Three generations from the family of Hall of Famer Bill Wellwood are hoping karma can help Marion Marauder win the Hambletonian
by Dave Briggs
The matriarch of one of harness racing’s great families speaks softly, but wants you to know she is the one that started the family on this lifelong chase to put their name on the greatest of the sport’s trophies.
“I just liked the trotters. Way back when, we had Keystone Gary (who earned over $320,000 in the 1970s). He kind of started it all for us. I used to jog and train him,” said Jean Wellwood.
After 52 years in the business and counting, including seven failed Hambletonian attempts, Wellwood joked it’s about time to rectify that winless streak.
“We’ve been here enough. It’s about time we won it,” Wellwood said last night as the Hambletonian owners’ party was just kicking into gear in a tent on the tarmac at the Meadowlands Racetrack. Her 19-year-old grandson Devin Keeling was by her side with a Marion Marauder button pinned to his shirt.
Later today, the widow of U.S. and Canadian Hall of Famer Bill Wellwood — one of the sport’s most respected horsemen — will have her grandson by her side again as they cheer on a horse they own together, is named for the two of them and is trained in tandem by Devin’s parents — Paula Wellwood and Mike Keeling.
In a sport built on families, Marion Marauder is not only one of the great stories of the 91st Hambletonian, he is one of the few horses experts believe has a shot to defeat the likely favorite, Southwind Frank.
“I’m thrilled with where he’s at and I’m thrilled with my driver,” Mike said, referring to fellow Ontario native Scott Zeron, the Meadowlands’ leading driver. “(Zeron) comes off the track every time saying that he’s just so happy with him and he’s so comfortable with him. He hasn’t hit bottom with him. So, I think we belong.”
It was Jean that first zeroed in on Marion Marauder in the 2014 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale catalog while watching the sale on her laptop.
“I’ve always wanted a Muscle Hill colt,” Jean said of the son of Spellbound Hanover. “I liked the pedigree because we had his dam’s sister, Sooner Hanover (who earned over $225,000).
“So, I phoned Paula and I told her, ‘Go look at him. She said, ‘Oh, he’s kind of small.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t matter. He’ll grow.’ Then, I looked at his name (originally Marion Monopoly). My name is Marion Jean Wellwood and the colt was born on Devin’s birthday, March 13th. I thought, ‘I’m going to take a crack at this colt.’ So, I was on the phone with my laptop and (Paula) was bidding. I had a set price and I got him below the price for $37,000. So, that’s how the colt came to us, with me on my laptop and Paula on the phone doing the bidding.”
The family renamed the trotter Marion Marauder, “because Devin is going to McMaster University (in Hamilton, ON) and he’s a football player on the Marauders,” Mike said. “Jean’s name is Marion Jean Wellwood. It just kind of lined up.”
If nothing else, Mike hopes the backstory will please the Racing Gods.
“We believe in karma and serendipity and I think it’s what keeps us in the horse business,” he said. “If you were pragmatic, you’d never do it.”
Even Zeron figures in on the karma overload.
“We have a special history,” Mike said of Zeron. “He won the Battle of Waterloo for me and that was kind of his first major stakes race and he was pretty young at the time. If that karma thing comes in, we have a little magic going on.”
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The last time Bill Wellwood tried to win the Hambletonian, he had two horses in the 1992 event. Swagger Hanover was Jean’s horse. Keystone Ludwig was cared for by 23-year-old Mike Keeling, who remembers that Hambletonian as “heartbreak. He was my horse. I took care of him. He was a big, beautiful horse. He was circling them around the last turn (in his heat) and he threw a shoe. It was back in the days of leather rim pads and the leather rim pad in the hot weather, the nails didn’t stay the way they should have and the shoe came flying off and I was heartbroken… Ron Waples was driving him and he said, ‘I had so much horse.’ He just blew up off the last turn.”
Swagger Hanover was fifth in his heat and the Wellwoods’ day was over.
“It was a pretty disappointing day, but that’s horse racing,” Jean said.
Nine years before that, in the first Hambletonian at the Meadowlands, Bill Wellwood was sixth driving his trainee Day Care in the 1981 event.
In 1977, in his Hambletonian debut, Bill had little luck with Sugarbowl Hanover at DuQuoin, IL.
After Bill died in 2003, Jean didn’t stop trying. That same summer, Jean and Paula shipped Bertolio to Brett Pelling for the Hambletonian and the colt was seventh in his elimination.
Two years later, Jean’s horse Gettindownanddirty — trained by Paula — was seventh in the final. The mother-daughter team tried again two years later with Laddie and ended up third in the 2007 event won by Donato Hanover.
It’s taken nine years to get back here, but the all-Canadian connections believe they have a legitimate shot.
“The winter he trained down as a baby, I had back surgery and I didn’t actually get behind him until probably March,” Mike said. “I got to see him and I got to hear some stories about how he seemed to have a quick sprint to him, but he was kind of small and kind of fumbly-gaited. It wasn’t really until we got him home and I trained him in 2:10. He blew my doors off that day. I came off the track and Paula and I just looked at each other and I said, ‘He could be special.’ That was kind of it.”
Marion Marauder won just once as a two-year-old in 2015, but earned $283,480 after finishing second to Southwind Frank in both the race named in memory of Bill Wellwood at Mohawk and the Breeders Crown at Woodbine.
“I couldn’t believe how good he turned out at two, actually. But we just happened to have Southwind Frank all the time to contend with,” Jean said.
This year, Marion Marauder has won four of five starts and $194,905 thanks to a victory in the $209,040 Goodtimes at Mohawk on Pepsi North America Cup Night and one in his $153,250 Stanley Dancer division at the Meadowlands on July 16, which was his last start.
“He was a biter at two, but he’s kind of gotten over that now. He’s grown up a lot. They mature.”
Mike said Marion Marauder has a special relationship with Paula who has been the trotter’s caretaker from the beginning. “He dotes on Paula and she dotes on him,” Mike said. “He’s got a strong personality. He’s very playful. He’s a little rough at times, but he knows when he’s gone too far. He’s kind of a pleasure. He’s kind of a character.”
Mike said winning the Hambletonian would be the realization of a lifelong dream.
“When you’re a dopey kid thinking about horse racing, this is the one you dream of,” he said. “The fact that he’s the family horse and we’re adamant about keeping him the family horse at this point, it just makes it all the more special.”
Asked what it would mean to see the Wellwood family name engraved on the Hambletonian trophy after five decades of trying, Jean began to cry.
“It would really mean a lot to me. It really would,” she said. “It makes me emotional just talking about it.”