It wasn’t the perfect drive. But it was the perfect ending.
Marion Marauder won Saturday’s (Aug. 6) $1 million Hambletonian, presented by Mullinax Ford, by a nose over Southwind Frank in 1:51.4 at the Meadowlands Racetrack. Sutton was third as the top three horses stretched across the finish line separated by only a neck in the 91st edition of the sport’s top race for 3-year-old trotters.
It was Marion Marauder’s second win of the day. Earlier in the afternoon, he won his Hambletonian elimination by a half-length over Southwind Frank in a career-best 1:51.3. Last year, Marion Marauder was winless in races against Southwind Frank, finishing second on four occasions.
In the Hambletonian final, Marion Marauder was fifth as Southwind Frank and Bar Hopping traded the lead in the first half of the race. At that point Scott Zeron, driving Marion Marauder for the wife-and-husband training team of Paula Wellwood and Mike Keeling, put his horse in gear and launched a first-over attack.
Marion Marauder was second behind Bar Hopping at three-quarters, but reached the front at the top of the stretch. As Bar Hopping dropped back, eventually finishing fifth, Marion Marauder held off hard-charging challenges from Southwind Frank to his inside and Sutton on the outside. Waitlifter K was fourth, beaten a length.
Zeron, who at age 27 became the second-youngest driver to win the Hambletonian, thought he might have moved too soon with Marion Marauder.
“I know better,” Zeron said. “I know that when he clears another horse, he thinks the race is over, and I got a little over anxious. I just tried to get away on Southwind Frank and Bar Hopping and just sprint away from them and my horse just kind of started lollygagging around and not knowing where the wire was but he hung tough to finish.
“It is amazing. The Wellwood family has trained trotters their whole lives and everything they’ve done has lead up to this point. The pressure is all on the Hambletonian and we delivered, the horse delivered. It was amazing. I can’t believe it.”
Wellwood, who became the second female trainer to win the Hambletonian, along with Linda Toscano, is the daughter of the late Bill Wellwood, a driver/trainer enshrined in both the U.S. and Canadian halls of fame. Marion Marauder is owned by Wellwood’s mother, Marion Jean, and her 19-year-old son, Devin Keeling.
Marion Marauder’s name combines the names of Wellwood’s mom and the nickname of Devin’s college mascot at McMaster University, where he will play football. Interestingly, the horse’s original name already had “Marion” in it; he was purchased for $37,000 at the 2014 Lexington Selected Sale under the name Marion Monopoly.
According to Wellwood, this was the family’s 10th try at winning the Hambletonian.
“It means the world; it was my father’s dream,” Wellwood said. “It has been my mother’s and my dream. We’ve tried. When this horse came along, you dare to dream. We started to dream last year.
“I was in shock (at the finish) it was so close. I knew where he was, I knew he was first up and had taken over the lead. I guess I was in shock, I couldn’t even scream. I watched and I thought it was too close to call and everyone was saying it was too close to call.”
Added a teary-eyed Marion Jean Wellwood, “It feels really good. I’ve been trying for this for a long time and I just want to say I dedicate this to my late husband.”
Marion Marauder, a son of 2009 Hambletonian winner Muscle Hill out of the Nova Award-winning mare Spellbound Hanover, has won six of seven races this year and seven of 20 career starts. He pushed his lifetime earnings to $1.01 million with his Hambletonian triumph.
“The difference between last year and this year is that he grew quite a bit,” Paula Wellwood said. “He got bigger and stronger but the real difference is that he learned how to win.”
Zeron’s win capped a memorable championship meet at the Meadowlands for the driver, who won the track’s driving title.
“I want to thank Paula Wellwood and Mike Keeling for bringing me in to drive this horse full time,” said Zeron, who was driving in the Hambletonian for the first time. “Not a lot of people give a young guy a chance to drive a Hambletonian trotter. It’s amazing.”