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Making Magic

Meridian Magic

Just a few wins shy of Cam Fella’s notorious 28-race winning streak, this tiny filly from the East is blowing away her competition.

By Perry Lefko
Photos by Ann MacNeill

On June 6, 2010, at Truro Raceway in Nova Scotia, something amazing happened. It was the kind of moment that leaves racing fans and horsemen shocked and awed. A field of eight three-year-old fillies went postward in a stakes race, and when it began, the 1-9 favourite broke stride after hitting the gate and found herself 18 lengths in arrears after a quarter mile. She looked hopelessly beaten on the rain-slicked oval, and hardly anyone could have expected what would unfold. With slightly less than half a mile to go, that favourite began to make a move, gobbling up ground while racing three wide, passing horses as if they were standing still. She trailed by only two and three-quarter lengths with a quarter of a mile to go and won going away by more than two lengths, pacing the final quarter mile in 28.2 seconds.

This was Meridian Magic – the Magic Girl as she is affectionately known by her handlers – doing what she does best: winning.After a second and two thirds in her first three lifetime starts, Meridian Magic has dominated racing in the Maritimes for two and three-year-old filly pacers, going 24 in a row without defeat at the time of this writing. She has won on the front end. She has won from mid-pack. She has won from the outside post and, as mentioned, she has won from dead last after breaking stride before the race even began.

Collectively she has banked $137,442. But there are many paydays ahead and races to be won, and possibly a move to Ontario some time in the new year to face tougher competition. By that time she may have tied or surpassed the 28-race win streak for pacers, set by Cam Fella, the Pacing Machine, who recorded the mark as a four-year-old in 1983.

For breeder/owner Barry Martin, a second generation horseman whose business interests include ownership of a hotel, a radio station and other commercial land and properties in and around Sydney, his partner James (Champ) Gillis, a retired supervisor with the city works department of Sydney, and 30-year veteran trainer/driver Kenny Arsenault, Meridian Magic is unique, a one-of-a-kind horse. “It’s just like a dream that has come true for us,” Gillis says. “I’ve been around the game a long time, but I’ve never had something like her.”

What’s even more remarkable than the filly’s speed and stamina is her size. She stands no taller than a pony and weighs barely 800 pounds. She does, however, have a long-barreled chest -- wearing 59-inch hobbles. What she lacks in stature, she makes up for in heart. In that respect, she stands tall, towering over the competition. And she glides across the track as seamlessly as a sailboat on still waters.

Meridian Magic is the product of the sire Largo (PE) out of the Apaches Fame mare Hot Asset. Largo, a Cam Fella-Ombre Rose colt, earned $736,910 in 180 career starts and had a lifetime mark of 1:51. Hot Asset raced 69 times, winning 16 and finishing in the money 37 times with a bankroll of $19,566. She raced the early part of her career on the B- circuit in Ontario and then was moved to the Maritimes after an ownership change.

Following her racing career and after her first breeding season, the mare was purchased by Martin for some $5,000. He and Gillis ran a modest breeding operation, mainly as a hobby. Hot Asset became a useful broodmare, and by the time she was matched with Largo, all her foals thusfar had made it the races. Martin had always wanted to breed to Largo, a horse with decent speed and intelligence, but simply didn’t get around to it. “We really had no expectations, as we did for any of our horses,” Martin says of Meridian Magic. “You breed the best to the best and hope for the best and that’s kind of what we did. We felt we had a good cross with Largo.”

Martin named the resulting bay foal Meridian Magic, taking the first half of her name from a hotel he owned, which has since been renamed the Martin Arms. He had a slight anxiety about the filly, mainly because of her mother and her hot temper. “Hot Asset was a good name for her,” Martin laughs. “I was very concerned that being as hot as she was, she wouldn’t be a good mother. But she turned out to be phenomenal.”

Martin and Gillis liked the way Meridian Magic stood and moved in the paddock and were encouraged when they sent her to a veteran horseman to be broken. Once that was accomplished, Gillis took over the training. He trained her down to a mile in 2:12, then sent her to Arsenault’s stable at Charlottetown Driving Park; he told the trainer she was a top-class filly but needed schooling.

Arsenault taught her to settle down, and early in July he qualified her at Charlottetown. She paced in 2:03.1, winning by 2¼ lengths and clocking 29.2 in her final quarter. Eleven days later, Meridian Magic debuted in an Atlantic Sires Stakes race at Summerside Raceway, facing six others and going postward at 6.80-1 with driver Vince Poulton (one of only two starts in her career where she was not driven by her trainer). Arsenault told Poulton to take the filly off the pace at the start, and she had a useful beginning to her career finishing third by six lengths. Seven days later, she made her second lifetime start, this time at Fredericton Raceway, but with Arsenault behind her for the first time. She finished third by half a length, this time pacing the final quarter mile in 28 flat. Six days later, she raced at Truro Raceway and placed second by three-quarters of a length.

She made her fourth start in less than a month at Charlottetown Driving Park (this time in a maiden race) and romped home by five lengths as the 1-5 favourite. Around the time of this fourth start, Arsenault noticed Meridian Magic was prone to brushing her knees, so he equipped her with a pair of felt knee boots. She won her next race by eight and a half lengths. “Every week she started getting better and better ­gaited,” he says. “I think the equipment change was the biggest asset to her racing career.”

