Marion Marauder returns to the track after Triple Crown
By Perry Lefko
Following Marion Marauder’s sensational 2016 season, which included a sweep of the Trotting Triple Crown, the husband and wife tandem of Paula Wellwood and Mike Keeling decided to have the Hambletonian trophy that started off the magnificent run shipped to their winter training quarters in Pinehurst, N.C.
They placed the trophy on the mantel of their home to admire and, perhaps, remind them that what happened earlier in the year was not a fantasy, but rather a genuine feel-good family story that reinforced the Wellwood name and its importance in the sport of Standardbred racing.
Wellwood is the daughter of the legendary Bill Wellwood, who is an Immortal in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and an inductee of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. He was voted Canada’s Trainer of the Year twice and U.S. Trainer of the Year once. He died in 2003 at age 63 and two years later had a race named after him on the Woodbine Entertainment Group circuit in Ontario.
Wellwood learned the art and science of training horses from her father, while Keeling worked for him for eight years. Marion Marauder is co-owned by Bill’s widow, Marion, who goes by Jean, and Paula and Mike’s son, Devin. How the family came to own the colt and change his name contributed to a narrative that kicked into high gear with the 2016 Hambletonian win.
“We still can’t fathom it, to be honest,” Wellwood said in March while wintering in Pinehurst. “It’s still amazing. You’re still in awe of what he did. I think it will be like that for a while. It’s hard to believe that it actually happened. What he did was amazing.”
“It was a dream come true,” Keeling added. “When you’re a kid and you’re in harness racing, you’re either dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup or the Hambletonian. Winning the Hambletonian was the pinnacle and to add on the Triple Crown was just an incredible thing. For anybody that’s in this business, this is what you work hard for and this is what you dream about.”
In 2014, Jean was drawn toward a Muscle Hill yearling called Marion Monopoly at the Lexington Selected Sale because the Wellwood family had campaigned Sooner Hanover 4, 1:56.1s ($226,006), a half-brother to the colt’s dam, Spellbound Hanover. Sooner Hanover, a Balanced Image gelding, was retired to the Wellwood family farm in Cambridge, Ont., when his racing career ended in 2004.
Jean was attracted to the family connection, and the Marion name. So the decision was made to purchase the colt and Paula had the top bid at $37,000. Jean decided she would take ownership of the colt with Devin, whose birthday was the same as the colt.
That year, Devin was headed to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and planned to play on the school’s football team, nicknamed the Marauders. So Jean took a flyer on renaming the colt Marion Marauder and thought he just might make enough money to pay for Devin’s tuition.
“The fact we changed his name to Marion Marauder and the horse doing what he did in the name of our son and Paula’s mother, that stuff is all kind of spooky in a way,” Mike said. “It doesn’t happen very often.
“There were some pedigree markers we enjoyed about the horse and we liked the individual. And we named him after the team Devin was playing for and Marion is Jean’s first name–there’s so much fate and serendipity involved.”
Marion Marauder had a decent 2-year-old year, and while he only won one race, he banked $281,986 in 13 starts. He finished second in the Wellwood Memorial and second in the Breeders Crown. Both times he was beaten by Southwind Frank, voted the champion 2-year-old colt trotter.
During the early part of 2016, the family put together a schedule that they hoped would bring the colt to the Hambletonian—a race that Bill nor Paula had ever won–in peak condition.
“We had great confidence in him,” Mike said. “We knew what kind of horse we had as a 2-year-old. His only limitation was he was having a hard time getting himself into the race early. We knew–and anybody that was paying attention knew–he was going to mature as a 3-year-old. He was going to be a serious contender. We were fortunate enough to know a little more about him and know he was going to mature.”
Paula was a bit more circumspect going into the 2016 season.
“We were just hoping he would be competitive,” she said. “We hoped he’d come back to what he was at 2. We knew he was a nice horse. We knew going into the year that once he broke through and learned how to win we hoped he would go from there, and he sure did. That was his biggest change. He got a little handier in the races. He was in better position and he had a great will to win.”
He began the season in June with a victory in a conditioned race at Mohawk in 1:55. He was then pointed to the Goodtimes, where he finished a disappointing fourth in his elimination. He and driver Scott Zeron came back to win the $209,040 final from off the pace in 1:52.4 at odds of 8-1.
It was off to the U.S. to continue on the Hambletonian trail. Paula accompanied the colt to Magical Acres in New Jersey, while Keeling tended to the remainder of the stable in Ontario. In his first U.S. start of his 2016 season, Marion Marauder was second-placed-first in a 3-year-old Open at the Meadowlands. He followed that up with a win in a $153,250 division of the Stanley Dancer Memorial, covering the 1-1/8-mile distance in 2:08.1.
Then came the Hambletonian.
Marion Marauder won his $70,000 elimination heat in 1:51.3, beating Southwind Frank by a half-length, and what awaited him would turn out to be history.
In the $1,000,000 Hambletonian final, the crowd made fellow heat winner Bar Hopping (post 3) the favorite at even money, followed by Southwind Frank (post 1) at 2-1 and Marion Marauder (post 5) third choice at 5-2. Bar Hopping had easily won his elimination by 5-1/4 lengths in 1:51.4.
Southwind Frank took the early lead in the race, leading after the opening quarter by a head over longshot Sutton. Bar Hopping was a close third. Marion Marauder was fifth, three lengths back with first-time Hambo starter Zeron in the bike.
After the first half, Bar Hopping claimed the lead, while Marion Marauder was fifth by 5-¼ lengths and parked. After three quarters, Bar Hopping had a half-length lead over Marion Marauder, but at the top of the stretch, Marion Marauder led by a nose, and he maintained that lead at the wire with Southwind Frank making a belated charge from third at the top of the stretch.
