Six months ago, the racing world witnessed what they thought was a fairy tale. A young female trainer, saddled a horse owned by a multi-millionaire to win a race on the greatest stage in the game, shining a bright light on her abilities as a trainer, while hopefully securing herself a long career in the game she said she’d dedicated her life to.
But before the ink in the record books was even dry, the trainer, Maria Borell, had been dismissed from her duties, personal insults and accusations of animal cruelty were flying about and people once united in admiration both in and out of the industry found themselves separating on one side or another, furiously arguing about who was right, who was slighted and what would come next.
On Halloween of 2015, Gallery Racing’s Runhappy captured the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI) at Keeneland after winning a pair of graded stakes earlier in the year. He had been trained by Maria Borell, who Gallery owner Jim McIngvale hired to train his horses earlier in the year. According to Gallery, Maria Borell was brought on as a private trainer and was paid $1,000 a week to train Runhappy and a handful of others, with all expenses covered by Gallery. She was also allowed to keep a couple of outside horses in the Gallery barn at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington.
But a day after the son of Super Saver won the Breeders’ Cup and set a track record in the process, Borell was out and his former trainer, Laura Wohlers, was back in. Wohlers is McIngvale’s sister-in-law and had served as Gallery Racing’s trainer for the better part of the last two decades.
Word of a fracture in the Borell/Gallery relationship came from Borell herself after she tweeted that she’d been dismissed because she refused to send Runhappy to the track a day after the Breeders’ Cup — Gallery policy for all its runners — citing heat and filling in an ankle. The social media accounts of just about everyone in racing lit up with opinions, mostly in support of Borell, due in part to the fact that McIngvale has a somewhat lengthy history of hiring and dismissing trainers since he first got into the game in the early ‘90s and has been known as “difficult” by many.
By the following Tuesday, Borell had retained an attorney who put out a press release saying Maria was wrongfully terminated and was due 10 percent of the earnings from all the races Runhappy won (as is standard in the racing game for independent contractors) and would be filing suit and giving no further comment.
For his part, McIngvale was largely complimentary of Borell and insisted his contract with her was airtight, while Borell broke her silence, commenting to racing publications that money was more important to the owner than the best interests of his horses. Borell also insisted she was not a “paper trainer” and was calling all the shots with the horses in her care, especially Runhappy.
Currently, litigation is pending between McIngvale and Borell and both parties have been instructed by legal counsel to refrain from commenting. Runhappy did go on to win the Malibu Stakes (GI) at Santa Anita on the day after Christmas and subsequently took home the Eclipse Award as Champion Sprinter of 2015. After a couple of months of rest in Texas over the winter, he is back home at the Kentucky Horse Center with longtime groom Cordell Anderson, though his 2016 debut has been pushed back while he battles a foot bruise.
Borell took out her trainer’s license in 2013 and went winless in 21 starts before being hired by Gallery Racing. But long before the racing community had heard of either her or Runhappy, she was making a name for herself in the Kentucky farm community… for all the wrong reasons.
In an effort to set up shop as a commercial breeding operation, in May of 2010, Borell leased Walnut Springs Farm — a barn, paddocks and residence — in Lexington for three months, with a month-to-month agreement to follow at a rate of $2,500 per month.
Operating under her business name of Beacon Hill Farm, Borell kept several horses on the property and was required to keep everything in the same condition it was in when she assumed occupancy. By mid-2012, Borell had stopped paying rent and, after three months, the owners of Walnut Springs moved to evict her. Walnut Springs was eventually issued a summary judgment for unpaid rent of $7,500, another $9,470 for reimbursement of repair costs to replace the subfloor, hardwood floor and carpet, $2,203 in attorney fees and costs, as well as late fees.
Borell appealed, but was denied.
Then, in December 2013, Borell leased Kara Harrison’s Colby Fields Farm in Clark County, just over the Fayette line, to operate Beacon Hill Farm. Harrison had previously maintained a successful commercial boarding and breeding operation of her own for nearly two decades before the economy tuned sour in 2008, which forced her to lease it out so as not to lose it. Harrison had no idea about the Walnut Springs judgment against Borell, as it was still in process at the time the property was leased.
“I never advertised for clients or horses or anything in 20-something years, so everything in this business was word of mouth,” Harrison said.
“She came in from New York and I asked around and I even went over to the place she lived in at the time and it seemed clean enough. It wasn’t destroyed by any means.”
