11/01/2016 5:16PM

Runhappy boldly goes into middle distance

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Barbara D. Livingston
Runhappy works five furlongs in 58.55 seconds on Saturday at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Laura Wohlers, amateur handicapper and peripatetic horse trainer, knows that guesswork is a part of horse racing. When she sends out Runhappy as one of the favorites Friday in the 10th running of the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita, she – like most everyone else – can only guess at how the colt will fare.

“Ideally, you don’t want to go into the Breeders’ Cup with only one race under your belt,” Wohlers said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

The Runhappy saga is well known to racing insiders. The day after the colt won the 2015 BC Sprint at Keeneland, owner Jim McIngvale fired Maria Borell and replaced her with Wohlers, his sister-in-law who has trained off and on for him since 1999 (McIngvale is married to Laura’s twin, Linda). The move generated considerable controversy that has since quieted, replaced by the social media crowd voicing their thoughts – sometimes unkindly – at McIngvale’s enterprising agenda.

:: Maria Borell: From top of the world to underground

Despite Runhappy having shown himself a sprinter of uncommon ability – he was voted the Eclipse Award as top sprinter of 2015 – McIngvale is intent on transforming the colt into a middle-distance runner, with his major long-term goal being the $12 million Pegasus World Cup, a 1 1/8-mile race Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. That helps explain why the 4-year-old son of Super Saver returned from a nine-month layoff in the one-mile Ack Ack at Churchill Downs on Oct. 1 and his presence in the lineup for the BC Dirt Mile.

Wohlers implemented this program, explaining at every turn the reasons for the stretchout. Pedigree, maturity, demeanor, and a gut feeling that the colt can handle extra distance were most often cited by her. It can be reasonably argued that McIngvale, who made a fortune as a maverick in the furniture business in Texas, is trying to bend Runhappy to his will. Whether he is right or wrong to do so may soon be answered.

:: BREEDERS’ CUP 2016: Odds, comments, and more

McIngvale was at Churchill to watch the Ack Ack and was visibly disappointed when Runhappy finished fourth as a 3-10 favorite behind winner Tom's Ready. (McIngvale will not be here at Santa Anita on Friday because of a longstanding business commitment.) In hindsight, however, the defeat is easily rationalized, given how long the colt had been away, his return having been delayed first by a foot ailment, then by bone bruising.

“I’m thinking he didn’t handle the track there at Churchill too well,” Wohlers said. “And plus, maybe we were trying to relax him too much. I mean, he only got beat 2 1/2 lengths. For any other horse, people might’ve said it was a good comeback, but he’s set some pretty high standards.”

Gary Stevens, who rode Runhappy in winning the seven-furlong Malibu in December, will be back aboard for the Dirt Mile.

“Good horses come back at high levels,” Stevens said. “I’ve seen it done many, many times. He’s had his race now. The engine is on go, the jets are warmed up.”

In his final pre-race breeze early Saturday at Santa Anita, Runhappy was sharp, getting five furlongs in 58.55 seconds under exercise rider Marcus O’Donnell. It was the last serious move in what has been a tight schedule in making it to the Breeders’ Cup, most of it spent in the quiet environs of the Thoroughbred training center just outside Lexington, Ky.

“He’s had some really strong gallops since his last race,” Wohlers said. “At some point, you have to say ‘If he’s not fit now, he’s never going to be.’ If he goes out and shows up like we think he will, we should be all right.”

The Dirt Mile is no easy spot. Dortmund, winner of 8 of 13 starts and more than $1.9 million, is a solid favorite at what seems an ideal distance. There are other highly accomplished opponents in the race, including Gun Runner and Tom’s Ready. To be a threat, Runhappy not only will have to show he can handle the two turns – his lone attempt was a ninth-place finish in the Lecomte at Fair Grounds early in his 3-year-old season – but that he can also run one of the best races of his career.

Statistically, the sample size is insufficient to judge how adept Wohlers is with horses transitioning from sprint to route. (For the record, she’s 3 for 28 during her nine intermittent seasons of training.) A far more salient angle: Runhappy is an unusual talent in unusual circumstances, which feeds the racing public’s fascination with his unusual story.

The next chapter could be very interesting.