04/16/2012 9:22AM

Bergman: Mel Mara - star in the making or one-hit wonder?

Derick Giwner
Mel Mara showed his potential by pacing a 25-second quarter last year at 2.

Those who follow the breed usually find themselves excited towards the end of spring. Two-year-olds begin to take shape and baby races offer hope that the next generation will be better than the last. First-crop sires, and those who support them, bring special excitement due to the unknown. All owners and trainers are speculators of some kind. When it comes to predicting whether a champion racehorse will become a successful stallion, batting averages tend to be quite low.

Last year, Lis Mara, a bonafide champion racehorse at four and five with impeccable bloodlines, had his first crop hit the racetrack. With 117 registered foals it was believed that he had a great chance of hitting the ground running. Of course since he wasn’t a standout as a two-year-old many in the crowd didn’t anticipate great things at two.

Then Mel Mara appeared. A homebred son of Lis Mara owned by John Carver made his racing debut at the Meadowlands and within a few weeks was the talk of the track. Maybe it was a fluke or maybe Mel Mara was going to be the next Niatross. What captivated racing fans far and wide was a turn of speed never seen by a two-year-old in the history of Meadowlands baby races.

Mel Mara began his two-year-old campaign with consecutive wins in 1:56 4/5 and then nine days later in 1:53 1/5. The improvement was major but other two-year-olds were moving at the same rate of speed. Then on July 16 Yannick Gingras took the colt to the front end and rated a slower pace. This time Mel Mara paced a 1:55 1/5 mile but drew away from his rivals by more than 18 lengths pacing an incredible 25 second final quarter.

The entire racing world was excited about what would be next.

Trainer Tony Alagna, who worked with trainer Erv Miller when Lis Mara, Mel Mara’s sire, raced as an aged pacer, recalled, “Lis Mara had an incredibly high turn of speed. The amazing thing about it was that he could shift into high gear and go at a 25 second clip without you knowing.”

According to Alagna, Mel Mara’s huge final quarter had nothing to do with Gingras or him attempting to show off but just the simple fact that Gingras didn’t realize how fast the horse was going.

On July 23 Mel Mara made his career debut for purse money in an event for juveniles and won as expected. This time the final quarter was less sensational but he did pace off by six lengths in a 1:52 mile.

“A horse made a break on the final turn and he had to steer around him,” recalled Alagna. That change of direction in his very first race may have proved to be a bad omen.

The colt made two more starts prior to the Woodrow Wilson and did not win as expected but didn’t disgrace himself in defeat, losing in photos on both occasions. At the same time, given his early advancement many began to question how real that 25 second quarter was.

Mel Mara looked like he might be a winner in the Woodrow Wilson at the Meadowlands while in the midst of a big move on the final turn, but then he lost his stride briefly. The colt did recover well enough to finish fourth but suddenly the tide had shifted.
Alagna gave the horse one more chance to redeem himself in the eliminations for the Metro at Woodbine. The colt proved no match for A Rocknroll Dance and company, losing by some 19 lengths in the 1:49 1/5 mile.

“We sent him to Lexington to have him looked at,’ said Alagna. A nuclear scan revealed a pair of troubling ankles on his hind legs. “It was typical ankle soreness that many two-year-olds have,” said Alagna deflecting the condition and offering hope for the future. “He’s been treated, we’ve X-rayed the ankles and they are fine.”

The season that started out with so much promise, had been cut short leaving so many unanswered questions.

While Mel Mara was finishing fourth in the Wilson, his stablemate Major Bombay was winning the event. Alagna has been bringing the two back on similar paths for their three-year-old campaigns and isn’t sure who will prove to be the better one.

“I know that Mel Mara is fast but Major Bombay has $200,000 on his card and he’s shown to be a tough racehorse,” he said.

Like many trainers today Alagna has a more difficult time assessing his top pacing horses: “It’s not like it used to be. Today you could have a pacer train down really well and think he’s going to be a champion. You just don’t know what you have until you race them.”

In the case of Major Bombay the horse was solid during his seven-race juvenile season. For Mel Mara, a lone win came in an overnight race and his most compelling race came in a qualifier.

But hope springs eternal and Mel Mara took to the track for the first time this past Friday in a qualifier at the Meadowlands. Alagna planned to qualify him twice before his first stakes engagement on May 5 in the Simpson at the Meadowlands. There was no 25 second quarters in Friday’s contest as regular pilot Gingras allowed the colt to sit far off the pace and close his mile in 26 1/5 while individually timed in 1:56 1/5 for the mile.

Last year, after witnessing Mel Mara’s impressive qualifiers Brittany Farms purchased an interest in the horse from owner Carver.

“You know this horse has a great pedigree, and when Brittany buys in they’re looking for a future stallion,” said the conditioner.

Indeed Mel Mara’s maternal line extends back to Peachbottom, a full sister to the champion No Nukes. The No Nukes stallion line has produced Western Hanover, his son Western Ideal and the latest generation Rocknroll Hanover.

It’s way too early for stallion talk. For now it’s up to Mel Mara to prove to the racing world that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder.