08/10/2016 10:10AM

Bergman: Marion Marauder wins in a game of inches

Nikki Sherman
Paula Wellwood walks Marion Marauder back to the winner’s circle after his Hambletonian victory.

It’s a game of inches. At least it was that way this past Saturday, as the results of the $1 million Hambletonian were decided by a photo showing that only a nose (a few inches) separated two horses. The results say that Marion Marauder gets the title. Southwind Frank doesn’t go away empty handed, but no matter how you slice it, trainers, owners, drivers and most definitely those wagering on the product want to win.

The inches that separated the two at the wire might have gone the other way had Southwind Frank not made a bobble on the final turn necessitating driver Yannick Gingras to take a quick hold and lose some ground. It was precisely at that moment when driver Scott Zeron accelerated with the race winner and opened the ground he would need to win his first Hambo and give the Wellwood family its long overdue title.

It turns out I was not as confident in Zeron getting the job done on the biggest stage as the 27-year-old driver was. Without a doubt Zeron drove the horse magnificently in both elimination and final, and that type of resolve can only come from having supreme confidence in the son of Muscle Hill.

“I think Scotty was more confident than I was,” said Paula Wellwood following the race.

Truth is before Marion Marauder made his first start as a sophomore, Zeron was enthusiastic about having a Hambletonian horse.

That the Wellwoods finally got over the hump with the second generation daughter of the late, and yes great Canadian horseman Bill Wellwood, was more than fitting. The real surprise is just how Scott Zeron became the driver.

“John (Campbell) drove the horse last year for us and did a great job,” said Wellwood. “But then he had a conflict and elected to drive a colt for Bob McIntosh. At that point we turned to Scotty.”

Clearly there is more to this success story than a change of drivers.

“He just couldn’t beat Southwind Frank last year,” said Wellwood. “He’s definitely grown up a bit and matured.”

What Wellwood has done along the path to the Hambletonian is quite remarkable, but she made a calculated decision seven days prior to the race that may have shown the wisdom of a trainer that perhaps should have won this race before.

“He was in to qualify against Pinkman and Rose Run Parker,” said Wellwood. “I didn’t want him to go against older horses. So we trained him a good trip instead.”

Last year Marion Marauder couldn’t find the winner’s circle, but this year with each start and each win his confidence and that of his driver kept on growing. That Wellwood was keenly aware of keeping the spirits of her horse at a peak and not having him chase down horses of that caliber speaks volumes.

While many standardbred trainers are second and third generation, it is always fascinating how these families look deeply into the standardbred pedigrees to come up with a horse.

“My dad loved this family,” said Wellwood. “Remember Sooner Hanover?”

Sooner Hanover was the first foal from the mare Sounds Swell. He was by Balanced Image and the senior Wellwood purchased him as a yearling in 1998. Patience was something Mr. Wellwood had and it took until midway through his 3-year-old season before Sooner Hanover showed up. He lacked the experience to race in the Hambletonian but by the fall the horse was more than competitive, actually finishing second behind Hambletonian winner Yankee Paco in a division of the Simcoe.

The second foal of Sounds Swell was the $962K winning Spellbound Hanover, the dam of Marion Marauder. “She was too expensive but we’ve been chasing this family ever since,” said Paula Wellwood.

Ironically Wellwood and company were somewhat shocked when they landed Marion Marauder, then known as Marion Monopoly, for $37,000 at the 2014 Lexington Selected Sale.

Though it was the tenth foal from Spellbound Hanover, Wellwood’s memory was long. “He was the first horse from the mare by the Muscles Yankee line,” Wellwood said. “He was a bit small but I was really surprised and happy when the bidding stopped.”

Now a $1 million winner and the first Hambletonian winner for the family, Marion Marauder will return to race in the Colonial next at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono on August 20 and then perhaps look for the second jewel in Trotting’s Triple Crown, the Yonkers Trot.

While the Hambletonian victory was enormous for the Wellwoods, with Paula’s mom Marion (Jean) and her son Devin sharing ownership, it has to represent a career changing day in the life of Scott Zeron.

Earlier this year has was “fired” as the driver of American Passport, a result of not qualifying the colt for the North America Cup final, the lone $1 million pacing race on the calendar. It was a stunning turn of events, especially for those who thought that Zeron had been overly loyal to the Alagna stable while not always getting the first call.

To his credit, Zeron didn’t complain publicly and to an even greater standing the driver has been his own worst critic at times. Most notably following the biggest win of his career, he managed to sneak out the words in the winner’s circle. “I nearly moved too early,” Zeron said in regards to passing horses in the early stretch while knowing full well the colt’s habit of waiting on other horses while on the front end.

It’s hard to say how the racing season will take shape from this point forward. Despite the claims that the horse that lost by a few inches was not 100 percent, those who have witnessed 3-year-old trotters in action for decades recognize that few actually get sounder after the first Saturday in August.

Last year Marion Marauder couldn’t beat Southwind Frank. This year the question remains whether Southwind Frank will be able to beat Marion Marauder.

What a difference one year and a couple of inches make.

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