By Beverley Smith for woodbine.com in recognition of Family Day, a statutory holiday observed annually on the third Monday in February.
TORONTO, February 17 – Bill Wellwood accomplished much with his thoughtful attention to detail as a trainer and harness horseman, quite enough to be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
He reached for the brass rings from humble beginnings. He caught many, but he missed some of the big ones, too.
Last year, 13 years after his death, his family took care of the rest.
Following his cue, his wife, Jean, daughter Paula, grandson Devin and son-in-law Mike Keeling all put their heads together and won not only the Hambletonian, but the Trotting Triple Crown with their Marion Marauder. Wellwood had never won those events, no matter how hard he had tried. Marion Marauder made history as only the ninth Trotting Triple Crown winner.
Some say, if you believe in such things, that Wellwood was looking down from above, guiding their fate. That he had a hand in it. And was proud as can be. The family thought so. And they thought first of him. Consider this:
His widow, Jean, picked out a colt called Marion Monopoly, from reading pedigrees of yearlings offered at the Lexington yearling sales. Jean liked the fact that they had owned a brother (Sooner Hanover) to the colt’s dam and he had served them well. Jean had watched videos of this yearling. She wanted him.
Sooner Hanover was “a lovely horse,” Paula said. “We retired him. He did us no harm. We had him when my father passed away and we kept him. We always liked that family.”
And this colt at Lexington was the mare’s first by leading sire Muscle Hill.
Paula, on the ground in Lexington, took a look at the colt with her husband, Mike Keeling, and found him correct, but small. “He’ll grow,” Jean said. She had a maximum price in mind, but probably because he was so small, he sold for only $37,000 (U.S.) In retrospect, luck was on their side. It seemed meant to be.
Jean’s mother’s name was Marion, and so is her own first name. The colt was bred by Marion Farms in Pennsylvania. The colt was born on March 13, which is Devin’s birthday. (The Hambletonian was his 13thstart.) How could this little enclave of Wellwoods, working as a unit, go wrong?
As soon as the Wellwood/Keeling family bought the colt, Jean decided that she would own him in partnership with her grandson, Devin Keeling, who was about to enter McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “I thought if he turned out any good, this will pay for his university,” Jean said. “It’s quite costly.”
A Hambletonian success! (Photo courtesy of Mark Hall/USTA)
Two days later, Devin signed up with the McMaster Marauders, the football team at McMaster. So the family changed the colt’s name to Marion Marauder. Everything ties together.
Jean could have gotten out of the business after her husband died in 2003, but she persevered and bought horses “faithfully.” But she never owned any of them.
“I didn’t want no part of being an owner any more,” she said. “And I let all my licenses go. When I bought this colt, I thought: ‘Oh I can have one more horse. With Devin.’”
Marion Marauder is the first horse Devin has owned. The racing business had never been his main interest. Jean now thinks the colt has brought the family even closer together.
For 10 years after her husband died, Jean continued to live in the 140-acre farm that she and Wellwood had built near Milton, Ont. It was to be their final home. About three years ago, she sold it because the upkeep was just too much for her. Jean went on without the trappings, but all of the heart of the place.
That was the farm where Paula’s Peanut started his life and lived it out, too.
“He was an ugly duckling baby that I loved when I was a little girl,” Paula said. “Then I got him for a Christmas present because nobody really liked him.”
She was about nine years old, already bound up in the family business.
Paula’s Peanut, tiny of course, raced until he was 12 or 13 years old, always flying under the family banner. He died there when he was about 20.
When Paula was 14 years old, she became a hands-on contributor to the Wellwood Stable.
“I learned everything from him,” Paula said. “I worked under him for a long time. I learned how to train. I learned how to manage.”
Her husband, Mike Keeling, used to work as a groom for her father, too, until going out on his own as a trainer. Now they train in tandem and currently have a stable of 14.
“It’s born and bred in her,” Jean said of her daughter. It’s in the blood of all of them. Jean used to jog their first good trotter, Keystone Gary. She took care of the staking of all the horses and the books, too.
Trophy time! (Photo courtesy of Mark Hall/USTA)
Marion’s Marauder’s first year of racing as a 2-year-old was deemed a success, even though he won only one race. In the big stakes, he kept finishing second to the U.S. whiz, Southwind Frank, and ironically, even in the William Wellwood Memorial Trot, named after the patriarch of the family.
Last year, under patient handling, Marauder learned how to win. The colt won 10 of his 15 starts and almost $1.5-million, richest trotter in North America.
The $1-million Hambletonian at The Meadowlands in New Jersey was the pinnacle. Jean’s husband had tried to win the race nine times without success. Paula had tried to carry on the tradition, too, her best effort a third with Laddie in 2007. It took nine years for her to get back to the Hambo.
Marion Marauder was the underdog behind his old nemesis Southwind Frank and Bar Hopping. During the elimination heat, Paula couldn’t find him; he was caught in the dust further back, maybe too far back. Then he roared out of nowhere to defeat Frank. “He just powered by them all,” Paula said.
The final was an emotional journey. Marion Marauder won by a flared nostril. Paula was out on the tarmac with the horse when “thousands” of people in the paddock erupted, cheering when Marauder’s number came up.
Of all the wins last season, the Hambletonian meant the most to Jean. She dedicated the win to her husband. “I had wanted to win that race so many times,” she said. “I kept buying trotters after William died.”
Marion Marauder went on to win the Yonkers Trot by a head. The family supplemented the colt to the third jewel, the Kentucky Futurity for $47,261 U.S. – and drew into the second tier. Still, he won by a head. To Paula, the Triple Crown win meant everything.
“I was just stunned,” Paula said. “I couldn’t believe he’d done it. That was the first time my emotions really showed.” For such a small stable to accomplish such a major feat was against the odds.
Marion Marauder will return to race this year as a 4-year-old. The family will race him with care, picking their spots without an eye to harming him or cashing in. After all, Marion Marauder is now part of the family, too.