Anyone in the horse business who has followed Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale over the last 20 years knows he doesn't do things conventionally. So it should not have come as a surprise earlier this year when McIngvale hired an unknown quantity, Maria Borell, to train a few horses for him at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, Ky. Among the horses turned over to Borell was Runhappy, the Super Saver colt who won Saturday's Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Keeneland.
It really should be no surprise, either, that McIngvale fired Borell 24 hours after the biggest triumph of the Texas furniture store owner's racing career; he has, after all, had over 30 trainers since becoming a Thoroughbred owner in the mid-1990s, including several members of the Racing Hall of Fame.
The Sprint was the biggest career win, too, for Borell, who when hired by McIngvale was winless in 23 starts since taking out her trainer's license in 2013. From late June to Oct. 31, she saddled Runhappy to win all five of his starts and won a sixth race with a McIngvale filly named Triplehott.
McIngvale and his wife, Linda, spoke with the Paulick Report on Tuesday about the decision to fire Borell and give Runhappy back to Laura Wohlers, Linda McIngvale's twin sister and the longtime racing manager and sometime trainer for their Gallery Racing. After another trainer, Chuck Simon, was replaced last year, Wohlers was the trainer of record for Runhappy's first two starts, a winning maiden race at Turfway Park in December and a ninth-place finish in the G3 LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January.
Runhappy came out of the race with a hairline fracture, and Wohlers returned to her other job at McIngvale's Gallery Furniture store in Houston. A short time later, Borell was hired to train the horses in Kentucky.
Wohlers and the McIngvales have come under harsh criticism since Maria Borell put several statements on her Twitter account Sunday stating that Wohlers was replacing her.
“She's opened a can of worms,” Linda McIngvale said of Borell, “so we would like to let you know the other side of the story. We've been trying hard not to voice bad things about Maria. At this point, she's going a little too far in some areas, primarily with accusations that Laura would ever, in her wildest dreams, do anything that is not in the best interest of the horse.”
Jim McIngvale interjected that Linda McIngvale “is concerned about the welfare of all animals. My wife has had monkeys and parrots in the furniture store,” he said.
The blow-up between Borell and Wohlers came Sunday morning when Wohlers wanted Runhappy to do some light exercise, and Borell objected, saying the colt had some heat and filling in an ankle after winning the Sprint the previous day.
“Our horses have always gone to the track (after a race). We want to get the lactic acid out,” said Linda McIngvale. “He wasn't injured. He was a little sore from the race, that's all.”
According to McIngvale, Borell wanted to give Runhappy the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone – something the McIngvales oppose. “We don't believe in some things that are prevalent in the racing industry, including drugs,” said Linda McIngvale. Wohlers said “no” and according to Jim McIngvale Borell reacted with some choice words.
“When she cursed my sister-in-law excessively on Sunday in the shedrow after my sister-in-law said you're not giving my horse Bute, that ain't cool,” he said. “There's a right and wrong way to handle it.”
McIngvale said it was him, not Wohlers who made the decision to fire Borell on Sunday.
“I'm like Donald Trump,” Jim McIngvale said. “You've got to make the hard decisions. “If people disagree with me, they can wire me $50 million and lead him out. It ain't Laura's fault. It's me. She loves that animal, lives for that animal.”
“If people want to badmouth somebody, badmouth us,” said Linda McIngvale. “I'm not going to let someone badmouth my sister. She's done everything for this horse. She picked him out at the sale. She was in charge of his training. When she was in Kentucky, she was lifting his feet, cleaning his stall. Maria does all these photos with him,” a reference to Borell's Facebook and Twitter account that often showed pictures of her with Runhappy.
“Whether it was right or wrong, this was our decision, not Laura Wohlers,” Linda McIngvale continued. “We pushed her to make this decision on Sunday.”
“I'm a marketing guy,” said McIngvale, who is legendary in the Houston market for doing his own television commercials. “The timing was terrible, but we did what we did.”
One area of agreement between the McIngvales and Borell was that tensions had been mounting ever since Laura Wohlers came to Kentucky and Runhappy won the G1 King's Bishop at Saratoga.
