Across the miles, man’s grandest plans have bowed to whim, chance and nature. Columbus set off for Asia and alighted famously short. Fleming, researching influenza, happened to discover penicillin. The second Atomic bomb struck Nagasaki, Japan, because clouds hid Kokura.
Many expeditions ago, Mary Eppler used cold, hard data to tame the skews of plan and probability. With an accounting degree from Baltimore’s Loyola College (now University), she found agreeable work determining cost-revenue formulas for health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield. It all squared, until an unexpected entry galloped past her desk.
A co-worker said her boyfriend had a horse, a tottering old Thoroughbred racer he aimed to give away. Eppler looked up from her ledger. It was 1977.
From childhood on, Eppler’s zest for horses had borne a tantalizing transience, joyrides made possible through lucky friends who owned show ponies. Jet to Victory, a Maryland-bred son of Jet Traffic born 1971, became her long-sought stable maker.
In 1979, Eppler left Blue Cross for a position with a prominent employer that enhanced the health of Maryland’s breeding and racing industry as few did: Sagamore Farm. Her riding then unpolished, she took what farm manager Harold (Fergie) Ferguson offered, a hotwalking job, and moonlighted with Jet to Victory.
Eppler had swapped the measured calculus of actuarial analysis for the hell-bent uncertainty of Thoroughbred racing. Soon enough and all along, plans she made bred plans revised.
Jet to Victory had a knee as big and scarred as promised, but he galloped sound and furthered Eppler in the art of riding. She thought she might hunt him and take him to local schooling shows; in time, as licensed trainer, she took him to Charles Town, Timonium and Fair Hill. From a five-year layoff, he won six times and raced to age 12.
Grander blueprints changed color and scale. Eppler was training Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr.’s horses in the mid-1990s, when the eventual Pillar of the Turf asked for one last gift in fading years: a Kentucky Derby winner. Mocking all plausibility, the ensuing melodrama certified Eppler’s eye and acumen, and left her trapped between the needs of a gifted racehorse, Traitor, and one of the century’s iconic sportsmen.
That very year, 1997, Victory Gallop entered her Pimlico stable and showed talent for smashing light bulbs and running fast. Then the money tree shook, and the compact bay moved down the road and up the ranks, eventually denying Real Quiet a 1998 Triple Crown in the Grade 1 Belmont and winning the national older-male title a year later.
Even medical images deceived. In spring 2010, the talented mare Way With Words reared and flipped at Palm Meadows and plunked Eppler to the Florida dirt. Three weeks after CAT scans showed no break, Eppler learned she had three pelvic fractures. She kept working and riding and wrestling the pain until a loose horse spooked Way With Words anew, prompting another tumble that gave Eppler a broken arm to mend. That fall, she broke a leg at home in Westminster, Md., again spurned a cast and took typical time and care to facilitate recovery: The next day, she drove herself to Belmont Park to watch a horse run.
In 2013, the year she nearly sliced off a fingertip with a hedge trimmer, Eppler grew more horrified by Spicer Cub’s infamous daredevil stunt at Pimlico. Bolting on the far turn just an appetizer, the winless front-runner veered wildly again in the stretch and dodged so far right that he moved beyond the camera lens and, at full speed, through a sliver of daylight between the repositioned starting gate and outside fence. More than 150,000 YouTube viewers have come to understand how unconventional a nose defeat can be.
That summer, three months after Spicer Cub made like Evel Knievel, Eppler claimed a horse for $16,000 at Penn National. Preserving the story arc, she sought something sound and coaxed something profound.
Page McKenney won a claimer and two starter allowances, ran through allowance conditions one-two-three, won four stakes and placed in his first three graded tries. In 17 starts over 15 months, he’d finished third or better without fail, earned more than $700,000 for owner Adam Staple and stamped himself a bona-fide Mid-Atlantic handicap star at age 5.
The appropriate footnote, Eppler and Staple said separately, is this: The claim probably never should have happened.
