11/23/2011 5:40PM

McAnally's barn re-emerging with talented roster

Benoit & Associates
Charm the Maker is one of Ron McAnally’s three stakes winners in 2011. Next up for her is the Hollywood Starlet.

Ron McAnally’s first stakes win of national signficance came in 1961, when he took Verne Winchell’s Donut King to New York to win the Champagne Stakes. The horse was 2, the trainer 29.

Now, 50 years later, McAnally’s record has become part of racing’s catechism. The man may be on the quiet side, but the stats scream from the rooftop, and the particulars always make for good reading. Among the highlights, schoolchildren raised around the racetrack know that:

* McAnally has trained five champions, including Hall of Famers Bayakoa, Paseana, and two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, who was the sport’s all-time leading money winner when he retired.

* McAnally has won three individual Eclipse Awards as Trainer of the Year, the same number of times the late Charlie Whittingham was honored, and that Bob Baffert has been so far.

* McAnally is the only trainer to have won not only the three major races for older horses in California – the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic – but also the three signature California races for 3-year-olds – the Santa Anita Derby, Del Mar Derby, and Hollywood Derby.

* McAnally was elected to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 1990. The only active trainers who have been enshrined longer are Allen Jerkens, LeRoy Jolley, Frank Martin, and Jack Van Berg.

Of course, the whole McAnally story has a lot more twists and turns, offering a number of tales off the beaten path, including the fact that:

* McAnally is not really an orphan, as is commonly publicized, but he was raised in a northern Kentucky orphanage after his mother died and his distraught father surrendered the care of young Ron, his two brothers, and two sisters to the Covington Protestant Children’s Home.

* McAnally nearly froze to death while serving with the U.S. Air Force in Alaska when the car he was transporting at the behest of an officer broke down on a desolate highway. He was rescued before he had to start burning the seat cushions.

* While not officially an orphan, McAnally is definitely a wine connoisseur, having schooled himself on the finer points of oenology during trips to France prospecting for fast horses. If the horses didn’t pan out, at least he’d bring home something from Saint-Emilion.

* There is photographic evidence that McAnally put on women’s clothing and a blonde wig at least once in his life, upon the occasion of a costume party themed “Come as the Person You Most Admire.” He said he was dressing as his wife.

Debbie McAnally accepted the tribute, no questions asked. Besides, in keeping with the theme she was the one wearing a short, dark hairpiece and one of her husband’s suits.

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The McAnallys have been a couple for 40 years, through a lot of thick and occasional thin, a very public racing couple who have rolled with the punches of a tough game and come through smelling of class. Because of this, no one begrudges them the fact that the horse in the barn right now with the most exciting upside is a 2-year-old filly they bred and own together named Charm the Maker.

By Empire Maker, Charm the Maker is out of the stakes-placed Charm the Giant, a daughter of Giant’s Causeway who was foaled at the imposing Coolmore establishment in Ireland. Charm the Giant was produced by Olympic Charmer, a daughter of the McAnally-trained Olympio, who won the Arkansas, Hollywood, Canterbury, and American derbies of 1991. Olympic Charmer was good enough to win the graded El Encino and Railbird Stakes, carrying Debbie McAnally’s bright pink silks, before retiring to a budding blue hen career as a broodmare.

Since Ron McAnally rarely uses three words when a nod and a wink will do, it makes sense that Debbie vividly recalls the morning last summer when her trainer came home from the track, having had a chance to evaluate Charm the Maker in her early lessons, and declared, “She’s a runner.”

“I know he tries to protect me, which is really sweet,” Debbie said. “He doesn’t want to build me up so high that if something happened it wouldn’t hit me so hard. That’s why I let myself get excited when he said that about her.”

The McAnallys are due for a turn of the wheel. Except for an emotional victory in the 2010 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park − won by Ron McAnally with Éclair de Lune for Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois − the 2009 and 2010 seasons were agonizing for the stable. In those two years he won just 13 races, an unthinkable trough for a trainer accustomed to playing at the top of the game.

Things started going sideways for the McAnally stable in July 2008, when his friend and patron Sid Craig, owner of McAnally’s 2003 Pacific Classic winner Candy Ride, died at age 76.

At that point, McAnally already had lost the West Coast horses of the late Verne Winchell’s son, Ron Winchell, who preferred to campaign with trainers in the East and Midwest. The family of the late Frank Whitham, for whom McAnally had trained Bayakoa and Met Mile/Cigar Mile winner Ibero, had begun scaling back its California action as well.

Barely a month after Craig‘s death, McAnally was kicked in the leg by a horse being recklessly ponied on a stable road at Del Mar, knocking him off his feet when he needed to be at the barn. As 2008 ended, McAnally’s primary client, Arnold Zetcher, moved most of his horses to the Bob Baffert stable, at about the same time the horses of Jenny Craig, Sid‘s widow, were being steered by her advisers to other trainers. 

To his credit, McAnally did not blink. Asked if Ron ever uttered the “R” word − as in “retire” − in the midst of the grim streak, Debbie replied:


Instead, McAnally maintained his mantra, “just give me the horse,” holding steadfast to an unshakeable confidence in his ability to recognize and nurture talent when it presents itself. Deceased or migrating clients he can’t do much about. His age, even less, except to point out what he feels is the obvious.

“People for some reason are going for younger trainers without much experience rather than older trainers with a lot of experience,” McAnally said, his tone matter-of-fact. “Look at Allen Jerkens, down to about 14 horses. How can that be?”

For what it’s worth, the McAnally tide has started to turn. His current stable roster can’t hold a candle to the early 1990’s, when a dozen major stakes winners called the McAnally shed row home. But there are some talented individuals who could be making noise as the trainer’s 80th birthday approaches next July.

Special Charm, a 2-year-old half sister to the dam of Charm the Maker who came out impressively at Del Mar, has serious sprint dates on the horizon. Sugarinthemorning, a 3-year-old daughter of Candy Ride owned by Stephen Weissman and his granddaughter Samantha Clement, has knocked off two small stakes and came within three-quarters of taking a third.

All Star Heart, bred in Canada by her owner, Gerald Gibbs, has won four of five starts since slipping and falling on the home turn of the Santa Anita turf course last winter. She was set to run in the Matriarch at Hollywood Park on Thanksgiving Friday, a race McAnally has won in the past with Auspiciante for Jack Kent Cooke and with Tout Charmant for Robert McNair.

“All Star Heart and Charm the Maker are both big, pretty fillies and a real pleasure to be around,” McAnally said.

Charm the Maker won the Sharp Cat Stakes on Nov. 12 in her most recent appearance, and now Debbie McAnally has her sights on the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet on Dec. 10.

“She gives me butterflies,” Debbie McAnally said. “And not just in the stomach. All over! It’s a wonderful feeling. I just get so darned excited when she runs. It takes me a while to come back down.”

Or even answer the phone. With her blood, good looks, and obvious talent, Charm the Maker has been drawing offers from far and wide.

“Three more calls yesterday,” Debbie said, clearly torn between pride and exasperation. “My problem is, I can’t separate business from what I call family, and the horses are like family to me. It’s not the smartest way to go, I know. But what is more money? We’re comfortable. I guess if I needed to sell a horse to put the next meal on the table I would. But I’d sell some real estate first.”