Memorial Services Set for Don Matlock
The life of the longtime Los Alamitos starter will be honored at the track on December 10.
December 4, 2015
The life of starter Don Matlock will be celebrated in a special memorial service to be held in the Finish Line Room at Los Alamitos Race Course on Thursday, December 10.
The memorial service will be held at approximately 4:30 p.m., following the conclusion of the track’s daytime Thoroughbred program. Matlock, 81, passed away earlier this month, but he will forever be remember as one of the all-time great starters at Los Alamitos.
Matlock was a fixture in racing for more than 50 years and worked in the starting gate crews at all major racetracks. He was the starter at both Los Alamitos and Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico from 1986-96, and he continued to work as the starter at Los Alamitos until 2000.
Born in Pampa, Texas, in 1934, Matlock found himself riding in match races at the age of 12. He won a couple of races for a wealthy woman, who impressed by the young boy’s horsemanship took him in as her own.
“My dad grew up around some great horsemen because of this,” said his son, Donnie Matlock. “He met people Blondie Myers and Cecil Bacon and would also meet the great Farrell Jones. These were all great horsemen. My dad was just a child, but he learned from some of the best.”
Matlock outgrew the profession of riding in his late teens and eventually moved to Nebraska to work in the starting gate crew at Ak-Sar-Ben in 1954 and that’s where he met his wife, Connie. The couple married and later moved to California along with other members of his immediate family in 1957.
It didn’t take long for Matlock to find work with the crew at Santa Anita. Matlock would also help with the young horses at Buddy Johnston’s Old English Rancho, worked at the fairs in Northern California, and made his way to Los Alamitos Race Course.
“Los Alamitos was still in its infancy when my dad came,” Donnie added. “He worked for Frank Vessels Sr., and he would tell us how Mr. Vessels would let him take a full tank of gasoline to help him out. Mr. Vessels was really nice to my dad. My dad was always in the starting gate crew dating back to 1957.”
R.D. Hubbard and Ed Allred hired Matlock to lead the starting gate crew at Ruidoso Downs in the mid-1980s.
“My dad helped put a crew together,” Donnie said. “He was tough, but he was fair.”
Matlock was highly respected among his peers and worked with both current Los Alamitos starter Gary Brinson and with Del Mar and Santa Anita starter Jay Slender.
“Don was a great guy and an excellent horseman,” Brinson said. “I met him in 1973 and we were friends ever since. He knew how to deal with a bad gate horse and how to deal with them and helped them improve and knew how to deal with trainers.
“Don got along great with Bobby Frankel,” he added. “He helped me get the job as starter at Hollywood Park in 1984. He talked to all the trainers about me. He talked to Charlie Whittingham on my behalf, as well as to people like Laffit Pincay, Jr and Chris McCarron. Don was my head assistant starter at Hollywood Park.”
“My dad helped a lot of people move ahead in their careers,” Donnie added. “He had a gift of pointing you in the right direction. I remember the late Quarter Horse trainer Calvin Mims would say that when my dad helped him take horses through the gate in the mornings that that’s when he started winning races.
“My dad never steered me wrong,” Donnie said. “He never told you how to do something. He would say. ‘A brilliant person would do it like this and an idiot would do it like this. It’ll be interesting to see how you decide to do this.’ I knew exactly what he meant, but he always gave me a choice. He was a great dad.”
Matlock owned and raced horses and was ever present in many racing functions. He is survived by his ex-wife Connie and their sons, Donnie and Charlie, and daughters, Cynthia and Kimberly. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Patty.
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