Maria Borell had never won a race, not one, when she got a call telling her that owner Jim McIngvale wanted to turn over four horses to her, including a promising 3-year-old named Runhappy. McIngvale, who never seems to go the conventional route when it comes to the racing business, might be the only major owner who would have made such an offbeat decision. But it's been a good one. Runhappy might just win the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and his 32-year-old trainer has already proved that you don't have to be Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Bill Mott or Chad Brown to get a talented horse to the winner's circle.
There are a lot more Maria Borells out there than there are Todd Pletchers, people who work in obscurity, never get a chance to show what they can do and either struggle or give up.
"I didn't know if I was going to continue doing this," Borell said. "Financially, one can support yourself for only so long when you're not winning any races. I've had some pretty terrible horses that I trained before. One was an Indiana-bred, who was a DNF, meaning he did not finish, in the start before I got him. I thought I'd try to fix him and see what I could do. I was desperate and hungry for anything."
A racing fan growing up in Syracuse, New York, Borell decided to make a career out of the game and started by galloping horses at the NYRA tracks. She became an assistant trainer, a veterinary technician. She took a job as a trainer for someone who, shortly after hiring her, decided to sell all his horses.
Borell figured she needed a fresh start and moved to Kentucky, but she found herself in an even worse position. At least in New York people knew her. She had no connections in Kentucky and couldn't find anyone willing to give her a chance.
"I got really discouraged a few times," she said. "This is a tough business."
Eventually Borell cobbled together a small stable, but it wasn't a good one. Starting out on her own in 2013, she was 0-for-22 lifetime when the call from the McIngvale camp came.
"Mattress Mac" McIngvale made his fortune in the furniture business and is one of the most innovative and colorful people in the sport, but he can also be a little off the wall. While he has hired some of the top names in the game like Nick Zito and Baffert, he's also gone the totally opposite route. He once turned his horses over to his night watchman, Leonard Atkinson. Laura Wohlers, Runhappy's previous trainer, is McIngvale's sister-in-law and was dividing her time between the racetrack and working in his furniture store. He once tried a trainer named Steve Moyer, whose biggest win was a $60,000 stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky.
There is some madness and some genius to the decisions he makes concerning his horses, and the move to hire Borell falls into the latter category. Wohlers trained the son of Super Saver during his first two starts, a maiden win at Turfway Park and a poor showing in the Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. According to Borell, Wohlers wanted someone else to take the horse to Kentucky and figured she wasn't the right one to do so because of her commitments with the furniture business.
"A friend of mine got in touch with me and said, 'I gave your name to these people; they need some hands-on help in Kentucky,'" Borell said. "I didn't honestly know much about them but told my friend, 'Yeah, have them give me a call.' When I saw they were going to give me Runhappy and I looked at what he did in his maiden race I said, 'Sign me up.'"
Wohlers and McIngvale clearly gave Borell a talented horse, but no one could have imagined what he would develop into. In his first two starts for Borell, he won an allowance race at Indiana Downs and then another at Ellis Park back in Kentucky, small tracks where nobody pays much attention to what is going on.
From the Ellis allowance race, Borell made a decision in which she appeared to be aiming too high, the type of rookie mistake inexperienced trainers can make. She threw Runhappy into the Grade 1 King's Bishop in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the competition would include horses from heavyweight trainers such as Brown, Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Wayne Lukas and Mark Casse. Runhappy didn't just win, he turned the King's Bishop into a one-horse race.
Next up was the Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland, where the objective was to prove the King's Bishop was not a fluke.
"In the Phoenix, I knew I had to prove that he's a serious horse, that he wasn't a one-race wonder," she said of the race in Lexington, Kentucky. "It was a totally different feeling than the King's Bishop. In the King's Bishop everyone thought we were a joke and no one was giving us credit. This was on my home turf in Kentucky, and I needed to show everyone this horse was the real deal."
He's no one-hit wonder. Runhappy broke slowly, rushed up into a 21 ⅖ first quarter and still had enough left to put away Barbados and 2014 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Work All Week to win by 1 ¾ lengths.
"He's training better going into the Breeders' Cup than he did before the King's Bishop and the Phoenix," Borell said. "He came out of Phoenix with a whole new air about him. He is high on himself. He's gotten it into his head that he is a big deal."
Runhappy will now likely be the second choice in the Sprint behind Private Zone. He might not win, but he's a serious horse, and his past two races have been as good as anything seen in the sprint division this year.
Thanks to Runhappy, so much has changed for Borell in such a short time.
"I go to the sales now and people say hi to me," she said. "Before they didn't give me the time of day."
People can be that way, and Borell, with her youth, charm and her story, is sure to be a media sensation come Breeders' Cup week. But she's still the same person who was the winless trainer that no one would acknowledge at the sales. The only thing different is that someone gave her a chance, and she made the most of it.