Thoroughbred racing is full of stories that seem more like fiction than fact. The latest chapter is being written by Runhappy, a Breeders’ Cup Sprint contender based in Lexington.
The three-year-old colt who has lived up to his name is trained by a newcomer, campaigns for a once high-profile owner and has an unconventional conditioning routine. His growing fan base that includes 5,000 Facebook followers expanded further when he won the Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 10. He first made a name for himself with his surprise triumph in the prestigious King’s Bishop Stakes at Saratoga Race Course a month earlier.
Prior to those scores, Runhappy was an unknown but the curious were drawn to his team headed by owner Jim McIngvale, the furniture mogul known in Texas as “Mattress Mac” for his attention-grabbing advertising. His offbeat strategies included placing a Thoroughbred in his store’s showroom and sponsoring Turfway Park’s Kentucky Derby prep race as the wordy GalleryFurniture.com Stakes in 1999.
McIngvale has had a good deal of success with his racing stable that was handled at times by well-known trainers and at other times by obscure horsemen.
Runhappy’s trainer Maria Borell gained some attention in the time leading up to the colt’s big day at Saratoga. The trip was not Borell’s first, however. Her first racetrack job had been at Saratoga more than a decade ago. While the rest of the track and the town buzzed about American Pharoah’s return to the races that week, the Runhappy camp enjoyed their working vacation in the idyllic surrounds.
All racehorses seem to thrive in Saratoga’s mountain air but most spend their days lounging in their stalls. As part of his unorthodox routine, Runhappy left the comfort of his barn some afternoons for a short van ride to a nearby farm where he was turned loose for grazing time in a paddock. After an hour or so of this relaxing ritual, Runhappy returned to the track.
He has a similar routine at his home base of The Thoroughbred Center, a Keeneland-owned facility on Paris Pike in Lexington. There he has only a short walk to his paddock to enjoy fresh air, sunshine and grass while unattached to a human. He also goes swimming a few times a week at The Thoroughbred Center’s pool.
Runhappy took several short road trips to Keeneland on the other side of Fayette County to get acquainted with the track in advance of his local debut. Clearly Runhappy felt at home at Keeneland. He led the way in the Phoenix Stakes to win by nearly two lengths as the favorite in the field of 11. That evening, he was back in his own stall at The Thoroughbred Center.
Happy with Runhappy
At age 32, Borrell is enjoying the type of high-class runner others never get in a lifetime.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said the day after the Keeneland score. “I know everyone thinks that’s silly, but it seems unreal some days.”
She is quick to acknowledge McIngvale and racing manager Laura Wohlers for entrusting her with the colt. Borell’s admiration for Runhappy himself is undeniable. She lovingly talks about him as if he were a pampered pet instead of a muscled moneymaker.
The admiration is mutual. Borell knows that a favorite treat is peppermints that Runhappy gently takes from her hand. Runhappy knows he is a champion in his people’s eyes and he acts accordingly. Walking to the track at Keeneland on Oct. 21 with some 25 admirers and reporters following, Runhappy calmly led the parade the same way he leads his rivals t the finish line.
Once exercise rider Omar Torres asked him for speed on the track, Runhappy responded accordingly with a sensational zippy stride.
“We couldn’t ask him to be training any better,” Borell said. “He’s training better for this race than he was before (the Saratoga and Keeneland races), so he’s really coming into himself. He wants to run. He wants to be in front of everybody.”
With his entourage still in tow, Runhappy humbly returned to his temporary Keeneland quarters to get bathed, drink some water and cool down. Then it was back to his real home at The Thoroughbred Center.
One of Runhappy’s caretakers is Cordell Anderson, a familiar face to those who attend Keeneland’s auction. Anderson is a longtime ringman, steadily holding the four-legged offerings amid the auctioneers’ chants.
Runhappy heard those chants two years ago when McIngvale made the final bid of $200,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. McIngvale envisioned the bay winning the Kentucky Derby just as his sire Super Saver had done.
With Wohlers as trainer, Runhappy was victorious at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky in his career debut at the close of 2014. In his next start in January, he was off the board at Fair Grounds in New Orleans and went to the sidelines.
He was back in action with two victories in July for Borell prior to his wins at Saratoga and Keeneland.
“He knows his job and he’s continuously getting better,” Borell said.
(Note: Runhappy is set to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Saturday at Keeneland. Post time is 2:50 p.m. Eastern Time)
Lianne Crossley is a Lexington-based freelance writer.
Courtesy of KyForward