Long before she became the vice president of racing and racing secretary for the Maryland Jockey Club, Georganne Hale first met trainer Mary Eppler when they both worked on the backstretch at the Timonium Fairgrounds.
“I remember when Mary rode her own horse in a race,” Hale said. “Mary has come a long way.”
A steady presence on the Mid-Atlantic circuit, and Maryland in particular, since taking out her license in 1980, Eppler made history Dec. 30 as the first female trainer to win a Laurel Park training title.
Leading Gary Capuano, 22-16, heading into the nine-race card, Eppler clinched top honors for Laurel’s 52-day fall meet when Frank Batten’s 3-year-old filly Gloria Patri captured Friday’s opener, her 23rd victory from 81 starts.
Eppler becomes just the second female to lead the standings in Maryland. Karen Patty won the spring meet at historic Pimlico Race Course in 1992.
“She is an excellent caretaker,” Hale said of Baltimore native Eppler, 62. “Her horses always look good and most of the time run good. She works very hard and she deserves to win a title.”
“It (is) wonderful and it (is) great for the barn, because my help has been great,” Eppler said. “I just take every day and every race one step at a time, because anything can happen in horse racing. You have your ups and downs. It’s a tough game.”
Eppler has won 761 races, including the 1996 Futurity Stakes (gr. I) with Traitor for the late Alfred G. Vanderbilt, for whom she got her start breaking and hot walking horses at Sagamore Farm. The holder of an accounting degree from Loyola College and a one-time actuary analyst in the medical insurance industry, she is perhaps best known for her work with Page McKenney.
The Pennsylvania-bred gelding, who will soon turn 7, has won 15 races and more than $1.3 million in purses for Eppler and owners Adam Staple and Jalin Stable since being claimed for $16,000 in July 2013. During that time he has finished in the top three in 28 of 30 starts.
“As anyone will tell you, that’s Mary’s story. There’s no punches pulled. She is as dead honest as they come,” Staple said. “It’s in her character that she always looks after her owners, and she will always say, ‘I wouldn’t claim a horse for somebody that I wouldn’t want for myself.’ She’s so unorthodox as far as communication. She’ll certainly stay in touch with you, but some other trainers will just tell owners what they want to hear. I’m sure she’s lost people because of that, because she’ll never do that. It’s very difficult to track to see how many horses really thrive away from her, but I would bet you that it would be a very, very low percentage.”
Staple, now based in Las Vegas, has known Eppler for nearly two decades, dating back to when he worked in the breeding and racing industry for Bill Schettine’s Signature Stallions in Reddick, Fla. and they were looking for a trainer.
“We had a couple of horses that we bred that we weren’t able to sell or we wanted to keep, and we wanted to be so careful about who was doing what to what horses,” he said. “Through friends of friends in the show world, especially in the Mid-Atlantic, person after person after person kept saying we should check her out, because she really seems to know how to take care of a horse.
“We ended up sending her a horse that, I kid you not, ran twice at Delaware and lost almost genuinely by the length of the racetrack. That’s how badly he lost,” he said. “We thought, ‘Let’s give him one more chance and just see what she can do with him.’ Second time out, he won down at Colonial. He never turned into much, but just the fact that she was able to get that out of him even with the damage that previous trainers had done really spoke volumes.”
Both Eppler and Staple credited part of her success to Brenda Godfrey’s Nor Mar Farm in Freeland, Md., where the trainer has sent several horses to recuperate and rehabilitate, including Page McKenney, who is nearing a return to competition more than eight months since his last race.
“Mary is the first to say that Brenda is a key piece of all this,” Staple said. “They’re getting a massive amount of stamina coming out of the facility and they’re not right at square one coming back off the layoff where you assume they would be. Brenda does a remarkable job.”
“Mike LaRochelle, her assistant, was telling me before the meet began that it appeared all the stars are going to align this fall, because everyone was coming into their own all at the same time,” Staple said. “I don’t think any of them thought they’d have a shot at winning the meet. I think they’d say, if she could have finished third, that would be quite a feat.
“Then she went on a massive run. All these horses came together at once and the crazy thing is, none of them were Page,” he added. “Nobody knew how good these horses were going to turn into. The thing with Mary is patience.”