The name Maria Borell was foreign to most prior to the Grade I King's Bishop, where her charge Runhappy dazzled the capacity crowd at Saratoga, as he stole the show on the same day American Pharoah was defeated.
Though the King's Bishop was Runhappy and Borell’s coming out party, the journey started in the Hoosier state at Indiana Grand, when the son of Super Saver made his debut for his new trainer. It was just another average Tuesday at Indiana Grand with the feature being an Allowance Optional Claimer with a purse of $34,000.
The track was deluged with rain most of the afternoon and there were some talk after a few races that the remainder of the card might actually be canceled as the surface was extremely muddy. I stood outside to the left of the winner's circle as Runhappy jogged through the post parade, I watched from a distance as a young but excited trainer studied her pride and joy on the track.
In front of a crowd of maybe 100 race fans, Borell’s Runhappy would put on a show and give the most impressive performance I have ever seen at Indiana Grand and maybe have ever seen, period. Under the apprentice jockey, Erin Walker, Runhappy broke slowly and was bumped as he found himself dead last in the first furlong of the race. Not a position a trainer would want to be with a talented horse starting for the first time in her barn. Borell wasn’t rattled and neither was Runhappy, making a quick but decisive decision Walker split horses and then shot through on the rail to quickly grab the lead.
On a day where the Indiana Grand surface was playing very slow, Runhappy set blistering fractions of 22.38 for the quarter and 45.07 for the half, which was amazing considering his start, and the fact the track was playing at least a second slow. Runhappy made a mockery of the field as he drew off on the “dead rail’ at Indiana Grand to win by 5 lengths under wraps.
I watched as an ecstatic trainer greeted her horse with hugs and praise as they brought him into the winner's circle. I spoke to Maria after the race as we stood in the rain. She told me this was the best horse she’s ever been around and how grateful she was to his owner James McIngvale and racing manager Laura Wohlers for the opportunity to train such a talented race horse.
After that performance Runhappy and his trainer were the talk of the track at Indiana Grand. Indiana Grand track announcer Bill Downes was one of those professionals that was extremely impressed by the son of Super Saver’s performance. Bill was candid with his comments when we spoke “Runhappy's race at Indiana Grand was incredible. It was a strong field for the level. He broke DEAD LAST after getting bumped at the start and he was last for the first 1/16th of a mile and then he exploded. He was four lengths behind after that start but had the lead by a length and a half after the first quarter into a 22.38. It was just an unbelievable turn of foot. Final time was 1:09.82. I knew he was a big time horse.” Bill immediately put Runhappy in his virtual stable and the comment beside it was “Maria’s Freak of Nature.”
After Runhappy’s dominating performance in a second level allowance at Ellis Park, and then going on to shock the world at Saratoga, while setting a stakes record in the King's Bishop, Maria Borell finds herself smack dab in the middle of the racing world. The pressure is something Maria is ready for as she conditions the morning line 9-5 favorite for the “Win and You’re In” Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix (G3) at Keeneland on Friday.
Runhappy and jockey Edgar Prado drew the rail for the Phoenix, which in the past might be a cause of concern for Borell and her colt, who at times has had trouble getting away cleanly from the gate. But in his last two starts he’s broken sharp. I asked Maria if this was a sign of him maturing, she told me “I think he 100% knows his job now and what it’s all about.” Maria has had all the right answers in terms of her colt Runhappy, as she is undefeated with him and she has him improving race by race and work by work. Anyone familiar with the Thoroughbred Center will attest to how strong this horse continues to work.
The Phoenix will be a strong prep for team Runhappy on their way to their ultimate goal, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The lasix-free colt and unheralded trainer have struck a chord with an admiring nation but the fans in Indiana hold this team especially close to our heart, and we will be rooting them on with cheering voices and clapping hands!