Day At The Track

Mar Nien A to make Grand Circuit debut

05:25 PM 16 Mar 2019 NZDT
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Mar Nien, harness racing
Mar Nien seen here winning an Open Pace at Saratoga
Melissa Simser-Iovino Photo

YONKERS, N.Y. – Late last summer, harness racing trainer Amanda Kelley skimmed through a sales listing in the hopes of finding a reasonably priced horse who could race in the claiming ranks at Saratoga Raceway. Such a horse would fit longtime owner Fred Scheigert’s stable, which is predominantly comprised of claimers and New York breds who fit at the Spa. Among the listings was Mar Nien, who came with a $12,500 price tag.

Kelley began researching the horse and after looking at his lines, realized the listed price had to be a mistake. The Australian-bred pacer by Rock N Roll Heaven out of the Armbro Operative mare Champagnesheffield began his stateside career in August and showed promise. He won his debut at Harrah’s Philadelphia in 1:50.2 for Chris Scicluna before posting two runner-up efforts timed in 1:50.4 and 1:49.2.

Kelley followed up on the listing and sure enough, the correct price was much higher. She was sure Scheigert wouldn’t want to make such a sizeable outlay on one horse, but she decided to present the opportunity anyway.

“I asked the owners if they would be interested,” Kelley remembered. “I told them it could be a really good investment for the stable and shockingly they said, ‘OK, go look at him.’ So, we did, and it went from there. He checked out with a clean bill of health and came on the team.”

Kelley grew up training American Saddlebreds before delving into the Standardbred world working on breeding farms. She spent time helping trainers at Saratoga and fell in love with racing. Pushed by her mentors, Kelley worked to earn her training license. She made her first start in 2015 and soon connected with Scheigert. Less than a year after getting her license, Kelley was training all his horses.

“They knew me, they were comfortable with me, and asked if I would take all their horses. It was everything. It was terrifying,” she said. “They like to do things a certain way. They like mostly claiming. Mar Nien is actually one of the first purchases I’ve ever done for them, aside from claiming.”'

Mar Nien made his presence known from the moment he entered Kelley’s stable. The gelding came with a personality that set him apart.

“He has a little goofball attitude. I feel he’s talented, I really like him, and he’s fast, but his personality is playful,” Kelley explained. “He loves the other horses, he talks to everybody. He’s definitely a neat personality in the barn. 

“His head is constantly going, it’s on a swivel. He has to look at everything,” she continued. “You could be jogging him along and his head is completely to the left or right. He’s very observant; he catches everything. He likes his mid-morning naps, don’t bother him then. But he loves attention, you can give him hugs, he’ll put his head on you. He’s cool to be around.”

Mar Nien also proved to be a handful on the racetrack and keeping him calm in the morning became a priority. 

“He can get a bit aggressive. He likes to work, he likes his job,” Kelley said. “We try to keep him quiet when he jogs because he likes to be a little more enthusiastic than you want. If someone else is training out there, hang on, because he thinks he should be doing it, too. He just has a really good work ethic. He covers the ground nice, he’s smooth, there’s just no wasted movement with him. He’s a little guy but has a big heart and big motor.”

Mar Nien debuted for Kelley and Scheigert in a $10,170 overnight at Saratoga September 15. With Bruce Aldrich, Jr. in the sulky, the gelding capitalized on a pocket trip and posted a 1:51.1 victory with a :27.1 final quarter. The following week, Mar Nien circled the field to win the $15,000 Open Handicap in 1:52.
“His first start, I said, ‘OK, now we’re going to see what kind of horse he is.’ It’s always nerve-wracking the first start,” Kelley said. “He still had the plugs in. We were like, ‘wow.’ Bruce shook Mr. Scheigert’s hand and he said, ‘you have a nice animal.’ That was really exciting to hear. The next week, it was just a repeat. It was very exciting.”

Mar Nien earned three victories and two placings from five more starts to close his 2018 season before Kelley gave him a break for the winter. Although any plans were contingent on how Mar Nien trained back, Kelley kept the George Morton Levy Memorial Pacing Series in the back of her mind.

Mar Nien qualified back February 19 at Pompano Park, winning in 1:55.3 from post nine. A week later, the 7-year-old won another trial at the south-Florida oval, skipping over a sloppy track in 1:51.

“We qualified him once and he went easy, took him back and just came the second half. I trained him a mile-and-a-half that week, then requalified him. This time, we asked him a little bit,” Kelley said. “When the time came up, we were like, ‘woah.’ I don’t know if we were quite expecting to go that much, but he just does it on his own. He came out of that really good and then we shipped up.”

Mar Nien will make his seasonal debut in the ninth race Saturday (March 16) at Yonkers Raceway, the sixth and final division of the Levy Series first leg. It will be Kelley’s first time harnessing a horse in a Grand Circuit race.

“It’s terrifying, it’s exciting,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even get this opportunity and I’m so thankful for it. I haven’t done racehorses my whole life, but people give you this opportunity and say, ‘we trust you with this.’ To give you a nice animal, it’s pretty awesome.

“I’m really thankful for the people around me, the people in the barn and the people who helped make this happen,” Kelley continued. “The owners and everybody that’s been there for me. I’ve needed help along the way and these are great people.”

Mar Nien drew post one and will start as the race’s 5-2 morning line favorite with Greg Merton in the sulky. He will face the likes of More The Better, who drew post three and is 3-1 off a runner-up finish from post eight in a local $23,000 overnight March 9. Gokudo Hanover will start from post two, an improvement from the outside posts that hampered his last two outings; the 7-year-old gelding is 7-2 for Brennan and DiDomenico. 

Bellow’s Binge won a $29,000 overnight in his last start March 9 and is a 7-2 morning line for Bartlett and Banca. Mach Doro will make his second start for Cushing and Gibbs after winning on debut March 4, but will have to overcome post seven. Cruise Patrol, Lockton Luck, and Ballerat Boomerang complete the field. 
“To me, every horse in there is a threat,” Kelley said. “It’s all the way the race works out. I would love to get away first or second. I’d like to see him get away like that and handle anything that comes at him. I just hope he finishes strong and he races strong. My job is just to make sure he shows up and races and finishes strong.”

Saturday night’s card features six divisions of the Levy Series First Leg.

Live harness racing is featured at Yonkers Raceway every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. First post time is 6:50 p.m.

For entries to the races, click here.

By Brandon Valvo for the SOA of NY

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