If there is one element of Thoroughbred racing that has always held true it is that the tides of fortune change very quickly. It is the one sport where you can idolize a Babe Ruth as a fan one day and strike him out with the bases loaded the next. Only here can two worlds intermingle, no matter how divergent they may be. Only here can a 32-year-old female trainer who did not win a single race in her first two years of training win a grade I stakes at Saratoga in only her third year, defeating the likes of Todd Pletcher, Wayne Lukas, Kiaran McLaughlin, Steve Asmussen, and Chad Brown.
In the world of training, some horsemen take years of struggling before elevating themselves into elite company, most never make it at all, while others latch onto that special horse at a young age and are allowed to show off their talents on the sport’s biggest stages.
Maria Borell’s world and her ambitions have been fueled by her love of horses since the age of 6. Unlike many other young trainers, she was able to cram her struggles and disappointments into a brief window of time and virtually overnight has found herself going from training three of her own horses and never having won a race to training the top 3-year-old sprinter in the country and one of the favorites for the upcoming Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
The instant love affair between Borell and James McIingvale’s Runhappy is becoming well-known in the Thoroughbred industry, thanks in part to the colt’s remarkable speed and class and Borell’s infectious and warm personality. One of the most precious photos online is of Runhappy sprawled out in his stall asleep, with Borell curled up next to him with her head resting on his neck. Another shot of them lying together head to head shows RunHappy’s head cradled in her arm, with her head resting against his.
So, just how did this extraordinary story evolve? How did this son of Super Saver come off allowance victories at Indiana Grand and Ellis Park to run away with the grade I King’s Bishop Stakes at Saratoga in a blazing 1:20 2/5 for seven furlongs at odds of 11-1 and then follow that up by beating top-class older horses in the grade III Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland, despite breaking poorly from the rail and rushing up in :21 2/5 for the opening quarter, which would have killed off most horses? Behind him in that race was last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Work All Week.
And how did a 32-year-old unknown trainer with only three horses come to train this remarkable horse?
The story began in 1989 when 6-year-old Maria Borell was watching Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby on TV with her father at their home in Syracuse, N.Y.
“My dad was always into horses as a bettor and that’s how I actually got into horse racing, watching the 1989 Derby with him,” Borell said. “That’s when he first got me riding lessons. I grew up riding hunter-jumpers, and basically right out of high school I made the transition to galloping Thoroughbreds. I galloped for a couple of years at Belmont and Saratoga and broke some babies down in Ocala.”
Shortly after becoming enamored with horses, Borell began watching the TV show “Inside Racing” with Harvey Pack, and took a liking to a filly named Miss Josh, who won 14 of 29 career starts for trainer Barclay Tagg, including the grade I Gamely Handicap and six other stakes.
When she decided to go to the track and begin galloping, the trainer she wanted to work for was Tagg, so she kept writing him letters. He finally wrote back and told her if she could get to Saratoga by a certain date he’d help her out and give her a shot.
“I was pretty frantic and had nowhere to stay, and I went on the NYRA message board and asked if anyone had a room for rent up in Saratoga,” Borell recalled. “John DaSilva (handicapper and writer for the New York Post) answered and I wound up renting one of his rooms for two summers.”
When it was time to move on, Borell became an assistant trainer and worked for a little while as a veterinary technician. But things didn’t work out as she had hoped. The trainer she worked for was “kicked out” of New York, after which she received an offer to train privately for a New York-based owner. That job didn’t work out any better.
“By the time I got the horses ready to go was when the economy crashed and he sold everything,” Borell said. “I was pretty frustrated. I just got up and moved to Kentucky, and didn’t really have a plan. It would take me another four or five years to get horses to train.
“When I moved to Kentucky I thought I could find a decent job, but that was not the case. I learned very quickly that if they don’t know you down here then you pretty much have no shot to get into a good outfit. I probably should have stayed in New York. I figured if no one is going to give me horses to train I’m going to breed my own. In the beginning I opened up a little foaling, broodmare breeding farm. I was friends with the people who owned Stonewall Farm and they said if I opened a little farm they would send me some mares to foal out. It helped that I had been an equine vet tech.”
Borell built up her operation to where she had 60 to 70 horses on the farm, including a few horses she owned, yearlings, layups, and broodmares. She still maintains the farm, but is down to about 40 horses
“I’m trying to get out of the breeding business, now that the training has picked up,” she said. “I have a farm manager and a couple of people who work for me, and my dad is retired and he comes down a lot to help out when I have to go out of town. Dad kind of learned along with me as I grew up with horses. He’s not very good with medical stuff, but he knows if a horse isn’t acting right or if they’re not eating or lying down. The biggest thing for him is managing the workers and making sure they’re doing their job.”
