10/27/2015 8:56AM

Beyer: Borell getting plenty of ink with Runhappy in Sprint

Maria Borell sports a tattoo of Sunday Silence, a favorite horse of her childhood, across her back.

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 winningest 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 the King’s Bishop 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 when he returns to Keeneland on Saturday.

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, N.Y., 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 exerciser 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 a very 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 out 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 admitted. “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 of 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’s management, but he sustained 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 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 goose bumps,” 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 résumé 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.

© 2015 The Washington Post

marc More than 1 year ago
columns should be written by the best writers...beyer is lost
. Anderson More than 1 year ago
Runhappy =)
John Lovell More than 1 year ago
An owner who gets it and a young trainer that loves the horse. Racing needs more people like them.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
The last part of this article is an insight into the warped mentality the racing community and why racing is going downhill..so if an owner wants to race with out Lasix and medication then according to Mr Beyer he is living la la land. "such a notion is pure fantasy". i beg to differ .the reason trainers like PLETCHER do win the majority of the nations stakes races is because they have the best drugs and have the means to get around the testing. And that together with the mentality that honest startups with a thin resume have no shot lead to the self fulfilling cycle. fact is horses do not necessarily get the best care at the biggest stables as the infamous peta video showed of the assmussen stable. then there was the NY times article that listed the veterinary report of a Pletcher horse that had died on the track had received 23 injections the week before.mostly painkillers.had he not raced while masked with painkillers and lasix he would have been a much sounder horse.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
You have to question the sanity of someone who would tattoo themselves like that. thats just my opinion.
Arlene Factor More than 1 year ago
you have no right to an opinion it's her body!!
delmarwood More than 1 year ago
Runhappy will break slow as usual. Borel on the 6 horse will race ride over and runhappy will be bottled up, there are no gifts in the breeders cup,
Michael Sheehan More than 1 year ago
Runhappy will win Breeders Cup by 2.....
Michael Sheehan More than 1 year ago
A win for Runhappy by 2 .....
Mohammed More than 1 year ago
I can tell you why this trainer was given such a great horse, and it is not due to her training horses abilities...the owner obviously was looking for some side action for giving her the opportunity! He looks like the type of scum who would do that also! I hope she wins the race, and then tells the owner to see if Baffert will give him the "side action" he is looking for!
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Boy don't you look stupid now.
Mark More than 1 year ago
She cant seem to get this horse to break out of the gate...I am tossing this horse completely!!