This represented the first Hambo win for the Wellwood family after previous attempts by both the patriarch and his daughter and son-in-law. Bill had raced nine times in the Hambo, including the initial race at the Meadowlands in 1981. This was Paula and Mike’s third time in the race and it was indeed the charm. Did Bill Wellwood lend a helping hand from the heavens?
“I think people like to think those things; it gives them comfort,” Mike said. “The fact he chased the Hambletonian and this was the kind of horse that he would have really appreciated and enjoyed, and how we approached and how we brought him along under the radar–those were the kinds of things that he laid into us as groundwork over the years.
“I learned it all by osmosis, I can tell you that,” Mike added with a laugh. “He wasn’t what you’d call a great communicator. If you kept your eyes open and your mouth shut, you would learn. It would sink into you somehow, and if you didn’t you probably weren’t going to make the cut because he was not easy (to work with). Having this type of horse would have humbled him a little bit. I’ve seen other men win big races and they were humbled by it.”
While the colt’s win streak came to an end in the Colonial in his next start, placing second to Southwind Frank, he was pointed to the Yonkers Trot and prevailed in his elimination race and the $500,000 final, showing front-end speed in both.
He returned to Mohawk and easily won his elimination race for the Canadian Trotting Classic, but placed second by 3-½ lengths to Bar Hopping in the $522,120 final as the 3-5 favorite.
Everything on the race schedule that Paula and Mike had plotted at the start of the season had gone according to plan. The only blip in the road was to come next – the Kentucky Futurity.
“He showed us he needed to do something,” Mike said. “There was too much time between the Yonkers Trot and the Breeders Crown. When he showed us he needed to race, the Futurity was going to be in the program.”
The cost of supplementing him to the $431,000 race was $47,621.
“It’s a big decision to pay that kind of money to race,” Mike said. “It wasn’t something you entered into lightly.”
Marion Marauder went postward– from the 11 hole in the second tier– as the third choice at 7-2. Southwind Frank was second choice at 2-1 from post. Bar Hopping– starting from post 12– was deemed the favorite at 9-5. In the crowded field of 12, all three were far back early in the race and weren’t asked to make a move until the stretch drive.
Marion Marauder had the quickest final quarter, utilizing a fourth-over cover and scooting home in 26.4, beating Southwind Frank, who finished with broken equipment, by a head, followed by Bar Hopping.
Marion Marauder became the ninth horse to win the Trotting Triple Crown and the first since Glidemaster in 2006.
All that was left on the calendar was the Breeders Crown and a possible shot at Horse of the Year. He placed second in his elimination race, but was not himself in the final and finished last in the field of 10, more than seven lengths in arrears of Bar Hopping, the 4-5 favorite, who scored a 1-½-length win over Southwind Frank. Mike revealed a couple days later the horse had an elevated white blood cell count, symptomatic of a viral infection.
Marion Marauder finished the season with 10 wins in 15 starts and $1,484,532 in earnings, the most of any trotter in North America. He won Dan Patch Awards as the Trotter of the Year and 3-Year-Old Colt Trotter of the Year, as well as an O’Brien Award for his division in Canada. Jean and Devin were voted Owners of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.
“We enjoyed everything that went with it,” Paula said. “People had been fantastic to us and recognized the horse. There are just no words that can explain it. We’ve had a lot of great horses, but what he went on to do was the thrill of a lifetime.
“We’re kind of the ‘little guy’ out there and sometimes this business doesn’t always appreciate that,” Mike said. “All those things were just added benefits. The amount of work that goes into learning your craft and getting this kind of horse in your barn and treating him right and him treating you right–that’s the stuff that matters.”
Marion Marauder’s career came to an end as he was headed to the breeding shed to start stallion duties at Tara Hills Stud.
“You don’t want it to end,” Mike said. “Racing in those big races and being a contender is addictive and you don’t know if you’re going to get back there. Of course it was a little melancholy. He’s a wonderful horse to be around. I didn’t even say goodbye to him. I told my wife I wouldn’t say goodbye to him until we dropped him off at Tara Hills Stud.”
But following some testing it was determined that there was a probability that Marion Marauder would not be able to breed a full book of mares, so less than two weeks after the plan was announced to stand him at stud and syndicate him, it was announced that the horse was returning to the races in 2017.
“I didn’t even have to say goodbye, so it wasn’t as hard for me, I don’t think,” Mike said. “I think my wife and I had a feeling we might be training him again. We didn’t want to negotiate a stallion deal, but you’re pushed to that direction when you win a Triple Crown. We’d race him for the next 10 years if he was competitive. We’re approaching middle age and we know he’s a horse of a lifetime and you want to ride that as long as you can.”
Marion Marauder joined Mike and Paula at Pinehurst and started training again in March, with a plan to have him primed for the Hambletonian Maturity in July as part of the Meadowlands Pace undercard.
“We have a few races we’ll aim him at, but he won’t have a whole lot of starts this year,” Paula said. “The transition from 3 to 4 is very tough, and we feel we just have to protect him this year and then go for more next year in open-type stakes. We’re just playing it by ear.
“We were never selling him anyway. We were retaining a portion of him. We just opted to bring him back to race. If a deal couldn’t have been made, we had no qualms racing the horse – ever.
“It’s going to be easy this year. Everything fell into place last year. He had a wonderful year and now whatever he does it’s just icing on the cake. We’ll point him to big races this year the same as we did last year, but not near that many starts.”
Keeping the horse’s decision-making process in the family has made it easier to map out Marion Marauder’s future, Mike said.
“When you have owners pressuring you, the business gets a little more difficult, but he’s a family horse and that takes a lot of pressure off,” he said. “If he’s competitive, we’re going to enjoy it. We’re lucky that way.”