12/28/2016 1:26PM

Eppler on verge of title as Page McKenney nears return

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Two possible return spots for Page McKenney are the $125,000 Jazil Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 14 or the $75,000 Native Dancer Stakes at Laurel on Jan. 21.

With two programs remaining at the Laurel Park fall meet, Mary Eppler is six wins in front in the trainer standings and on the verge of her first title. Her prospects for 2017 are looking up too, as her super-claim, Page McKenney, is nearing a return to the races after being diagnosed in May with a minor tendon injury.

If Eppler wins the title, she will be the first woman to lead the standings at Laurel Park and the first to win a Maryland meet since Karen Patty sent out 10 winners to lead the 1992 Pimlico fall meet.

“I’m, like, shocked,” Eppler said. “I’m never on top. I just don’t have the number of horses to compete.”

Eppler, 62, is patient and conservative by nature, not a recipe for winning trainer titles. She currently has 31 horses in her Pimlico barn and has gone 22 for 80 (27 percent) at the meet. She has won the Willa On the Move and Politely stakes with Lovable Lady, who now has three stakes wins since August.

“I first realized I was in front in mid-November,” Eppler said. “Now that I’ve gotten close to it, I want to win. I mean, when am I realistically going to have another chance to do it?”

Eppler has an accounting degree from Loyola University and to this day does the payroll and books for her stable. She worked as an accountant until her mid-20s before changing directions and taking a job breaking horses at the Sagamore Farm of Alfred Vanderbilt.

When Vanderbilt moved his stable with trainer Bobby Suggs to Pimlico, he sent Eppler and another employee up to exercise horses for him.

“It was the first time I was working at the track,” Eppler said.

She took out her trainer’s license in 1980 and ran a modest stable over the next few years. To make ends meet, she galloped horses for Buddy Delp in the mornings and waited tables at night.

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In the early 1990's she was reunited with Vanderbilt, who sent her some horses to break.

"My best friend was the broodmare manager at Sagamore," Eppler said. "At the time they would send the horses to Aiken to be broken and she would never get to see them. She asked Mr. Vanderbilt to send some to me to break, and he sent me six. When they were ready, he let me keep them to train. After that I trained almost all of his horses."

Eppler's career received a major boost in 1996, when she bought Traitor on Vanderbilt's behalf at the Ocala Breeders' Sales auction of 2-year-olds in training. Traitor would go on that season to win the Grade 1 Futurity and finish second in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park.

"He gave me $100,000 and told me to go buy him a Derby horse," Eppler said.

In all, Traitor went 6-4-1-1 in 1996 and 1997 and earned $267,000.

Eppler’s highest-earning horse is Page McKenney, whom she and owner Adam Staple claimed for $16,000 out of a race for nonwinners of two at Penn National in July 2013. He has since won 15 races and more than $1.3 million.

Page McKenney began this season in excellent form, winning the Native Dancer and Grade 3 General George at Laurel before finishing second in the Charles Town Classic. Eppler scratched him the morning of the Pimlico Special after she discovered slight filling in a tendon.

He was hand-walked for three months and given three ultrasound shock-therapy treatments before being sent to Nor Mar Farm in northern Maryland, where he built up his stamina on an AquaTred. Page McKenney, who will turn 7 on Jan. 1, rejoined Eppler’s stable in October and has since had six works.

“The leg is perfect,” Eppler said. “He’s doing great. He’s the same as ever.”

Two possible return spots for Page McKenney are the $125,000 Jazil Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 14 or the $75,000 Native Dancer Stakes at Laurel on Jan. 21. He could run sooner if a suitable overnight race is found.