Borell was training only three of her own horses, and in two years of training was winless in 22 starts, with only three seconds and a third. The first year, in 2013, six of her nine starts were in claiming races, with her horses earning just over $7,000. The following year she was 0-for-13, but ran in only two claiming races, and most of her starts were at a mile or longer. That year, she upped her earnings slightly to $10,575.
In the early spring of this year, Borell was contacted by Laura Wohlers, racing manager and trainer for Jim McIngvale, owner of the Gallery Furniture retail chain in Houston, Texas. McIngvale, known as Mattress Mac from his numerous ads and TV commercials, has owned horses for decades, using such illustrious trainers as Nick Zito, Bob Baffert, and Jack Van Berg. Baffert nearly got him to the Kentucky Derby with a leading contender in 2004 when Wimbledon captured the Louisiana Derby in impressive fashion, but the colt was injured in a workout a week before the race, which sidelined him for over a year.
“Laura told me someone had recommended me as trainer and she flew up and met with me and we got a long along pretty well,” Borell said.
All their horses were in Louisiana at the time, except one 3-year-old colt named Runhappy, who was at a layup farm in Kentucky, recovering from an injury suffered in the LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds, in only his second career start.
McIngvale had paid $200,000 for the colt at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
“Laura picked him out at the sale,” McIngvale said. “She loved the horse and camped out and watched him for two or three days, and what impressed her was what a good mind he has. We extended our budget quite a bit and she was thrilled when we bought him. He’s turned out to be the real deal.”
So, just like that, Borell had herself a high-profile job training good horses, but she had no idea just what was waiting for her. Runhappy had made his first two career starts with Wohlers listed as trainer, winning his debut at Turfway Park by 8 1/4 lengths before going right into the LeComte.
“When they decided to bring the horses up from Louisiana I guess they just decided they needed a set of eyes and hands that were physically here,” Borell said. “Laura had asked around and someone recommended me. I didn’t have a great training record, only a couple of seconds, but my horses always looked the part. And the person who recommended me knew I was hard worker. Laura knew him because they had horses who had raced against each other.
“They gave me the names of the horses they had and I looked them all up. I had seen Runhappy’s name and it was basically, ‘OK what do I have to do?’ Laura said he had a lot of talent but was still very green and had a lot to learn. After he came out of the LeComte with an injury they laid him up in January and I took over the training in the beginning of April. We brought him to Dr. (Larry) Bramlage and he told us when he was ready to start jogging again. He was doing very well and his X-rays were totally clean. When we got him back we felt we’d be lucky to get him to the races by August, because we thought it would take so much longer, but he healed so quickly.”
It didn’t take Borell long to realize she had something special on her hands; certainly something way beyond anything she had trained before.
“The first time I breezed him (at the Kentucky Training Center in Lexington) I had the biggest grin across my face,” she said. “I was telling everyone this horse will be in the Breeders’ Cup and they thought I was crazy. He’s such a special horse. The thing about him is his turn of foot; he really extends his stride. We measured his stride during a breeze and it was 25 feet, and that’s not even in a race. I knew he was special and kept telling everyone I had THE horse in the barn.
Borell found a good spot for him in an allowance/optional claimer at Indiana Grand on July 7, which came up muddy. The word obviously was out on him and he went off as the 9-5 favorite under apprentice rider Erin Walker.
“Everyone at the training center saw him breeze so there was no hiding it,” she said. “All those :57 works out of the gate. That’s with no one pressing on him and with us trying to slow him down. I knew there was no way I could hide him and get a price on him. I figured that first race would be a big confidence builder, but it drew a pretty tough field. It was a perfect race for him. He was probably 85 percent fit and I figured this would be a lighter race for him and give the perfect amount of time to come back in an Ellis Park allowance/optional claimer (on July 31).”
Neither raced proved much of a test for Runhappy, who won by five lengths at Indiana, and by 2 3/4 lengths at Ellis after blazing a half in :44 flat and finishing up his 6 1/2 furlongs in a sharp 1:15 flat, equaling the track record.
So confident was Borell in Runhappy, she decided to jump him way up in class and tackle the best 3-year-old sprinters in the country in the grade I King’s Bishop Stakes on Travers day. Joining him was another Kentucky-based colt named Limousine Liberal who had made his last start at Ellis Park, winning a six-furlong allowance race in a sizzling 1:07 4/5.