The filly banked 11 consecutive wins before being put away for the season, earning $76,362 and recording a mark of 1:58.2. She swept the Atlantic Triple Crown for two-year-olds, the highlight coming in the $38,720 Maritime Breeders Final, where she led from start to finish and recorded a 6¾-length victory. In an oddity of sorts, the runnerup, C H Yocoohno, was also trained by Arsenault.

Arsenault admits that Meridian Magic seemed to get stronger and stronger with each race. “I had so much confidence with her the last six or seven starts as a two-year-old. I figured the only way she’d get beat was with a bad drive really,” he says. “That’s how much she laid over them. The last three starts of the year she was as strong as her first two starts.”

Both Gillis and Martin say Arsenault’s ability to settle the filly made a world of difference. “She really settled down after she went to Kenny because she saw a lot of ­horses,” Gillis says. “When she trained at seven in the morning (in Truro), she had never seen horses. She could have been a really hot mare if Kenny hadn’t taken his time.”

“Kenny deserves a lot of credit,” Martin agrees. “He had the patience with her. She could have been real hot if he didn’t teach her how to race and bring her back and teach her how to race out of a hole.”

Arsenault says Meridian Magic has made a remarkable turnaround from the first time she came to his barn.

“It just amazed me how foolish she was (in the beginning) and how intelligent she is now,” he adds. “She just turned around in 18 months. And the will to win… that’s probably why she was tough to break. She had her own will and they weren’t going to bend it. They did a good job in not breaking her spirit because she’s got an unbelievable attitude.”

Her three-year-old season has offered up some challenges to her ability... and her win streak. It was her second start of the season when the filly showed her true colours in her toughest battle yet -- it was in that start that she broke stride at the start and trailed by 18 lengths after the opening quarter. She circled the field to win in the final half a mile, demonstrating her special talent with an effort that left nearly everyone speechless.

“That was the first race that she really showed her stuff,” Martin says. “It was the first bit of adversity that she had faced. It was just amazing. Nobody that was at the track – and I talked to horsemen that have been in the game 30 years – had ever seen anything like that. It was just truly amazing. She’s an equine athlete that loves her work. She just does not like to lose.”

“I kind of mistimed the gate and she got a little close to it; she jammed her toes in there and got a scare,” Arsenault recalls. “Then she put her ears forward and she just went after it. I never even chirped or anything. She did it herself. I kept her three wide to the five-eighths. She just wanted to get to the front now. I’ve never seen anything like that around here. Her attitude is unbelievable. She just wants to win. I don’t think I’ve driven a horse that wants to get to the front and win so badly.”

“I can’t go anywhere at home (without being asked about her),” Martin says. “Everyone in the Maritimes knows exactly what she’s doing, what number (of victories) she has. It’s pretty exciting stuff. What I find particularly interesting is the people that come to the barn that want to see her, and when they see her they say, ‘that little horse is Meridian Magic? She looks so much bigger on the track.’ You wouldn’t believe the number of people that come to see her in the barn. She is the most popular horse on the track. She’s Little Mighty Mouse, I guess. She’s the little horse with the big record and the great heart. She’s just got a lot of magic.”

For Arsenault, it’s a privilege to be around her every day of the week and play a role in her amazing success; in ­particular, in the challenge of training her to be at her best all the time. “To keep her peaking every week, I really take pride in that,” he says. “Now she’s very easy to train. She’s looked after herself pretty good, but I have a little bit a part of it, eh?”

But each time she goes to the post now, there is a sense of anticipation and anxiety for Gillis and Martin -- because of her win streak.

“I get nervous every time she races,” Gillis laughs. “I get panicky more with her than with any other horse, without a doubt, because she’s got a win streak going now. It’s a lot of pressure. It will be a sad day when she gets beat.”

“Let’s face it, records are interesting things,” Martin adds. “The further you go along in a streak, the pressure seems to mount. I’m no less nervous now than I was ­probably after her third win. It’s a horse race and anything can happen. You’ve got to have a lot of racing luck to reel off 24 in a row. I’m a firm believer in racing luck, and I think if she gets a little more racing luck she will run the table in her stake races and she’ll be in pretty elite company when she does that.”

Arsenault, who says topping Cam Fella’s record would be the biggest thrill in his horse racing career, says Meridian Magic may be intuitive enough to what’s happening.

“She’s really getting on the muscle in her last two, three starts,” he adds. “You’d think to God she knows what’s going on because she’s just so full of herself.”

Like any great horse there is usually a sidebar story, something human that goes beyond the success on the track. In this case, it’s pretty simple: two longtime horse owners and one veteran horseman are enjoying the experience of a lifetime.

“I think the story is two local yokels who have been in the horse racing game a long time and who have always hoped and dreamed of a horse that would win the Maritime Triple Crown, which she did last year, and she’s one-third of the way to doing it again this year,” Martin says. “It’s possible for a couple of local guys from a local track to breed a horse and to have her fulfill all your dreams. We bought and trained horses that went on to win $400,000-$500,000 (after they had been sold at a young age). But we didn’t own them at the time. We’ve ridden this story right from the get-go. It’s kind of special to follow a horse like Meridian Magic. In terms of a horse that we’ve kept and raced, nothing compares to her. When it comes to that filly, nothing would ­surprise me.”

Arsenault says he’s so caught up in conditioning the filly he hasn’t had time to sit back and reflect on the moment. But when he does, it will truly be something he cherishes. “When it’s all said and done, I will probably sit back and say, ‘Oh, geez, what a ride, what a ride,’” he admits.

A magic ride, to be sure.

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