The Unhappy Side of the Runhappy Story

Runhappy winning the King’s Bishop at Saratoga (photo from the Houston Chronicle)

By Derek Simon

It was the feel-good story of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup: Runhappy, saddled by 32-year-old Maria Borell, winning the Sprint in the kind of effort that left observers lost for adjectives and a young trainer lost for words.

“Unbelievable, unreal, a thousand things that I probably can’t put into words,” Borell said when asked in a post-race interview what it felt like to win the BC Sprint.

A day later, Borell was once again struggling to find words — this time to explain her abrupt dismissal from the Runhappy team.

In a series of tweets, Borell detailed the fateful events:

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As one might expect in today’s age of instant communication, the Internet exploded, as folks rushed to defend the apparent victim of a jealous coup.

But there is more to the Runhappy situation than meets the eye.

Now, before I go on, let me first say that I have been in contact with Borell and she pleaded with me not to write this article, expressing a desire to “move forward with [her] life and stop hurting.” And while I told her that I couldn’t honor this request — there are aspects of the story that I think need to be talked about — it is not my aim or desire to add to anybody’s pain or, for that matter, to take sides, as so many of my media colleagues have already done.

My purpose here is to shed light on something that I think is tearing the very fabric of our sport — even our society — apart. In his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, author Edward Bulwer-Lytton noted that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” I think that Bulwer-Lytton was right (I also think that people with hyphenated last names need to pick one and go with it, but that’s an issue for another day).

All too often, in our attempt to let the world know what we think or feel (regardless of whether or not the world is clamoring for that information), we forget that we are dealing with human beings — human beings with families and friends, people who love them.

I have seen Runhappy’s owner James McIngvale, better known as “Mattress Mack” in the greater Houston area where he built Gallery Furniture into a multi-million dollar company, called everything in the book. Yet his daughter, Laura Brown, told me about a guy who got into the racing business as a result of a young girl’s passion for horses.

“I started riding when I was seven years old,” Brown said. “And then my parents winded up buying me a little Quarter horse. When I was about nine, my dad ended up buying an off-the-track thoroughbred — a mare from my trainer — and, then, when I was about 10, we actually got into the industry for the first time, buying horses at the sales.”

Likewise, Laura Wohlers, who was Runhappy’s trainer of record prior to the hiring of Borell, has been cast as the Leona Helmsley of this sordid tale. Perhaps the best thing I’ve seen written about her is that she’s incompetent (the other stuff is not suitable for print) — something that grates on Brown.

“Laura Wohlers has held a training license since 1998,” she told me. “She learned under some of the best guys in the game — Jack VanBerg, Nick Zito. You know, even when our horses were in public training barns, Laura was still very involved — to learn and to be there and to become an even better horsewoman than she already was.

“She is a horsewoman through and through,” Brown continued. “This girl’s checked a hundred thousand horse’s legs and I’d trust her with any animal. And I’ll tell you this much: If anybody wants to act like she doesn’t know horses, then how’d she pick out Runhappy [at the sales]?”

Borell herself has not been immune from criticism, as her finances and the running of a broodmare farm she leases have recently come under scrutiny.

Enough already.

Seriously, am I the only one who is sick to death of folks in the racing industry feasting on their own, like members of the Donner Party?

I don’t care about Maria Borell’s finances. To paraphrase comedian Louis C.K., I’ve been so broke at certain points in my life I couldn’t afford things that were free. Who am I to cast stones?

Similarly, calling Laura Wohlers incompetent because she has a 12.1-percent career success rate as a trainer (29 wins from 239 starters)? You know what Wohlers doesn’t have? A history of drug violations.

Of the 153 horses that competed in the Breeders’ Cup, nine ran without any medication. Only three of those were U.S.-based, including — surprise, surprise — Runhappy.

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(Click on image to enlarge.)

What’s more, according, to Brown, Wohlers “has never had a horse vanned off the track; she has never had an infraction at any track she’s ever trained at — from Louisiana, to Delaware, to Kentucky; she’s never had a drug infraction; and she’s never even had a horse put down under her name, in her care.”

Boy, what a nincompoop.

And when did James McIngvale become He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Because he’s hired and fired a lot of trainers, he’s racing’s Beelzebub? Dearly departed New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner booted Billy Martin to the curb five times — and “The Boss” was a Big Apple icon.

Now, as to the specifics of Borell’s firing, which, apparently, an Internet connection makes one qualified to opine on, Brown was adamant that the earlier dispute with Wohlers played no part in the decision.

“The events that transpired in the afternoon had nothing to do with the events in the morning,” Brown claims. “They were in no way, shape or form correlated — at all.”

Brown also set the record straight concerning Borell’s role with the Gallery Racing team.

“A lot of people seem to think that when Laura was no longer the trainer of record that Maria Borell brought Runhappy into her barn and … that was not the case. Runhappy stayed exactly where he always was. He just happened to move to the Thoroughbred Training Center in Kentucky from Louisiana and Maria came into our barn there.

“So, Runhappy’s training schedule, Runhappy’s training program has been and always will be exactly the same … Maria was the trainer of record and the horse was under her care in that aspect, but Laura Wohlers and Bill Pressey (an equine performance expert) not only consulted but were very instrumental in this horse’s training and Maria was never allowed to make a training decision or even a feed decision on this animal unless consulting with [Wohlers] first — ever.”

Of course, to many, these words will ring hollow, reeking with the stench of jealousy (which, shockingly, smells a lot like teen spirit)… the problem is, they’re very likely true.

I say this because I have a source within the Gallery Racing barn who has kept me apprised of Runhappy’s progress ever since the colt broke its maiden (I was intrigued by the old-school training methods that the barn employs, so I asked questions). And I learned who did what long before the fecal matter hit the fan after the Breeders’ Cup. So, if Brown is lying about Borell’s role within the barn, it is a well-orchestrated lie and one that has been parroted by others, mainly my source, for a long time.

This is not, in any way, a knock against Borell. According to Brown, Runhappy’s training schedule was mapped out every Thursday — and Borell was a part of those conference calls, along with Wohlers and Pressey.

As for attempting to jog Runhappy the day after the Sprint, right or wrong (and many folks on social media who know a guy who knows a guy who trains racehorses have argued this point), Brown said it’s been standard practice for the son of Super Saver.

“[Runhappy] has gone out to the track the next day after every single breeze, every single race — as long as he was sound — to go jog. He was sound in the morning. Laura and Maria may have disagreed about that and that is why we brought our vet in to take a look at him… and he agreed that nothing was wrong,” she insisted.

Is Brown telling the truth? I have no idea. Even though I was aware of some of the inner workings of the barn, I won’t pretend for a second that I know exactly what transpired on the day that Borell was let go.

Do I think the firing was planned? Yeah, probably. Do I think Borell knew — 100 percent knew — that it was planned? No. I suspect that any previous discussions or texts relating to this matter — and both parties claim they have proof that the other party is mistaken — would quite naturally be forgotten the minute Runhappy crossed the finish line in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

However, my main point here is this: Rather than rushing to demonize one side or the other, it would be nice if folks in the racing industry and fans of the Sport of Kings would spend some time gathering facts — even a fact (singular) would be nice. We are talking about people’s lives and livelihoods, after all.

I’m OK with throwing stones — I’ve got an entire pile saved up for when the Dave Matthews Band comes to town — but let’s make sure that our targets are worthy. The racing industry has feasted on itself long enough.

As for Runhappy, the silent victim in all of this? Well, let’s just say that some lofty goals have been set.

“We plan on winning the Classic next year,” Brown told me.

I, for one, will be rooting him on… no matter who the trainer of record is.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.