One of the feel-good stories of last Saturday's Breeders' Cup at Keeneland has now gone very, very bad.
Just days after little-known Maria Borell trained Runhappy to an impressive victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, the 32-year-old New Yorker finds herself fired by the horse's unorthodox owner, in an eviction dispute with a landowner and employing legal counsel in an attempt to be paid what Borell claims she is rightfully owed.
The owner is Jim McIngvale, the Houston-based owner of Gallery Furniture who is better known as "Mattress Mack" and who is no stranger to controversy when it comes to the horse business. Just ask the 30-plus trainers, according to the Blood-Horse, who have worked for McIngvale over the years — names such as Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, Jack Van Berg and the late Bobby Frankel — most of whom were either fired by McIngvale or who just quit on their own.
We can now add Borell to the "fired" list. The young trainer, who displays her love of horses with a tattoo of Sunday Silence across her back, received a call out of the blue last spring saying McIngvale wanted to put Runhappy and a few other horses under Borell's care at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Center. McIngvale had purchased the son of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver for $200,000, but the 3-year-old finished ninth in the Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds, and was coming off a leg injury.
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Borell, who was previously 0-for-22 as a trainer, worked with Runhappy to the point where when it was time to go back to the track, McIngvale's racing manager, Laura Wohlers, who had trained the horse previously, listed Borell as the trainer. Runhappy won his first two starts under Borell, then burst onto the national scene by winning the King's Bishop at Saratoga in near-track record time. Runhappy followed that with a win in the Phoenix at Keeneland on Oct. 2.
During the Breeders' Cup broadcast, NBC did a feature on the fairy-tale story. Borell admitted she was in a "dire situation" financially before Runhappy came along. The horse was a gift from the heavens. Then Runhappy backed up the hype, winning the Sprint by three-quarters of a length. McIngvale complimented a smiling Borell for the cameras.
The next morning, it all fell apart. Back at the Thoroughbred Center, Wohlers wanted to send the horse back to the track, an unusual practice after a big race. Borell objected, saying Runhappy had heat and filling in his ankles. The next thing you know, Borell was out as trainer.
"Just went from the best day of my life to the worst day of my life," Borell tweeted. "My heart is in a million pieces."
Wohlers, who is the sister of McIngvale's wife and who works for Gallery Furniture, told the Blood-Horse that the change had been planned for a while, that McIngvale wants to send Runhappy to California and Borell did not want to go. Borell denies that claim.
On another front, Borell is involved in a dispute with a landlord, Kara Harrison-Tucker. Borell is leasing farm property from Harrison-Tucker, who has taken to social media to air complaints about the trainer involving their lease agreement.
In 2012, Walnut Springs Farm of Lexington was granted a judgment against Borell for failure to make lease payments. Borell told the Paulick Report she was still making back payments as a condition of acquiring her racing license.
By Tuesday, Borell issued a statement through her attorney, Richard Getty, saying, "If the decision to discontinue my training of Runhappy is set in stone, I simply want to move on and be fairly compensated for my efforts. I have asked the McIngvales and Gallery Racing to pay me what is due and owing consistent with industry standards and I am hopeful that the matter will be resolved privately and amicably."
Borell denies she is a "program trainer" who merely followed instructions, but she did tell the Paulick Report that she hasn't received any stakes commissions from Runhappy's wins even though the horse has earned $1.3 million for his five straight victories. McIngvale's winning piece of the Breeders' Cup Sprint purse was $820,000. Under normal practices, a trainer receives 10 percent of that amount.
Borell said Wednesday she could not comment further because of legal reasons. Meanwhile, more than a few people speculate that the owner, known for self-promotion, merely used Borell's gender and story for good publicity and is now moving on with his Breeders' Cup champion.
Leaving Borell behind.