The 32nd Breeders’ Cup figures to be dominated by men who are well-established at the upper echelon of the training profession. Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Richard Mandella will saddle the leading contenders in the $5 million Classic. Earlier on Saturday’s card at Keeneland, two of the three top race-winning trainers of all time, Steve Asmussen and Jerry Hollendorfer, will be among the participants in the $1.5 million Sprint.
In this company, Maria Borell could hardly be more of an outlier. She has won a total of five races as a trainer. She’s 32 years old. Underscoring the generational divide between her and the racing establishment, she could display (depending on her attire) the most impressive tattoo ever seen at stately Keeneland.
Improbably, Borell will be saddling a starter in the Sprint, the 3-year-old colt Runhappy, who might merit description as the fastest thoroughbred in America. Runhappy made his first impact on big-league racing this summer when he won a stakes at Saratoga, running seven furlongs in 1:20.54 and narrowly missing the track record. (His Beyer Speed Figure of 113 was the best of the year in any sprint.)
Runhappy was dazzling, too, in the Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland, where he broke tardily and trailed several fast rivals after a sixteenth of a mile. He proceeded to accelerate the next eighth of a mile in an astonishing 9.89 seconds to take command of the race. No horse has run such a fast furlong in the Breeders’ Cup since the Trakus timing system was introduced to the event in 2011. Runhappy deserves to be the favorite Saturday when he returns to Keeneland.
Though she has aspired since childhood to be involved in the horse business, Borell could never have dreamed of anything like this.
Growing up in Syracuse, she started riding horses when she was a tot. She recalls watching the 1989 Kentucky Derby on TV with her father, pointing to the screen and exclaiming, “Daddy, I want to do that!” Borell never became a jockey, but she worked as an exercise rider for trainer Barclay Tagg when he was training Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide. She later got a job breaking young horses on a farm and decided that this type of work was going to be her future. She moved to Kentucky and, with her father’s backing, operated Beacon Hill Farm, caring for broodmares and their babies, yearlings and horses recovering from injuries. She trained a few cheap horses, too; in 2013 and 2014, her record was 0 for 22.
It took unusual circumstances — and an unusual owner — to make Borell the trainer of a star racehorse.
James McIngvale plunged into racing on a large scale in the mid-1990s after making his company, Gallery Furniture in Houston, one of the most successful such businesses in the country. No buttoned-down executive, McIngvale believed in exuberant promotion. In television ads he wore a mattress, with holes cut for his head, legs and arms, and screamed maniacally about the bargain prices at his store. Much of Houston knows him as “Mattress Mack.”
McIngvale’s business acumen didn’t carry over to horse racing, largely because his relationships with trainers were always rocky — even with trainers such as Baffert and Nick Zito, both Kentucky Derby winners. “The problem was with me,” McIngvale admits. “I just wanted to try things which were slightly wacky. I wanted to run the horses with no Lasix. I’d like to train them on a farm [instead of the track].” He finally put his horses under the direction his sister-in-law, Laura Wohlers, who is also the customer-service manager at his store. His fortunes at the track did not improve.
McIngvale scaled down his racing operations, but in 2013 he spent $200,000 for a yearling son of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, and wound up getting the best horse he’s ever had. Runhappy showed great precocity as he won one of his first two starts under Wohlers’ management, but he suffered a stress fracture in his leg and needed time to recuperate. Wohlers heard from a friend about Borell and sent Runhappy to her Kentucky farm. McIngvale approved of the choice: “She was young and ambitious, and we were looking for a trainer who would do things our way.”
After Runhappy was back to full strength this past summer, Borell saddled him for two winning starts in the Midwest, and then took him to Saratoga, where he delivered his smashing performance. “It was the best day of my life — it still gives me goosebumps,” the young trainer said. The victory put Borell in the spotlight along with Runhappy, particularly after an area newspaper published a photo showing the tattoo of a racehorse that spans the entire upper portion of her back. It depicts the favorite horse of her childhood, 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence, in full stride.
Runhappy and Borell represent the most charming story of this Breeders’ Cup. McIngvale relishes its feel-good aspects: “Runhappy,” he said, “is better off being where he’s loved, with people who care about him.”
Such a notion, of course, is pure fantasy. Thoroughbred racehorses are better off being in the care of top professionals with extensive knowledge and experience as well as support from the best veterinarians, exercise riders and assistants.
That’s why the same big-name trainers regularly dominate the nation’s major stakes races, and why it is almost unprecedented for a trainer with Borell’s thin resume to win anything as important as a Breeders’ Cup event. History is against her, but she has made no evident mistakes so far, and she does have one important asset. She has the best horse.