• • •
To tap the Page McKenney saga’s hidden wellspring, you might trace Staple’s peculiar career move from Florida stallion administrator to Las Vegas hotel concierge, have the hospitality job dissolve into a poker-dealing gig at the Monte Carlo, have the poker room next to the race book, have the race book recycle its Daily Racing Forms in a way that let Staple read them post-shift, have him ferret out a horse to claim from a January 2013 maiden race at Laurel Park, have him reconnect with Eppler through Facebook after more than a decade, and have Eppler snuff the play as the 3-year-old fillies walked to the saddling ring.
“He wanted me to claim a gray horse in that race . . . and on the way to the paddock, she was freezin’, and she wasn’t very nice,” Eppler said. “So I just watched all the horses come in.”
Staple: “So she’s on the phone with me saying, ‘Yeah, I don’t like this?–?oh my God, what’s that?’’ I’m like, ‘What?’ She says, ‘There’s this beautiful filly in here.’ Now it got me all excited when she was all excited, because Mary doesn’t usually get excited.”
Too late to drop the claim, Eppler stayed tuned. Avie, an unraced, Maryland-bred product of Strong Hope and Glitter Bay (by Touch Gold), finished a game second in that $10,000 claimer. The hunt was on.
When an overnight showed Avie entered for $14,000 three weeks later, Eppler called Staple and said she’d find him a partner if the pricetag daunted. Staple went it alone, Eppler made the claim and sent Avie to a 7½-length victory next out in a $25,000 claimer. The winner’s share: $14,250.
“I’ve been in the black ever since,” Staple said. “So whatever praise we give Page McKenney, it’s because of Avie.”
Avie’s purse-snatching fancy enabled the bet on Page McKenney, a sturdy chestnut with two white socks in back and a facial stripe that slides toward his right nostril. His early on-track performances meandered too, the Pennsylvania-bred taking 13 tries to break his maiden.
“He looked like a nice horse and didn’t wear bandages or anything in the race; his legs looked clean,” Eppler said. “And his family is a nice family.”
She saw upside through his dam, Winning Grace (Yarrow Brae—Neolithic, by Deputed Testamony), a full-sister to the graded-stakes winning filly Finally Here and a half-sister to the active racemare Neo’s Grand Finale (by Rimrod), a near-$350,000 earner.
Page McKenney finished sixth the night of the claim. As Eppler took him back to Pimlico to assess her gain, medical internist Jim Bryant and wife Linda Davis of Kilmarnock, Va., mourned their loss. Homebred Page McKenney was a precious link to Winning Grace, who’d died four weeks after delivering her second foal, an accident-prone Love of Money colt they named Axel Woes.
“My first reaction was profound disappointment bordering on anger at ourselves for allowing the claim to happen,” Bryant said. “Because we kept telling ourselves, ‘It’s gonna happen; somebody is gonna see something. ’”
“I was very upset initially,” Davis said. “They’re our kids. We only breed, like, three or four a year.”
Page McKenney’s birth bears its own serendipity.
Winning Grace had gone to Regal Heir Farm near Harrisburg, Pa., for a planned mating that changed once Davis caught a glimpse of Eavesdropper. His resultant foal, whom Davis named for Aunt Page and grandmother McKenney, had the pep to play tug-of-war with a garden hose and the calm to stand statuesque in a tangle of wire.
“He has always taken care of himself,” she said.
Still, the claim meant letting go. “We didn’t know them,” Davis said of Eppler and Staple. “We were very new to this. I was concerned what was gonna happen to him, how he was going to be treated. So that was the big thing.”
In a development straight out of Disney, Bryant phoned Staple. During a long and cordial conversation, Bryant got the assurances he sought as to Staple’s ethos and Eppler’s caretaking, and something more: a small stake in the horse.
“I asked Adam if he would be willing to sell a piece back?–?I mean, it wasn’t this hard negotiation or anything?–?and he didn’t even hesitate,” Bryant said. “He said, ‘Of course. He’s your horse.’?”
Page’s ascent endorsed Eppler’s instincts, means and patience. After the claim, she changed his shoes to something lighter and gave him seven weeks off.
“When I first got him, he was a very tired horse,” she said. “So we just did very light work until he got himself feeling good, and then we started workin’ him, and he didn’t really show me that he was that kind of a horse breezing. But after we ran him, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh?–?he can run.’ And he’s very competitive.”
