When Marion Marauder edged out Southwind Frank (again) to win both the Kentucky Futurity and Trotting Triple Crown Sunday at Red Mile, it set off a range of emotions from the Wellwood and Keeling families and made 27-year-old Scott Zeron the youngest Triple Crown-winning driver in history.
by Dave Briggs
When the total board flashed OFFICIAL confirming Marion Marauder had won the Trotting Triple Crown by a head Sunday afternoon at Red Mile, Mike Keeling looked at his wife Paula Wellwood and their friend trainer Linda Toscano and her staff and the elation hit them all at once in the paddock at the historic Lexington, KY racetrack.
“We just kind of looked at each other and screamed all at once,” Keeling said. “That was just the realization that it did happen.”
Five hundred miles north in Stratford, ON, Jean Wellwood burst into tears watching the race at home, alone. Then the phone began to ring and the text messages started to pour in. The widow of widely-respected Hall of Fame horseman Bill Wellwood, and the principal owner of Marion Marauder, had stayed home from Kentucky to recover from a bad respiratory virus she picked up after Marion Marauder won the Yonkers Trot a month ago.
Jean wasn’t the only one in Marion Marauder’s team that was hurting. Her daughter, Paula — who shares Marion Marauder’s training duties with Keeling — was injured by the trotter at Mohawk on Sept. 17, the night of the $522,150 Canadian Trotting Classic won by Bar Hopping.
“He pinned her and she had an accordion injury. Her ribs and ligaments were torn. She’s been in really bad shape,” Jean said.
Nothing like winning the 124th edition of the Kentucky Futurity — and the Triple Crown trophy that went with it due to the colt’s wins in the Hambletonian and Yonkers Trot — to help nurse some wounds and lift some spirits lowered by sickness.
The well-timed victory over chief rival Southwind Frank was remarkably similar to Marion Marauder’s Aug. 6 Hambletonian triumph at the Meadowlands.
Starting from the rail in the second tier in the field of 12, Marion Marauder was wide for the entire mile. His driver, Scott Zeron, managed to get cover from Bar Hopping while Blenheim trotted to the lead in :28.1. Love Matters was flushed first over heading to the half, carrying Southwind Frank and Bar Hopping on his back through a :56.2 half and a 1:25.1 third-quarter split.
Southwind Frank took command in the stretch, but Bar Hopping, with Marion Marauder alongside, were chasing him in the lane. Marion Marauder got up just inches before the wire to win for his 11th time in 26 starts this year.
“I had to have no game plan going into that race,” Zeron said. “I had no clue what was going to happen; earlier there was a 12-horse field and the 11 and 12 got away 11th and 12th. I wasn’t too optimistic, but the way it unfolded and Bar Hopping really pushed to get away up close, I just glued my horse to his helmet. We were able to get [Southwind] Frank out and it was a perfect train.
“I just had my eyes on (Southwind Frank) and (Bar Hopping). I didn’t want to make a move too quickly because I knew we’d be sprinting really hard down the lane. I was confident down the lane when I moved him over; probably watching the race, you might not have been as confident, but he dropped his head about two feet and just dug right through the wire. I was very confident he got up, but nobody else was, so thank God he got up. He was amazing.”
Keeling and Jean Wellwood had high praise for their driver for navigating a talented field of 12 from the second tier.
“Scott made a ridiculously brilliant move off the gate and got himself backed away and to the outside to give him the opportunity,” Keeling said. “Once that happened, my anxiety level went down a little bit. And then it was just a matter of getting some clearance and taking a run at them.”
Jean said, “Scott is just so cool. He just knows Marauder so well. He speaks well, great, great guy. We couldn’t have had any better driver and it’s really his year.”
“(Zeron is) young and smart and classy and just fits us,” Keeling said. “He’s always been composed. He’s an old soul, I think. There’s no moment that seems to overwhelm him. It was just a comfort level right from the start.”
Marion Marauder won each leg of the Triple Crown by the slimmest of margins. He won the Hambletonian by a nose and the other two legs by a head.
“I think that’s the mark of a good horse. Cam Fella was notorious for doing that, having a nose for the wire and they know how to win. You can’t train that,” Keeling said.
Marion Marauder is the ninth horse to win the Trotting Triple Crown and the first since Glidemaster won it 10 years ago. Zeron, 27, became the youngest driver to win a Triple Crown.
“It is unbelievable what this horse can do because he’s not the biggest horse in the race… but he just has that grit,” said Jean, who shares Marion Marauder’s ownership with Paula and Keeling’s 19-year-old son, Devin Keeling, a football player for the McMaster University Marauders of Hamilton, ON, who has only had passing interest in horses until now despite the family’s long, storied history in the business.
“(Devin) flew into Lexington airport and it happened to be Keeneland opening day around 1 o’clock. He said for 10 minutes he was staring out the window at all of these wonderful farms and he got off the plane and said, ‘I love Lexington,’” Mike said, laughing.
But before Devin gets too enamored with the equine high life, his grandmother — who controls the money in the partnership — has a message for him.
“He can stay in university,” Jean said, laughing. “But he did mention me in the winner’s circle and said that he wished I was there. He’s pretty special to me, so maybe grandma can throw him some money.”
It is sweet karma that Jean watched the $431,000 race unfold on her iPad nearly two years to the day that she sat at home and picked out and purchased the son of Muscle Hill out of Spellbound Hanover from the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale for $37,000 from the Preferred Equine consignment.
“When I looked at that book at home and I said I’m going to buy this horse and called (Paula), I never thought that he would turn out the way he did,” Jean said. “I thought he’d be a horse that would do well, but you never know, they come home with a halter on.”
Even with Marion Marauder’s success this season and a Triple Crown a possibility, the colt’s connections hesitated about paying $47,261 to supplement the trotter to the Kentucky Futurity.
“I was a little apprehensive getting the 11-hole and I put up a bit of money to supplement, not that he hadn’t deserved it, but I started with William Wellwood with nothing. We didn’t even have furniture,” Jean said, laughing. “We only had a TV and a chair in the living room, a bed to sleep in and a table to eat off… so I’ve always looked at the business aspect of things and I thought, ‘Am I crazy or what?’ They talked me into it.
“It really is the icing on the cake. The Hambletonian was just my dream. And then to get this on top of it, it’s just unbelievable. That’s all I can say, it’s unbelievable.”
The victory increased Marion Marauder’s bankroll to nearly $1.5 million this year and a little more than $1.75 million lifetime. Mike said the money isn’t as important as the accomplishments.
“It’s an amazing thing. The horse made history and we got to be a part of it,” he said.
“You work hard in this business and you dream about these things, and you don’t know if it can ever happen. So it just affirms that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing and we do it the right way and, you know, we’re just so fortunate to have this horse come into our lives.”