One of the nicest stories to emerge from this year’s edition of the Breeders’ Cup was that of Maria Borell, trainer of Runhappy, winner of the $1.5 million Sprint. Until yesterday, that is, when it was reported that owner James McIngvale had fired her.
Borell would not be confused with the Pletchers, Motts, Browns or Bafferts’ of training. After her win in the Sprint, her record for the year showed starts in only nine races. Oh … her charges won seven of them. Runhappy had a record of five-for-five, including another Grade I score in Saratoga’s King Bishop.
Borell, from Syracuse, was featured in one of NBC’s human (and horse) interest stories in their telecast. She became a devoted enthusiast after watching Sunday Silence, leading her to get a tattoo of him running that covers her entire upper back. She was also seen lying in the stall next to the sleeping colt. I am not sure NBC mentioned it, but Runhappy was one of only three American horses to not get Lasix, a topic that has polarized the racing industry. (One of the others,
Manchurian Mongolian Saturday, also won a Cup race.)
McIngvale owns a furniture store in Houston and has been involved in racing for a number of years. At one time the Derby prep at Turfway Park was sponsored by him. His reputation in the racing community, however, is not what one would call stellar, with “jerk” being the most felicitous description attached to him. The advertisements for the store featuring him are so tasteful that he makes Donald Trump look like Winston Churchill.
He runs through trainers the way others change the sheets on their bed. As the owner of the horse, he is free to hire whomever he wishes, and Borell is certainly not the first to be axed unceremoniously despite an exemplary record. He is also not the first owner to display remarkable stupidity in making racing decisions. Borell was replaced by McIngvale’s sister-in-law, Laura Wohlers, a sometime manager of the furniture store and, since August, directly overseeing Borell’s training. Wohlers ran her first horse in 1999. In the intervening 17 years, she has had horses start in 239 races, earning a total of $769,396, according to Equibase. Borell earned more than that in less than 70 seconds on Saturday.
While Wohlers and McIngvale’s daughter, Laura McIngvale Brown, reportedly said that they had decided to make the switch before the Breeders’ Cup, a dispute over training the horse on Sunday precipitated the termination. According to Jeremy Balan writing at BloodHorse.com, Wohlers and Brown wanted to jog Runhappy the morning after the race while Borell did not. One reason Borell did not – apart from the fact that horses typically do not go to the track after a race – is that she felt heat and filling in the colt’s legs. Wohlers acknowledged feeling heat, but said there was no swelling.
Borell announced the firing on Twitter, saying “Just went from the best day of my life to the worst day of my life.” It is sad that an uplifting moment for the sport of racing turned sour in a matter of hours because of an owner’s ego. We can hope that Maria Borell’s remarkable success with this one horse will give her more chances to train good ones. We can also hope that the clown car that is McIngvale’s racing operation does not result in harm to Runhappy.