Nearly a year from the claim, Page McKenney set a Parx turf mark of 1:39.18 for 1 mile and 70 yards and thrust Eppler past $1 million in purses for the first time in her 35-year career. He won the Robellino Stakes at Penn National and the First Responder at Parx in 2014. This year, he added the John B. Campbell Handicap and Harrison E. Johnson Memorial at Laurel Park. And when he didn’t win, he pestered.
“Every time I ran him, and the conditions got tougher, he went on and won it, or he was second,” Eppler said.
Close up. Far back. Maryland. Elsewhere. Dirt. Turf. Fast. Sloppy. Whatever the going, Page McKenney knew the way home.
After the muddy runaway in the Harrison Johnson March 21, Eppler and Staple agreed to make tracks for the Pimlico Special-G3 seven weeks later. The only question: How to get there.
No prep loomed ideal. Keeneland’s Ben Ali-G3 was too soon, Aqueduct’s Excelsior too late, Pimlico’s Henry Clark too hazy?–?in play only off the turf. In the end, Staple made the choice Eppler feared?–?the Charles Town Classic-G2, starring California handicap monster Shared Belief.
“He’d never been on a bullring like that,” Eppler said of Page. “Turns are tight. Not much stretch, and he’s a stretch-runner. And then the race was tough. So, could he catch up with them? That was my misgiving. And was he gonna get hurt?”
The Classic, she concluded, remained a bridge to the Special. She adopted the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.
“That’s what I wanted,” she said. “Not necessarily what the owners wanted.”
After Shared Belief pulled up lame at 3-10, Page McKenney finished a fast-closing third behind Moreno and defending race winner Imperative. Better yet, Page McKenney left the race intact.
The outcome produced happy gatherings for the Pimlico Special: Page McKenney’s descending Beyer speed figures read 98-96-96-95-98-98, and Eppler greeted sister Marci Eppler and boyfriend Raul Duran from New Mexico, Staple from Nevada and Davis and Bryant from Virginia’s Northern Neck for lunch in the Pimlico Jockey Club.
Before the race, Bryant offered his take on Eppler: “From a personality standpoint, she reminds me of Linda: a woman of relatively few words. Means what she says. And cross her at your own peril. We’ve been really, really pleased with Mary. We love the way she treats all of her horses. Page loves her. She loves him.
“Clearly, the quality of her work speaks for itself: A very, very long career. Ethical as they come, from my standpoint. She understands our position with regard to drugs . . . and so we really appreciate her perspective on that. She takes her time with horses. We’re just very pleased.”
Horacio Karamanos working a taut rein, Page McKenney tracked toward the rear of a compressed, seven-horse Special through the backstretch and around the bend, swung out for the drive and rallied past everyone but Commissioner. The local horse finished 2½ lengths short of the odds-on favorite, nudged his record under Eppler to 21-10-7-2 and left the race with 2015 earnings of $322,000. He also had a left front ankle gash.
“He ran so good, didn’t he? He just tries and tries and tries,” Eppler said, feigning gladness near the jockey scale. Then looking back trackside toward Page with gravity: “I’ve got to get back to the barn.”
The injury proved minor, and Page McKenney returned to the track five days later. Even so, Staple offered an inevitable postscript: Any plans to race Page in Penn National’s Mountainview Handicap would have to change.
The amended schedule landed Page in Iowa for the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap in June. Dressed in front wraps for the first time, he carved into another dawdling pace and finished third, then rallied for second in Mountaineer Park’s West Virginia Governor’s Stakes Aug. 1. The performances added polish to Page’s glittering feat: Against mostly stakes-caliber horses, he hadn’t a single off-the-board finish since May 3, 2014.
• • •
Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr.’s twilight hope for a Derby winner held a poignancy beyond the obvious. If somehow Eppler could land him the one trophy he didn’t own, if she could train a horse to win the most coveted race in the land if not the world, he wouldn’t see it.
At 85, Vanderbilt still cherished horses, still ventured to the tracks on race day, still jousted with The Jockey Club over risqué names for those he bred (Oh Say and Low Cut produced Ogle; Mr. Leader and Low Cut made Up in Front).
