Marion Marauder 'Just Special'

Published: November 27, 2020 10:00 am EST

It took Mike Keeling all of two minutes to know what he had with Marion Marauder.

“I got behind him probably in March and got him in a race bike in late April (as a two-year-old),” Keeling recalled. “I’ve been around some pretty nice horses through the years. But I never had a horse that did what he did that day, and I’ll never forget that day.

“We were at a home track in Ontario; we put him in a race bike for the first time. I was going a mile in 2:10 and just got to the half and moved the lines on him. I asked him to trot and he just set sail. It was like, ‘Whoosh!’”

Due to back surgery, Keeling was unable to help wife Paula Wellwood train him down as a two-year-old when he was in North Carolina, but he had heard stories where someone would come alongside Marion Marauder but he wouldn’t let them pass.

“He gave little glimpses down there,” Keeling said. “But that first day I asked him to extend himself a little bit, it was just ... I’d never felt it before. I just smiled at Paula and said, ‘This guy’s just different.’ I’ll always remember that. And I always took such pleasure in training him because he just gave you a different feel.”

Sadly, the feeling is gone, as Keeling recently announced that the seven-year-old son of Muscle Hill out of Spellbound Hanover would be retired from racing. The decision was made after consulting with a group of top equine veterinarians, who assessed that Marion Marauder could no longer compete at the elite level.

Granted, he could still do overnights and pick up some easy money around the country. But that would be like Willie Mays finishing his career playing in the low minor leagues.

“He still could probably win open trots almost anywhere in North America,” Keeling said. “But we never intended to use him as a racehorse. His legacy shouldn’t be tarnished.”

... which is the main reason why he made the extremely tough decision to shut Marion Marauder down. The horse had no lameness issues, and when they ran an ultrasound, there were no obvious issues. But, there had been various liver problems over the years, and Marion Marauder was struggling to keep his blood at the level needed to compete with the best in the sport.

“It was a tough decision just because he’s been such a big part of our lives, and knowing when you train him that he feels like he’s still the same horse,” Keeling said. “But the way racing has turned, he can’t put himself in position. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. We just knew he was going to be chasing and chasing. It was as frustrating for him as it was for us.

“We’ve always told ourselves we wouldn’t cheapen him or race him if he couldn’t compete and beat the best. It was a hard decision, but we’re at peace with it.”

And he will always have the memories. And man, what memories they are.

Owned by Marion Jean Wellwood and Devin Keeling, Marion Marauder finished his career with 22 wins, hit the board in 47 of 69 starts and earned $3,605,106.

In his magical three-year-old year of 2016, Marion Marauder became the ninth Triple Crown trotting champion after winning the Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot and — against all odds — the Kentucky Futurity. His 15 starts produced 10 wins, three second-place finishes and $1,558,254 in earnings, and he enjoyed year-end honours on both sides of the border. He was the 2016 O'Brien Award winner for three-year-old trotting colts and geldings, and he was also voted Trotter of the Year by the United States Harness Writers Association.

A year later, he became the Older Male Trotter of the Year after hitting the board in eight of 10 starts, winning three times and earning $770,120.

He had another strong year as a five-year-old with six wins, four second-place finishes and $643,469 in earnings, but went winless at age six and won just $37,133 in seven starts this past year.

“When he just didn’t get away good in the Maple Leaf Trot, and there was no reason for it, that’s just his style of racing,” Keeling said. “He still trots home in 27 seconds, but he’s given up so much ground every race. The horse hadn’t changed much but the way they race now and the aggressive style of racing just doesn’t suit him.”

It’s safe to say Marion Marauder lived up to the potential that Keeling saw in him during that first trot. But even then, he didn’t let his hopes get too high, as he had a somewhat rambunctious animal to deal with.

“We didn’t know he was going to have this little idiosyncrasy where he wanted to attack horses beside him in the starting gate,” the trainer said with a laugh. “His very first (race) — that’s probably the only break he made until last year on Hambletonian Day as a six-year-old. He reached over and tried to attack the horse beside him.

“He had that tendency in training, once in a while, where he would reach and grab at the guy in front of him. Little silly things, but we knew that qualifying him and racing him, we were going to have to tell the drivers to be careful at the gate. He started out his career by being a stone closer because that’s the position the drivers had to put him in.”

No one was able to do it better than Scott Zeron, who drove the horse in 53 starts. The duo started out fairly well with a second-place finish in the 2015 William Wellwood Memorial final at Woodbine Mohawk Park. It just kept getting better from there, as Zeron was in the sulky for the incredible Triple Crown run.

“We were huge fans of Scott’s when he first started out,” Keeling said. “He just had professionalism about him. He won a little race up here (in Canada) called the Battle of Waterloo for us. When John Campbell didn’t drive Marauder anymore, Scott was the most obvious and the only choice for us at that time.”

That’s a high compliment, considering their decision went against the grain of the locals.

“It maybe didn’t sit well with our Canadian counterparts because Scott had already moved to the States, and maybe they thought we could have used a local guy,” Keeling said. “But Scott was always going to be our first choice. He’s a true professional and him and Marauder got along like peas and carrots.”

Zeron has been quoted as saying he felt the Kentucky Futurity was the best race of Marion Marauder’s career, considering he was in the 11th post in a 12-horse race. Keeling ranks the performance alongside the Hambletonian final.

“They’re the two that really stick in there,” he said. “I always had this gut instinct he was going to win the Hambletonian. That day was a special day and for him to actually pull it off was pretty special.

“The Futurity, the odds were against him so much in that particular race with the post position. He was a locked-in trailer with three (Jimmy) Takter horses around him. Just the way it went was so great. When he dug in and got the job done and Sam McKee made that final call, that one sits with me pretty good.”

The Canadian also has special regard for the Hambletonian elimination that year, when Marion Marauder was way back before coming three-wide around the final turn to win it.

“That was incredible when you look at where he was on the seven-eighths pole and how he won that race,” Keeling said. “Not many horses do what he did in the elimination.”

If the trainer has any regrets, it’s that he was unable to race the horse in Europe. That was in the works before a direct flight to Sweden was canceled and then COVID-19 struck.

“Up until then, we always thought as a seven-year-old that might be the time to make the journey overseas,” Keeling said. “I think he would have held and maybe even been a touch better aged horse, given the opportunity to race in the distance races in that situation.”

Once Europe didn’t work out and retirement was decided upon, Keeling also discovered Marion Marauder could not breed. Thus, the connections are working to get him a spot at the Kentucky Horse Park. Although he has Hall of Fame credentials, it may be a while before anything is decided upon, since COVID-19 has limited the park’s finances at the moment, making it tough to add expenses.

In the meantime, Marion Marauder is currently stabled in New Jersey with Dr. Ted Mazzarisi — a veterinarian who worked with him — and his wife, Darby.

“Darby is an equestrian and he’s gone there for turnouts over the years and she just loves him; she asked if she could have him for now,” Keeling said. “She’s broken the saddle actually and she’s riding him a little bit. He’s in good hands until then, and if he doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame, we’ll definitely find him a permanent home where he’s going to be treated like the king that he is.”

Keeling is justifiably proud that he was one of the most important members in the king’s court.

“Basically, every mile of his life that he was trained was with me,” he said. “I feel pretty privileged to have that honour. Those kind of animals operate at a different level. It’s one of those things you don’t know until you see it. It’s hard to explain.

“That’s the addiction of horse racing. You hope to get behind one like him just one more time that gives you that chill or that feel. He’s just special.”

And he has been, from the very start.


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