Two great Canadian harness racing families teamed up to post an emotional victory when Marion Marauder won the 91st Hambletonian and completed the mission started by Hall of Famer Bill Wellwood.
story by Dave Briggs, photos by Dave Landry
She waited patiently through the many presentations, but when it finally was her turn, Paula Wellwood was anything but her usual quiet, reserved self. Raising the Hambletonian trophy over her head, sweet euphoria swept over her face and spilled out of her for all to see.
Just a few minutes after Marion Marauder stuck a couple of nose hairs in front of favored Southwind Frank to win the $1 million Hambletonian Saturday afternoon (Aug. 6) at the Meadowlands, Wellwood, who cares for the colt and shares his training duties with her husband, Mike Keeling, was undergoing a complete transformation in the winner’s circle.
It did not go unnoticed by the couple’s 19-year-old son, Devin Keeling, who owns Marion Marauder with his grandmother, Jean Wellwood, the widow of U.S. and Canadian Hall of Famer Bill Wellwood.
“I’ve seen (my parents) win big races their whole lives and be happy, but I’ve never seen the look in my mom’s eyes that she had when she picked that trophy up,” Devin said. “She’s been chasing it since she was a child, my grandpa was chasing it, and just the look in her eyes, was almost like my grandpa radiating through her. It wasn’t just happiness, it was eternal bliss. It was just completeness,” Devin said.
Asked about it later, Paula said the magnitude of the moment, “was finally sinking in. I was speechless through the whole race. I couldn’t even cheer.”
Nearby, Jean was crying. Bill Wellwood died in 2003 without realizing a dream to win the Hambletonian, despite a number of attempts.
“We’ve tried a lot times. We really have tried, and this one’s for William. I’ve got tears,” Jean said, pointing to the sunglasses hiding her red eyes. “We finally got it done and you have no idea how happy I am because it’s been a long time coming. My daughter is an excellent horselady and Mike trains and they both are a good team and they really work well together.”
Meanwhile, 27-year-old driver Scott Zeron was kicking himself for not being emotional enough, but said it had more to do with not knowing whether he had won or just missed.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, did I win?’ I wish I knew I won, because I would’ve been a bit more excited and could have celebrated,” Zeron said. “I looked and (Southwind Frank’s driver) Yannick (Gingras) said, ‘Hey, congratulations,’ but some of us drivers will do that just to tilt it over, like ‘Oh yeah, you got it, you got it’ and then when it comes around you’ll be disappointed. So it was a long wait, but then I saw all my connections jumping up and then it hit me.”
Zeron is the eighth driver in the Hambletonian’s 91-year history to win the race in his first attempt. Paula Wellwood joined Linda Toscano as the only women to train a Hambletonian champion.
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. She liked the pedigree (Muscle Hill out of Spellbound Hanover) and asked Paula to check out the trotter originally named Marion Monopoly. The colt was a little small, but Jean asked Paula to buy the colt anyway if the price was right, and it was at $37,000.
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.”
The victory improved Marion Marauder to 7-5-3 in 20 career starts and pushed his earnings over $1 million lifetime. Marion Marauder won the final in 1:51.4, just one-fifth of a second slower than he won his elimination four races earlier with a career-best 1:51.3 performance that was a half-length better than Southwind Frank.
But that elimination victory was anything but easy or pretty. Marion Marauder had traffic trouble early, leaving Paula wondering just where her colt was in the mile as she watched from the paddock.
“The TV wasn’t on when they were going behind the gate. So then I tried to watch the first heat out on the tarmac and he wasn’t getting called. I couldn’t see him. So I ran in and I saw Mike standing at the TV and I said, ‘Where is he?!? Oh my God, what’s happening?’”
“It was kind of a crazy trip, but he showed the kind of horse he is,” Mike said. “I don’t think it’s a trip that either one of us envisioned, but that’s horse racing and you take what you get and you hope you’ve got the horse to do it.”
Bar Hopping handily won the first Hambletonian elimination by five-and-a-quarter lengths in 1:51.4 for trainer Jimmy Takter, driver Tim Tetrick and owners Christina Takter of New Jersey, Hatfield Stables of Columbus, OH, Marv Katz of Toronto and Al Libfeld of Pickering, ON.
In the final, Zeron said he “didn’t want to push my horse out of his comfort zone. I’d love to just push to the front and try to sit two-hole to Bar Hopping or Frank, but it wouldn’t have been that easy. So I elected to take back and I inevitably knew he’d be first up, but this horse is a grinder. He gradually picks up his speed throughout the race, so I was confident that first up wouldn’t hurt him as long as it didn’t turn into a third-quarter sprint. And it didn’t. Bar Hopping was a little vulnerable when I got up to him, and I decided to pull the trigger and just try to sprint away on the field. God, he delivered.
“When I got closer to Bar Hopping I saw that Timmy was weakening. My horse started grabbing on, grabbing on so I couldn’t help myself and I just let him go early. I let him go too early, which is why we only won by a nostril, but by the same token, he fought all the way down the lane.”