But failing eyesight had cast the world in shadow. The vivid cerise-and-white-diamond silks borne by Native Dancer and Discovery, Next Move and Bed o’ Roses, now passed a charcoal blur.
“He was a real nice man, and it was unfortunate that he couldn’t see,” Eppler said. “There were days at the racetrack where he’d be out there to watch his horses, and you’d go by, and he wasn’t even watching because he didn’t know. And that was sad. So you had to be his eyes for him.”
Queried horsemen call her tough, bossy, aloof and controlling, none of which captured Eppler’s racetrack dealings with Vanderbilt starting in 1990.
In owners’ suites at Pimlico and Laurel, she’d follow race fields with binoculars and patiently give Vanderbilt a vision of his horses’ place and movement. She called him Mr. Vanderbilt, as she had since her early days at Sagamore, and regarded him with the warmth and deference due a titan of the sport.
“It always helps to train for Mr. Vanderbilt,” she said. “I mean, just the name alone helps your career.”
The partnership brought Eppler an uptick in stock and quality, though her first stakes victory was purely self-engineered. The 1991 Villager at Philly Park starred homebred filly Saturday Affair (Oh Say—Seven Rogues, by What a Rogue), whose dam she’d trained for longtime client Daniel Brewster and bought back after the mare was claimed away.
Eppler teamed with Vanderbilt for stakes scores too, including two by Local Problem (Restless Native—Shiver Me Timbers), two by Over the Brink (Overskate—Shiver Me Timbers) and one by Gash (Distinctive Pro—Low Cut). But the Kentucky Derby challenge posed another matter altogether.
For that, Vanderbilt gave Eppler $100,000 to spend at auction. In February 1996, she hit the Ocala Breeders’ Sale at Calder and discovered Traitor, a chocolate-brown, Kentucky-bred 2-year-old colt by Cryptoclearance out of the Clever Trick mare Clever But Costly.
“I liked everything about him,” Eppler said. “I liked his conformation, his breeding, the way he went on the racetrack. He just went an eighth-of-a-mile; it wasn’t real fast, but the way he galloped out was just beautiful, I thought. He had the pedigree, and he had the looks. “
Nearing $100,000, with only owner-trainer Sonny Hine in her way, Eppler realized her strategic blunder. Bids had risen a thousand a turn through the 90s, and here she was at $99,000. Hine bid $100,000.
Eppler instantly went higher, waited for a counter, got none.
“And then I called Mr. Vanderbilt: ‘I bought your horse for you, and I paid $102,000, and if you don’t want to pay that, I’ll pay the $2,000 because I like him so much.’”
Vanderbilt ponied up; the race was on. Open knees meant Traitor only galloped after landing at Pimlico, but strides he made. He won his debut at Laurel Park that July (Captain Bodgit was third), finished third as favorite in a Saratoga a-other-than, then turned the Grade 1 Futurity at Belmont into a private exhibition, winning by 5½ lengths under John Velazquez and burying odds-on favorite Smoke Glacken and heralded Richter Scale. The dream lived.
“Well, the Breeders’ Cup was at Woodbine that year, so I was gonna take him up to the Grey [Cup] and then to the Breeders’ Cup. But there were so many trainers who told Mr. Vanderbilt, ‘No 2-year-old who’s won the Breeders’ Cup has gone on to win the Derby.’ And so he said I couldn’t do that. And I said, ‘Well, all the trainers you just named have horses running in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race,’ and they didn’t want him there. So he said, ‘I want him to run in the Champagne.’ So we lost Johnny V. because he wanted to ride something that was gonna go on to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Favored in the Grade 1 Champagne, Traitor lagged early under Jerry Bailey and fired too late, finishing second to Ordway and Velazquez. Eppler told the tale with vintage candor:
“So Jerry Bailey jumped off, and they asked him if he had any excuses, and he said, ‘Yes, I needed a faster horse, and I’m going to go get on one right now,’ which was Cigar. That was before the [Jockey Club] Gold Cup, and Skip Away beat him” by a head.
After the Champagne, Eppler took Traitor to Florida to prep for the Triple Crown. Nearly 20 years later, she recalled events with eerie clarity.