“We went to Saratoga with Limousine Liberal and everyone started calling us pea patch jumpers,” said Borell, in reference to Ellis Park, which used to grow soybeans in the infield, hence its nickname. “I told everyone, ‘You wait and see. I’m telling you my horse horse is very serious and Limousine Liberal is the real deal.’ I had seen him breeze at Keeneland and I knew he was also a serious horse.”
Sent off at 11-1, Runhappy, with Edgar Prado replacing Walker, ran his 10 opponents off their feet with a :44 2/5 half and kept pouring it on, winning by four lengths in a near-record 1:20 2/5, with Limousine Liberal completing the Ellis Park exacta.
“The Kings Bishop actually played out exactly how I thought it would play out, as far as the top three finishers,” Borell said. I thought Limousine Liberal was the only horse who was fast enough to stay with us. Of course, up to that point we had only seen half of what Happy could do. He blew me away. It still gives me goosebumps to watch that race. When I saw those fractions I wondered if he’d have anything left, but at the top of the stretch when he responded like that it was pretty amazing.”
Facing top-class older sprinters in the Phoenix Stakes, Runhappy broke slowly from the rail and had his saddle slip, both recipes for disaster. To add to that, he rushed up and scorched his opening quarter in a suicidal :21 2/5 and then a half in :44 4/5, but amazingly kept on going, winning by 1 3/4 lengths, this time as the 7-5 favorite. Behind him were last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Work All Week, this year’s grade II Amsterdam winner Holy Boss, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint third-place finisher Gentlemen’s Bet, and last year’s King’s Bishop runner-up Fast Anna.
Borell’s dad has attended all of Runhappy’s races, and her mom is excited to see her daughter’s success. Borell was thrilled to have her aunt and uncle in attendance at the Phoenix, coming down from New York. Now, she just has to find a way to get Breeders’ Cup seats for everyone, including her three sisters if they all are able to come. Of course, her seat will be available, because she plans on spending the entire day at the barn with Runhappy, who will not van over to Keeneland until the Wednesday before the race.
The Breeders’ Cup Sprint was shaping up as a showdown between Runhappy, the brilliant and classy Private Zone, and the fast and tenacious Rock Fall, coming off a hard-fought victory in the Vosburgh Stakes. Tragically, Rock Fall broke down following a breeze at Keeneland and had to be euthanized.
“I literally got tears in my eyes,” Borell said. “I had just finished doing a radio show with Laura and someone told us and we both teared up. I wanted to face him. It’s just terrible. He was a very good horse, and like Runhappy, he loved to run. And horses like that will run through it because they’re doing what they love to do.”
As the Breeders’ Cup nears, Wohlers stays in close touch with Borell and Runhappy.
“She’s been in town a lot since the King’s Bishop and I talk to her daily,” Borell said. “I am just so grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me. I’m lucky they entrusted me with the horse and didn’t yank him after the Kings Bishop. I think everyone thought they were going to.”
Borell is already looking forward to next year when she hopes to stretch Runhappy out to longer distances.
“I think he can be a brilliant miler,” she said. “A lot of those three-quarters gallop-outs have been in around 1:35 1/5 for the mile under a hold, so that will be the 4-year-old plan; to stretch him out to a mile.”
It’s been an unusual journey for Borell, who has had success thrust upon her and has handled it like a seasoned veteran, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“She’s doing extremely well and we’re very proud of her,” McIngvale said. “She and my sister-in-law Laura, (groom) Cordell Anderson, (exercise rider) Omar Torres, and Edgar Prado have done a great job. It’s been a team effort. Cordell holds the yearlings in the ring at the Keeneland sales; he’s the one you see holding those big-bucks yearlings. Omar did a great job calming him down after we moved to Kentucky.
“Horse racing teaches perseverance. That’s a trait we all need, and I got a double dose of it. I’ve learned from all the trainers along the way. They’ve all been great. I’m a bit flakey, but we’re happy with where we’re at and we’ll keep going with what we’ve got. We wanted to train our horses on hay, oats, and water only and train them hard, and we couldn’t find anyone that fits that bill and would do what we told them. Laura interviewed Maria and they hit it off.
“The whole objective is to keep Runhappy happy, and as long as he’s happy he’ll do well. It s been quite a ride and Maria’s done a wonderful job.”
Now it’s on to the Breeders’ Cup, and no matter what happens it’s been a dream come true for Borell. And you can bet there will be many more dreams in her future. Like all those who fall in love with horses at an early age, she will, in many ways, always be that 6-year-old girl, and that’s something you never want to lose.
Photo: Maria Borell
Maria Borell and Runhappy
Maria Borell leads in Runhappy at Saratoga with Cordell Anderson and Omar Torres.
Photo: Maria Borell
Maria Borell relaxes with Runhappy.