mother, Paula, grew up in Kentucky and developed her interest in horses at an early age.

“My grandfather had a farm,” Paula Gillman said. “I used to go there a lot to ride horses for pleasure. That was my beginning, and I have enjoyed it.”

Amanda is passionate about her love for horses. She rides competitively, usually entering about 10 shows each year. While that is enjoyable, it is not her life’s goal.

“I plan to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming an equine veterinarian on the track,” Amanda said. “Another one of my goals is to win the Kentucky Derby.”

Donegal Racing has come close to winning the Derby in recent years. Paddy O’Prado ran third in 2010 and Dullahan finished third in 2012.

Amanda’s love for horses comes from her mother, who took Amanda to her first Kentucky Derby when she was 3 years old.

“She (Amanda) is much more passionate about it than I am,” added Gillman. “She fell in love with it the first time she went to a race.”

Amanda has some fond memories from her short time in horse racing.

“My favorite moment is walking Irish You Well in the paddock for the Haskell,” she said, referring to an annual race for 3-year-olds at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. “He is very special to me. We have had a special bond since he was a yearling, and I had a chance to ride him. He is the sweetest, kindest racehorse I have ever been around.”

Despite that, she has another horse that is her favorite thus far.

“My favorite horse is Craving Carats,” she added. “He was the first racehorse that I owned and fell in love with.”

Amanda, who along with her mother drove to Louisville this past Sunday, has already been around the racing circuit.

“I have been to Keeneland, Turfway Park, Belmont Park, Saratoga, Monmouth Park, and Santa Anita, in addition to Churchill Downs,” she added. “I would say that so far Keeneland is my favorite due to the irreplaceable memories and experiences that took place there.”

Jerry Crawford, the president of Donegal Racing, could not be reached for comment on this story. Amanda, though, spoke of her admiration for him.

“He changed my life and to this day he continues to amaze me,” she said. “He is the most generous, kind, and hard-working person I have ever known.”

Amanda does more than ride. She is a member of the swimming and track teams at Northwestern High School.

Don Gillman, director of the Applied Technology Center in the Rock Hill school district, appreciates the life lessons his daughter is learning.

“The experiences she has gotten with this are tremendous,” he said. “I have enjoyed watching her grow as she has gained from all of this.”

He also knows that she needs to keep things in perspective as she moves forward.

“She is highly motivated in everything she does,” he added. “She budgets her time to include academics, riding, swimming, and track. I am so very proud of what she has done.”

Paula Gillman summed everything up from in a phone interview from Churchill Downs.

“Getting one horse into any of these races is a dream come true,” she said. “Getting three in the same year is unbelievable. We thought it was possible, but not in our wildest optimistic expectations did we expect this.”

Donegal Racing uses the tagline, “where Derby Dreams come true.”

“That has been the case for us,” added Paula Gillman. “We plan to enjoy every minute of it.”