“The Saturday before the King's Bishop, Maria called and said Runhappy was lame,” Linda McIngvale said. “Mack sent Laura to Kentucky to find out what's going on with the horse. When she got there, Laura insisted the horse be sent to Dr. (Larry) Bramlage (at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital), and he found something wrong in his feet – an abscess or something. He suggested the shoes be pulled and that a blacksmith named Ian (McKinlay) come from New Jersey. He works on his feet and he wins the King's Bishop. If we had left it to Maria, we would not have gone to the King's Bishop, or won it.”
Wohlers told the McIngvales she thought she should stay in Kentucky. “She was very appalled at how the other two horses were being handled,” Linda McIngvale said. “She said they had sores and the stalls were not properly kept.”
“Under Maria's instructions,” Jim McIngvale said, “she wouldn't let Cordell pay any attention to them. Cordell Anderson is a longtime employee who grooms the Gallery Racing horses and is, according to Jim McIngvale, “more important to Runhappy's success than Maria ever was.”
“I told my sister then, ‘You need to get rid of Maria.' Laura's answer was, ‘I can't move to Kentucky full time. This girl is our trainer. She probably wants to go out as a public trainer, and a Grade 1 win will be good for her.' Laura was the one sticking up for Maria.”
Linda McIngvale said Borell, who agreed to train privately for Gallery Racing, was already trying to pick up new clients. “She was, behind our back, having T shirts, hats and jackets made for her new racing stable. The reality is she should have made that public after the (King's Bishop). She knew we were planning to take the horse to California and she had said she didn't want to go. She said, ‘I have family here, I have horses here.'”
When Borell was hired, the McIngvales said, it was with the understanding that she was salaried and would get bonuses for winning races, up to $10,000 for graded stakes, and that she would not take on outside clients. “We paid for the barn, the stalls, the hay, insurance, the riders, grooms and night watchmen,” Linda McIngvale said. “We gave her three free stalls for her own horses that she could train and try to make money with.”
Borell was recommended to Wohlers earlier this year by James Moore, a friend of the McIngvales. “We asked around Kentucky for recommendations of someone who would follow our rules,” said Linda McIngvale. “We had to have somebody who followed the instructions of Laura to a T. She is the trainer, but she's only done what we told her to do. We like to manage what is going to happen with our horses, we are very hands on micromanaging the training.”
“Everyone has to buy into the team,” Jim McIngvale said, “and they have to buy into the work culture and the data. We manage by data.”
McIngvale referred to data from heart-rate monitors the horses wear during exercise that are part of Bill Pressey's ThoroEdge Equine Performance Program. When Runhappy was purchased, Kerry Thomas' Thomas Herding Technique advisory service was on the stable's advisory team. McIngvale is also advised by Texas A&M University equine professor emeritus Dr. Gary Potter, Baylor track and field director Clyde Hart (who coached several Olympic gold medal-winning sprinters, including Michael Johnson). “We know what it takes to train athletes,” said Jim McIngvale.
“The reality is we do things differently,” said Linda McIngvale.
“We have always been flakes in the horse business,” said her husband. “But as Nick Zito (McIngvale's first trainer) said, ‘It's your animal, do what you want to do.'”
Jim McIngvale said he's spent well over $40 million on horses in the last 20 years, but Runhappy's King's Bishop win was their first in a Grade 1.
Might they have more success if they did things more conventionally?
“My whole life I've been successful by being innovative,” said Jim McIngvale. “Same day delivery (in the furniture business)? People said I was crazy. I innovate. If I can't innovate I can't live. If it fails, it fails. My wife and I have been around top-level athletes all our lives (the McIngvales own Houston's Westside Tennis Club, which has hosted tournaments that attracted Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and other top professionals). At the end of the day, great quarterbacks make great coaches. And great racehorses make great trainers.
Why have they run through so many trainers? “All of them were public trainers, except for one,” said Linda McIngvale. They don't want an owner telling them what to do. So instead of fighting public trainers, we decided to go private.”
“I'm not in the this for the money,” Jim McIngvale added. “If I was in it for money, I'd put my money in stocks.”
So what's next for Runhappy?
“We need to sit down with everyone to figure out where he is going to go,” said Jim McIngvale. “The goal is the (G1) Malibu in California (Dec. 26) and we'd like to win the Met Mile and the Whitney. We've got to take him somewhere this winter because of Kentucky weather. We might take him to Sam Houston and let him train at the track that's four miles from Gallery Furniture.”
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