01/20/2016 3:26PM

Hovdey: Borell getting ready for her next big horse


Maria Borell was in the tunnel getting ready to saddle her first horse at Gulfstream Park last Sunday when the trainer in the next stall caught her eye and came smiling forward.

“We need to get a picture,” he said, handing his smartphone to an innocent bystander. “Two Breeders’ Cup winners. That’s us.”

Neither Enebish Ganbat nor Maria Borell fit any preconceived notion of a Breeders’ Cup trainer. He is a native of Mongolia and became the first Asian to train a championship-day winner when Mongolian Saturday took the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint on Oct. 31. She is a former exercise rider and was a training unknown who produced Runhappy to cap a Cinderella season in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint later the same day.

The next day was decidedly different. While Ganbat basked in the praise of his patron, Ganbaatar Dagvadorj, and the adoration of his horse-crazy nation, Borell was relieved of her position as Runhappy’s trainer by owner James McIngvale. It was the firing heard ’round the racing world.

Readers just now crawling out from under a rock can relive the events and subsequent legal squabbles that turned a feel-good story into a tabloid nightmare. Have fun. In the meantime, Borell was going back to work at the only job she’s every really wanted, and was more than happy to be saddling her first horse for Drawing Away Stable of New York and her first horse since winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

The fact that it was taking place in the same building where the night before Runhappy was honored as champion male sprinter of 2015 was an irony best left lying in the middle of the room, to be swept up later. Borell said she did not watch the show, which was streamed live by various outlets. But when McIngvale made a point of not mentioning Borell in his acceptance speech, it did not take long for social media to light up with texts, tweets, and posts of protest and indignation. It’s a jungle out there.

Borell answered the only way she could, by sending out Doctor J Dub, a 6-year-old gelding, to outrun his odds and finish second in the $44,000 optional claimer. Her reboot had begun.

“I am glad the Eclipse Awards are over,” Borell said later at the barn while awaiting Doctor J Dub’s return. “It’s hard to heal when it’s thrown in your face like that. I was really attached to that horse. It was more about losing him as an individual than it was about the opportunities he gave me. The hardest part is never seeing him again.

“But I want him to run well,” Borell added. “I want him to have a lot of success. I want to someday be training Runhappy babies.”

For now, Borell does most of her shopping with racing manager Sandy Levine of Drawing Away. They got Doctor J Dub for $16,000 on Jan. 1 but since then have had no luck at the claiming box.

“We’ve lost, like, seven shakes,” Borell said, clearly frustrated. “You’d think we’d at least get a little bit lucky.”

Borell currently has three stalls at a training center adjacent to Gulfstream Park West (née Calder Race Course), with a promise of more stalls when she and her owners start winning those shakes.

“I really like training over that surface because it’s deeper,” Borell said. “As long as a horse doesn’t have a suspensory problem, I think it gets horses really fit to come over here to run on a faster track.”

As she spoke, Borell was at a stall rubbing the hind end of a demanding chestnut who had backed up to the bars of the metal door. Jaiden’s Best, one of two she trains for the Pegasis Investment Group, was running in the 10th race. He was also very spoiled.

“I think the happier they are, the better they perform,” Borell said. “They get more relaxed. Anyway, that’s my belief. I guess it’s from growing up with them. They all have different personalities, they’ll beg for treats, and they’ll nicker when you come into the barn. People are missing something if they don’t get to know each horse as an individual.”

Runhappy came to Borell last year after recovering from a minor injury and with only an impressive maiden win to his credit. He went on to win all five of his races for Borell, including stakes at Saratoga and Keeneland, before taking the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Borell is navigating different waters now, and she is grateful for the chance. She engendered considerable sympathy when she was fired by McIngvale. But then, when she sued the owner for unpaid purses, she was hit by a predictable backlash that tried to paint her as the ungrateful girl with the horse tattoo who had been plucked from complete obscurity. The challenge has been shedding the labels.

“It sure didn’t help,” she conceded. “I know I’m not that proven yet, even after Runhappy. I’m working with people now who don’t really care about what they saw in the media.”

Borell celebrated her 33rd birthday on Wednesday, but she unwrapped her best present last Sunday, a little while after Doctor J Dub got the year rolling, when Gulfstream Park general manager P.J. Campo presented Borell with her trainer’s trophy on behalf of the Breeders’ Cup. Good thing, too. At that point, it was all beginning to seem like a dream.

“I admit I started crying,” Borell said. “The trophy means it actually happened.”