“He had his first breeze on the 31st of January. It was just three-eighths; he went nice and easy. The next day, we went back to the racetrack, and coming through the tunnel at Hialeah, he got spooked, and he got hurt, and he didn’t come out of the stall for three weeks. So that was February 21. He’d lunged right into the brass railing. His whole chest was, like, pushed in; he couldn’t move his shoulders or any of that. Couldn’t walk. There was nothing broken: no fractures, no hairlines. His whole body just got squished.
“And Mr. Vanderbilt was there. And I said, ‘He’s out of the Kentucky Derby. There’s no way now that he’s gotten hurt.’ After three weeks, out of the stall, a little shedrowing, Mr. Vanderbilt said, ‘This is my last chance?–?you’ve got to get him to the Derby.’ And this where it got very difficult. Because now it’s the 22nd, 23rd of February, and all he’s done is work three-eighths-of-a-mile once.
“I ran him March 24 in a hundred-thousand-dollar stake [the OBS Championship], and he won it, going a mile-and-a-sixteenth. Hadn’t run since the Champagne. I mean, the horse was just so good. But that hurt him too?–?he came back with a high suspensory [strain]. And I knew it. I mean, every time I worked him, my head was splitting. I knew that I was just pushing him. It was just very sad that the horse had to be pushed that hard. Because you couldn’t do it the way I do it?–?I’d go a slow work and then a fast work, and then move the distance up?–?a slow work and then a fast work. I didn’t have time. From February 21 to March 24, that’s not a lot of time to get him fit to go a mile-and-a-sixteenth after not running since October 5.”
Following the OBS victory, Traitor returned home to Pimlico, shipped to Aqueduct and won a late-April allowance race at 7-10. The physical toll worse and unequivocal, he was sold to Florida stallion interests.
As for subsequent dealings with Vanderbilt, Eppler said, “It didn’t really hurt our relationship at all. I mean, I was upset for the horse, and he knew my concerns, but I also knew his. And, really, was he ever gonna get another horse that looked like he was gonna get to the Kentucky Derby?”
Two-and-a-half years after Traitor’s gallant bid, Vanderbilt died at 87. Three-and-a-half years after that, Traitor was lost in a barn fire at the Ocala Jockey Club’s Meadowbrook facility.
• • •
The Traitor experience left Eppler wondering when, if ever, another like him might pass her way. The answer, remarkably, stood small, bay and short-coupled within her Pimlico stable.
Pug and Susie Hart of Speriamo Stable had plucked an Ontario-bred yearling at the 1996 Keeneland September sale, the price kept to $25,000 because of an old sesamoid fracture. They sent him to Eppler the following spring with a clear agenda: Break his maiden, get him stakes-placed in Canada and lose him in a rich Belmont Park claimer.
Victory Gallop, another Cryptoclearance out of the Vice Regent mare Victorious Lil, became a winner second out and promptly effected a change in plan. The Harts sought a 6-furlong race in Canada, but Eppler saw a colt that grew with distance. She winningly pitched the 7-furlong New Kent Stakes at Colonial Downs, a decision Victory Gallop validated with a 2-length victory.
“He was so funny,” Eppler said. “He would rear up every day and break his light bulb. We finally just stopped putting light bulbs in there. And he’d always stick his tongue out. But he had a lot of talent.”
Others shared that assessment. After the New Kent, syndicate manager Barry Irwin declared interest in the colt, had him X-rayed but scotched the purchase for the dicey old sesamoid images. Days later, Victory Gallop won Colonial’s 8-furlong Chenery.
Emboldened by their scrappy little closer, the Harts told Eppler to plan for the 1998 Canadian Triple Crown.
Given fresh reassurance, she sent Victory Gallop to a second in the Laurel Futurity-G3 and prepared to winter him in Florida.
The road ahead clear and promising, Eppler soon had nowhere to go. The Preston brothers of Prestonwood Farm had bought the colt for $500,000; he’d be sent to trainer Elliott Walden in Kentucky.
The next spring, Victory Gallop finished second to Real Quiet in the Derby and Preakness, then arrived just in time to steal the Belmont and Real Quiet’s Triple Crown glory.
