The Week in Review: Who Says They Don’t Make Tough Horses Anymore?

A 27-year-old rookie trainer claims a horse for $10,000 at Mahoning Valley and, usually, the story goes nowhere. But not this one. There are better horses out there than Chella (Where’s the Ring), but good luck finding one more consistent and durable. When she won a $50,000 starter stakes at Gulfstream Saturday it was not only the biggest win of her career purse-wise, but raised her career record to a remarkable 26 for 41.

“She’s not normal,” said owner-trainer Elliot Sullivan, now 29 and based for most of the year in Ohio.

No, she’s not. Sullivan claimed the horse for $10,000 on April 1, 2015. He won a three-way shake to get her, but wasn’t sure if he had done the right thing. Chella had already won six times in her career, including three in a row, and was taking a suspicious drop in class.

“It looked a little too obvious that she was in for $10,000 the day I claimed her,” Sullivan said. “She ran a bad second in the race we claimed her out of. She was a really body sore horse when I got her and they put her on vet’s list day I claimed her.”

But using such methods as a magnetic blanket and ice treatments, Sullivan got the horse back to her best. She won eight straight for her new connections, many of them in starter allowance company at the Ohio tracks. Sullivan got more adventurous and started shipping around to find spots. Chella has won at, among other tracks, Keeneland, Churchill, Fort Erie, Delaware and Mountaineer. Normally, Sullivan stays in Ohio for the winter but decided to ship to Tampa Bay this year. There, for the first time since he started campaigning her, he put her in for a tag. She won the $62,500 optional claimer at Tampa and there were no takers. Next out she won another starter allowance, this one at Tampa, and then headed to Gulfstream. The second choice in the wagering, the 7-year-old won by a half-length. She’s won 63.4% of her starts.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Sullivan said. “To me, she’s just a freak of nature. Anything you put in her way she takes it down. Seven-eighths is not her preferred distance, but yesterday she found a way to win. She looked like she was in trouble at the quarter-pole but she really has the will to win. She is a very competitive horse. She loves her job. I haven’t trained many horses like that who love to go out and train in the morning and love what they do. She makes your job a lot easier as a trainer.”

What impressed Sullivan the most is the mare’s consistency. She may not always win, but she always tries. She has run out of the money only once during the 23 starts she’s made for his barn.

“The best thing about this mare is she has stayed at the same level for so long,” he said. “I’ve never had a horse that has come close to that. They all seem to have a peak of six months to a year, max. Three years ago, she was at the same level she’s at today. If anything, she’s gotten even gotten better with time. She’s just special. She’s been a special part of my life.”


Speaking of Iron Horses

Page McKenney (Eavesdropper) was also in the winner’s circle Saturday at Gulfstream, winning a $60,000 starter stakes. That was win number 21 for the 8-year-old gelding who has made 54 career starts.

There were some signs that time had finally caught up with the Mary Eppler trainee as he had finished a non-threatening eighth and fifth in his prior two starts. But both were in tough spots, including the GIII Harlan’s Holiday S., where he was eighth behind Fear the Cowboy (Cowboy Cal). Dropping down into easier company helped as he won by four lengths.

Like Chella, Page McKenney is one of the more remarkable stories in racing today. He was claimed in 2013 for $16,000. He’s now earned $1,796,000, most of it for current owners Adam Staple and Jalin Stable.


Aqueduct’s Winter Blues

For those of you who still think winter racing at Aqueduct–at least four days a week of it–is a good idea, please look at the charts of this week’s races.

Sixty-seven horses started Saturday in nine races for an average field size of 7.44, and that was the good day. On Thursday, there were five races with five-horse fields and the average field size for the day was 5.5. Friday’s eight-race card kicked off with an early double consisting of two four-horse races. Forty-seven horses ran, for an average field size 5.875. The first three races on Sunday’s card were all four-horse fields and the average field size for the day was 5.77.

The product matters. Horseplayers are not going to bet on this stuff and, though no one equates Aqueduct in the winter to Saratoga, NYRA is tarnishing its brand and driving customers to other signals by putting together the types of cards horseplayers despise.

Surely, there has to be a better way.


Former Jockey Found a Second Career

One Joey (Skinny Joey) Merlino was all over the news last week. The reputed boss of the Philadelphia mob, he was in court in Manhattan on racketeering charges and, on Thursday, the jury told the judge it was deadlocked. However, the judge told the jury to get back to work and they will reconvene on Tuesday.

The Associated Press reported: “Joseph ‘Skinny Joey’ Merlino was a tough-talking ‘fixer’ in a widespread scheme to collect insurance payments by bribing doctors to write bogus prescriptions for a pain cream, Assistant U.S. Attorney Max Nicolas told Manhattan jurors.”

But once upon a time, Merlino, 55, was a fairly obscure bug boy on the Mid-Atlantic circuit.

Starting in 1979, Merlino rode for three years and won 41 races, most of them at Monmouth and Parx (then known as Keystone). His biggest win came in the 1981 Annapolis H. at Pimlico.


A Sleeper for the Triple Crown

Still Having Fun (Old Fashioned) is going to have to do a lot more than win a $100,000 stakes in the middle of winter at Laurel before anybody gets too excited about him, but don’t be surprised if you hear a lot more from this colt down the road.

First off, some pretty smart people in Gary Barber and the Wachtel Stable have already bought into him and they surely weren’t disappointed by Saturday’s Miracle Wood at Laurel, even though the horse only won by a neck.

Coming off a 4 1/2-length win in the Frank Whiteley S., he had a brutal trip Saturday. Ridden by Fergal Lynch, he broke from the one-post on the one-mile, one-turn race, and ducked in at the start, which cost him about four lengths. Trapped on the inside and lacking room all down the backstretch, Lynch was forced to steady. Finally, he found an open lane in mid-stretch, but it looked like long shot Old Time Revival (Brethern) was long gone. But Still Having Fun showed admirable courage, dug down and caught the longshot before the wire. Trainer Timothy Keefe said the Private Terms S. is likely next. If the connections don’t point for the Derby, he might just turn out to be the hot new shooter in the GI Preakness S.