Marion Marauder Back And Better

Published: June 26, 2020 06:45 pm EDT

Few horses could earn nearly a quarter of a million dollars in a winless 10-race season that would be considered, to some degree, a disappointment. But then again, few horses in harness racing right now have the resume of Marion Marauder.

The seven-year-old son of Muscle Hill - Spellbound Hanover mustered a summary of 0-2-2 in 10 starts last year for trainers Mike Keeling & Paula Wellwood and owners Jean Wellwood & Devin Keeling. But the triple millionaire looked like the pre-2019 Marion Marauder in his 2020 debut on June 18 at Woodbine Mohawk Park, qualifying with authority in 1:53.4.

The driver on that occasion was Bob McClure, who may make more appearances aboard Marion Marauder going forward. However, the first seasonal start for Marion Marauder comes this Monday (June 29) at Mohawk in the $36,000 Preferred Trot against 2019 Horse of the Year Forbidden Trade in a rare match-up of past Hambletonian champions.

"We had contact with Bob about a month ago to see if he'd come train him a couple of times for me and maybe drive him if it didn't conflict with Forbidden Trade," trainer Mike Keeling told Trot Insider. "We thought we had it timed out right but it didn't work out for Bob, or us. But he was pretty excited and did a wonderful job with him, and [Marion Marauder] seems to be coming back this year maybe a touch better than what he started with last year. We're really happy with him."

The 2019 season clearly wasn't was Team Marauder was targeting for their prized pupil, and Keeling noted that there's reason for optimism that issues that plagued the trotter over the campaign might have been identified and solved.

"Last fall, shortly after the Breeders Crown, he developed some inflammation in a left hind limb, right around the hock. It looked like a curb, and we diagnosed it kind of as a curb...We treated it as a curb for about three weeks and couldn't see any results -- he'd get sound for us and then it would start to inflame again. We fully intended to get him ready for the TVG Final, and finally it came to a head and we sent him to Dr. Patty Hogan to diagnose what was going on.

"She'd only seen it twice before in her life. He had an infection that was outside the actual joints of the hock and below the fascia. There's no real explanation for it, it's just one of those rare things that happened. And she actually had to perform some pretty serious surgery where she had to put a tourniquet on him and inject antibiotics right into the area. It was quite a difficult thing, and lucky for us Patty's so good and recognized it immediately. She was more pleased than anybody to see him come back and qualify the way he did; there are no guarantees when you have these things happen."

Horses are not robots, and they're not machines, so finding an issue doesn't always equate to fixing the issue. The qualifier for Marion Marauder certainly gave Keeling & Co. some hope that what Dr. Hogan found was in fact what was hindering his performance.

"It was a big relief because there was something bothering him on that hind limb all year and we couldn't pinpoint it, and maybe this is what it was. Coming back this year he seems to be a touch sounder and straighter, and he just feels great. Touch wood, we're pretty optimistic."

Only one horse currently active in harness racing boasts accomplishments and longevity the likes of Marion Marauder, and that horse is pacing phenom Wiggle It Jiggleit. Keeling admitted that there was fair amount of frustration in the 2019 season as flashes of awesomeness were often quickly countered by puzzling performances.

"It was a bit frustrating, because at times he was as good as he ever was. The Maple Leaf Trot is the perfect example. Scott [Zeron] was convinced that if he had a bit better post he was probably the best horse that night. The Breeders Crown, having the trailing position, it was either going to be a hit or a miss...and it was a miss for us. But he was good that night. He showed flashes. In the International Trot he showed his capabilities, but it was frustrating because he should be winning races and we weren't just quite clicking.

"That being said, he made a quarter of a million dollars and he's got 60 lifetime starts and he averages $50,000 per start. He's a special horse and we like when he has a chance to show it."

His first chance to add to his bulging $3.5 million bankroll comes on Monday against nine rivals, including the aforementioned Forbidden Trade (PP6, McClure) and seasonal Preferred winners P L Jill (PP8, Sylvain Filion) and O'Brien Award winner Musical Rhythm (PP3, Mario Baillargeon). Keeling has sequestered longtime go-to and 2020 Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer Paul MacDonell to drive Marion Marauder, and if the opposition wasn't challenging enough the outermost starting spot adds to the complexity.

"I would choose a different post position," said Keeling with a smile and his best Captain Obvious imitation when asked about the Monday draw. "The logistics of the nine hole kind of limits your options. We definitely want to test him but it's going to have to be a gate-leaving decision on which way we go with him so I'll talk to Paul about that. But it's definitely a worthy field and there's no weak spots, really."

After Monday, Keeling stated that there could be some additional appearances of the 2016 Triple Crown winner at Woodbine Mohawk Park before plans call for a return to Grand Circuit action at the start of August.

"He doesn't have any major stakes until the Cashman at The Meadowlands on Hambletonian Day. So we'll play this ear; we'll race him at least once here, maybe twice, and then that should set him up for a move down to New Jersey to maybe have one start at The Meadowlands going into the Cashman. It just kind of depends on our logistics; we have a horse currently in New Jersey so if he's competitive we may just have to leave Paula down there and send Marauder along with her."

In all honesty, this might be as easy as it gets for Team Marauder as the cross-border travel restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic throw another wrinkle into what any horseman hopes will be a smooth season.

"It's a nightmare, especially for us because we don't just send Marauder to anybody. He's attached to Paula at the hip so that's going to be the hardest part about the whole is trying to just figure that out...but it's the same for everybody. It's a weird year, and we'll zig when we have to and zag when we can.

"We'd love a softer spot to start but we know that's never going to happen for him. Bob said he was well in hand. People may think we need another qualifier, Marauder's not going to go out and do anything more than he has to. And he had trained right around that time the week before so he's had two pretty good miles and he's fit, and he's sound, and he's always willing. So we'll be fine, I think."

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