“Oh, I was so thrilled for him,” Eppler said. “You know, I just felt like he deserved that shot.”
• • •
On a cool weekday morning, training done, Mary Eppler sat in her tidy Pimlico office and tried to explain the unexplainable.
Little in her lineage foretold a racing life. Her father, a cooper, owned Eppler Wood Products, a longtime family barrel-making business he moved from Baltimore to Elkridge, Md., near the old Dorsey Speedway. None of her six siblings took a shine to horses.
William Y. Goldsborough, her maternal grandfather, had owned some racing Thoroughbreds and often gave them family-member nicknames. Young Mary, known then as Mares, had no such namesake, which didn’t dampen her interest. Goldsborough sold his runners in Mary’s toddling years, but stories and win photos kept her fire kindled.
“I don’t know how,” she said, “but I’m the only one in the family that got the gene.”
Eppler also got mother’s gift for knitting?–?afghans, sweaters, hats?–?and used a sewing machine to make red-and-white saddle towels, monogrammed MEE, for her 30 horses. She cast the barn in other adornments, installing a security-camera system whose video she can review from office, phone or home computer up to 30 days.
“Every day you’d come in, and half your hay and straw was gone,” Eppler said. “The theft was bad here . . . They all know there are eyes in this barn.”
A worker appeared at the doorway and asked about slicing carrots. “I’ll do it,” Eppler said.
She returned with a giant bag of giant carrots, placed a wooden cutting board on her denim lap, presented something between a Bowie knife and a machete, and sliced two at a time.
When an errant disc shot away, she made like a hockey goalie in her wheeled office chair, darted to the target, speared it and returned.
She resumed her knife-work, and the subject of barn surveillance.
“I haven’t been to the track kitchen in two years because I don’t like leaving my barn,” Eppler said. “I don’t want anybody messin’ with my horses.”
“If Mary says no to something, the answer’s no,” Staple said. “There’s a tough bedside manner. I would describe her as a strong-willed horsewoman; I don’t think it goes anything beyond that. And you know how level Mary is?–?she doesn’t get excited about anything.”
Eppler implicitly noted two exceptions. The first was Xavier Perez’s circus ride aboard the bolting, shimmying, death-defying Spicer Cub that April afternoon in 2013, a $25,000 maiden race that went off the turf and onto social media everywhere. The buzz seemed justified: Spicer Cub did the unthinkable and still nearly won the race.
“Never forget that day,” she said. “That was horrible. I had a headache for 24 hours. I really thought that he was goin’ over the outside rail. I was so worried for Xavier. I mean, there was no good outcome other than what happened. And I couldn’t believe that it happened.
“I even called [owner David Butts] and said, ‘David, I’m not sure I can ever run this horse back.’ And he said, ‘Mary, that’s your call. I can’t blame you if you don’t.’ It was just so uncalled for. And where did it come from? I mean, he would do some stupid things every once in awhile, but not like that.”
Eppler watched video for clues and linked them with Perez’s dramatic account. The late-afternoon sun reflected water in a conduit between the Pimlico turf and dirt courses, he’d told her, which caused Spicer Cub, even with blinkers, to bolt for the first time in his eight-race career; the starting gate shadow led him to cut a right-hand jag in the stretch.
Reassured that circumstances wrought the fluke, Eppler appealed to racing secretary Georganne Hale to card a maiden special weight with an earlier post time to counter the problematic variables. Spicer Cub finished an uneventful second six weeks later, then won at Delaware Park next out. Through July, he’d earned $96,504, and a cult following, with a 22-2-6-0 slate.
Eppler’s other unusually jumpy moment happened the day she caulked, painted and re-cemented her now-pristine Pimlico office. She used a power-washer to clean between floor and wall, and out came. . . rats, lots of them.
“They were jumping everywhere,” she said, “and they were trying to jump towards me. And I was wearing jeans and rain pants, and I had these boots on. I thought I felt something. . . I ran down the shedrow and dropped my pants and out comes the rat.”
Just one more improbable reminder of how the best-laid plans of mice and men and women can go astray.