Runhappy Happy at Claiborne Farm
By Mary Perdue
In September of 2015, I toured Claiborne Farm for the first time as part of the annual Secretariat Festival in Paris, Kentucky. I wasn’t used to farm tours then and was starstruck by most everything I saw — the breeding shed where Secretariat was conceived, his grave with a lock of hair from his mane atop the stone, the stalls of famous current and historical stallions, such as War Front, Princequillo (Secretariat’s broodmare sire) and Buckpasser, and 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb’s halter just hanging on a hook in the stallion barn.
A few weeks before I toured Claiborne , a 3-year-old colt named Runhappy notched his first grade 1 victory in the King’s Bishop Stakes at Saratoga, winning by four lengths while setting a stakes record of 1:20.50 for seven furlongs, the fastest running of the race in 32 years. I remembered the buzz around that race; Runhappy was a popular horse because he raced without medication of any kind, including Lasix, and also because he was the first winner for a young and then unknown female trainer. Runhappy made fans happy because he proved that a racehorse didn’t need medication to win or set records. Runhappy seemed, well, genuinely happy.
When he won the King’s Bishop, Runhappy was in the middle of what turned out to be a six-race win streak culminating with his track-record-setting victory in the Breeders Cup Sprint (GI) at Keeneland and, subsequently, he was awarded the Eclipse Award as 2015’s champion male sprinter.
The day after the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, the fairytale began to unravel. In a whirlwind of controversy, the day after Racing’s Championship Day his trainer had been terminated by owner Jim McIngvale and replaced by his sister-in-law, Laura Wohlers, who had been the stable’s main trainer of record for nearly 20 years. The trainer of record for the Breeders’ Cup, though a private trainer, filed a lawsuit claiming her share of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint purse had been withheld, among other things, in violation of her alleged agreement with the owner. But things only got worse for her from there as in mid-2016 and after a highly publicized and well-documented case of animal neglect she was charged with 43 counts of animal cruelty after horses owned by her were found severely neglected on a farm in Mercer County, Kentucky. Her whereabouts are currently unknown.
Despite the controversy and with an eye firmly focused on entering him in the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park at the end of January, McIngvale and Wohlers decided to try the bay son of Super Saver at longer distances. After battling multiple minor injuries during most of 2016, Runhappy raced only twice as a 4-year-old, both times at longer distances.
Unfortnately he failed to win in his brief comeback, finishing out of the money in the Ack Ack Stakes (GIII) in October and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) in November and subsequently was retired. Runhappy, it seemed, was happily running no more.
When I visited Saratoga for the first time this past summer, among the many things that made me smile was Runhappy’s victory sign and owner silks painted on a lawn jockey at the track’s entrance honoring him as the reigning King’s Bishop winner. And it was bittersweet for me to watch brilliant sprinter Drefong take the Sprint this year in a time of 1:21.2, almost a second slower than Runhappy’s win.
And I thought back to September of 2015 when I stood in front of Secretariat’s stall at Claiborne, which at the time housed no horse, just a few bales of hay. The stall has been home to many greats at stud, including Secretariat’s and his sire Bold Ruler, and classic winners Easy Goer and Unbridled. When asked why the stall was empty, our Claiborne tour guide replied, “We’re waiting for a special horse.”
Now, over a year later, guess who is the next inhabitant of Secretariat’s old stall?
It seems things have come full circle for Runhappy, a horse who loved to run and win. Like many fans, I am happy that despite many events over his career and the controversies that have surrounded him, he is finally in a place where he will be part of a Thoroughbred legacy which includes some of the most notable names in racing history, all who appear in his own pedigree, and where he will be cherished and well cared for for the rest of his life.
A special horse has indeed arrived at last.