Zeron, the son of successful Woodbine circuit trainer/driver Rick Zeron, had his mother, Joyce, in the winner’s circle, but Rick was at home in Oakville, ON, just as he was in 2012 when Scott also won the Little Brown Jug in his first attempt, driving Michaels Power to victory.
Earlier Saturday, Scott drove his father’s pacer Shamballa to an upset victory in the U.S. Pacing Championship over the Big Three of Always B Miki, Wiggle It Jiggleit and Freaky Feet Pete.
“For sure, (dad) was crying and he’s going to say he’s proud of me. The last thing he’ll talk about is (Shamballa). We have a great relationship and I wish he was here for that race and as well for the Hambo, but I know he’s crying back home,” Scott said.
Sure enough, Rick said “the waterworks started” when Marion Marauder hit the wire a nose hair in front of Southwind Frank in the Hambletonian final. “It’s a big day. I was really happy with him winning with Shamballa, but I was more happy with him winning the Hambletonian.”
Scott, the leading driver at the Meadowlands, said he hopes winning the Hambletonian will be a further boost to his career. His parents couldn’t be prouder.
Joyce said she is “so excited and so proud of (Scott). I missed the PEI Gold Cup and Saucer the first time he won that. I wasn’t supposed to be at the Jug, but I had a feeling he was going to win so I went and he won. This time, I wasn’t supposed to come… but I had a feeling he was going to win, so I said ‘I’ve got to go’. And I’m so happy that I did come and I’m so proud of him and grateful to the owners for believing in him and the connections.”
The driver said he was mostly thrilled for Paula and Mike, “because they have developed trotters their whole lives. They’ve been in this race, finished third. It’s their end-all, be-all race. And for me it’s the first time I’ve been in it. I haven’t lost it 20 times or anything, but at the same time, I got it out of the way early and I don’t know where I go from here.”
Scott Zeron may have a knack for winning big races the first time out, but before this year’s race, Mike Keeling still was feeling the heartburn of Keystone Ludwig making a break in 1992 while poised to post a Hambletonian victory.
“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.”
Twenty-four years on, Mike said Marion Marauder makes up for that day. Not that he had many doubts. He knew his family finally had karma on its side.
“I do believe in that,” Mike said. “You put good out into the world and sometimes good comes back… and we work hard, you know.
“He drew the four-hole, that’s my favorite number, and it was the 13th race. Thirteen is a very lucky number for us. (Devin) was born on (March) 13th.”
Then, as if he was verbally pinching himself, Mike grinned. “I just won the Hambletonian,” he said, laughing. “Not many people get to say that.”
Especially not that many Canadians can say they have won a Hambletonian in its 91 years. Mike said it helped to have many Canadians cheering for them.
“The good will from everybody at home, it wasn’t fake, it was ‘We really want you guys to go down there and win that.’ We slayed some dragons today, too.”
Paula and Mike have a 12-horse stable in Cambridge, ON.
“I’m hoping that it brings a little bit of recognition for everybody to keep the hope and to keep involved. You can have the big dream. I hope people see that you can dream the dream and it can happen,” Paula said.
“It sends a message that it’s not just the big boys that win all the races,” Rick said. “The little people can win them, too.”
Devin Keeling, who is entering his second year of university, said he hopes some of the money will help him pay for his education, but “it’s not about the money anymore, it’s about so much more than money,” especially for his grandmother.
“I think it’s like an out-of-body experience for her,” Devin said of watching Jean light up the winner’s circle. “I remember talking to her last night about all the other chances we’ve had and how hard my grandpa worked at this and how he was devastated with the losses or even happy, but still not complete without the wins. I’m just so happy for her and I can only imagine what she’s feeling.”
What does it mean to have the Wellwood/Keeling names on the famed trophy?
“It means a lot. It means the world, especially when you train trotters and that’s all we train,” Paula said.
Not far away, her mother was swinging between elation and sadness as she dedicated the Hambletonian to her husband.
“I couldn’t help but think about William today,” Jean said, crying.
Devin said winning the Hambletonian was as much about unfinished business, as anything.
“When (grandpa) didn’t accomplish it then my mom basically took it upon her shoulders, and my grandma as well when he passed,” Devin said. “It’s that internal drive. It’s not something that we wanted to do, it’s something that we had to do.”
Mike, the man who believes in karma, said he was struck with a strange, peaceful feeling all day.
“I just knew we had the right horse and it was out of my control at that point,” Mike said.
Divine intervention, perhaps?
“I’m sure he was the one that gave him that last push,” Paula said of her late father, adding that if William Wellwood was alive he likely would have been, “a little quiet at first, but then he would have had lots to say, you know that.”
Then Paula smiled — not as sweetly as when she radiated pure bliss picking up the trophy, but enough to suggest the family’s long journey was finally complete.