Things were good between landlord and tenant until May of 2014 when Harrison noticed some damages during an inspection of the residence. However, after meeting with Borell and her father, Chuck, a promise was made to her that all damages inside the residence would be repaired.
At the same time, Borell entered into an agreement to sublease out stall and paddock space to a West Virginia trainer named Ken Summerville in exchange for him doing some work on the farm and feeding Borell’s horses. And while he kept his three horses under the sublease at the Colby Fields property, he witnessed several situations he thought to be questionable at best, inhumane at worst.
“She had horses die all the time,” Summerville said. “It was like every time she let a horse out, it’d run through a fence or break a shoulder or something. She’d keep mares in their stalls for months at a time and the stalls were hardly ever cleaned. She’d have other people do the work; she never would do any of the work herself. And then that person wouldn’t get paid and someone else would come in.
“She had clients paying her to train horses but they never left their stalls unless the owners would come,” Summerville went on. “Then she’d take ‘em out and work ‘em. I told her, ‘Are you crazy? That’s insane and it’s dangerous.’ But she just wanted the money and did it anyway.
“I saw a foal die and the mare was really upset and she just left the dead foal in the stall to rot,” Summerville continued. “It was really sad. I didn’t even know [Harrison]; I think I only met her maybe three or four times from being on that farm. She had a job off the farm and commuted an hour away, so she wasn’t there to see it all most days, but I saw first-hand the things she had to deal with and the destruction Maria was causing every day. I stayed because I was actually trying to help the horses. I wonder what could have happened to a lot of them if I wasn’t there to help.”
“Because of work, I had to keep an apartment in Midway to help with the commute. I was also having some serious health issues. I saw things that concerned me, but I had to trust [Borell] because my health wouldn’t allow me to do anything else. I’d done it all myself before, but when you’re not well you just can’t anymore. Ken was there and I saw him really working and trying hard.”
Summerville for several years also has been battling a rare auto-immune disease, and things between himself and Borell turned sour when he was hospitalized in late 2014. He says he left the care of his horses to a friend, including money and feed, but maintains that Borell didn’t want the feed and instead requested money. When Summerville and his friend refused to give her any and, instead, purchased round bales of hay, Borell soon after demanded he remove his horses from the property, he says.
“She asked me to have my horses out by a certain day and I have all the text messages to prove it, but when my friend got there to move them that very day, the gate code had been changed,” Summerville said. “Three times my friend tried and was denied access. I had left my truck and trailer there, too. I was in the hospital and I was very sick, so there was nothing I could do.”
Not long after, Borell filed a lien against Summerville’s horses and by the time he was healthy enough to be able to respond to the lien, the judgement in favor of Borell had been issued and ownership of Summerville’s horses was transferred to her, he explained.
“She took advantage of my illness — I was on life support for a week — and she took my horses,” Summerville said. “When I got out of the hospital and went to check on the horses I had to jump the fence, but her father called the police. She never even called me, she just did it. I went to court and the judge told me the time had lapsed to deal with it and the only thing I could do is appeal. So, that’s what I plan to do. I was not going to pay a ransom for my horses when she was the one who did the wrong thing. She didn’t want the feed I’d provided them; she wanted the money to take care of her other bills.”
By the following February, Harrison said that things had deteriorated so significantly at Colby Fields and the farm and residence were in such poor shape, that she filed an eviction against Borell. While eviction proceedings slowly made their way through the Kentucky court system, Harrison claims that, despite a stipulation in the lease giving her the legal right to do so, attempts to further inspect the property were blocked by Borell, with many of the confrontations documented by cell phone videos taken by Harrison.
“She never mowed a single field or paddock at my farm during the entire year of 2014 and she was responsible for doing it,” Harrison said. “I had surgery in November of 2014 and spent weeks recuperating. At that point, I couldn’t do much and I had hoped that she’d straighten things up with some warnings. I was back on my feet in January and they didn’t do it, the pressure wasn’t working.
“When I filed the eviction in February I knew I needed supporting documentation,” Harrison continued. “We had a terrible winter that year and I’m noticing these horses are starting to look really bad — skin fungus, no feed, thin and no water. I never ever saw anyone on the farm and I started to get concerned.
“I never had any intention of confronting them, just to document for the eviction, but they saw me doing it and came down to try and stop me. I posted the videos to YouTube in February and used her name, but she had them taken down,” Harrison concluded.
The tension at Colby Fields continued to be high and after Borell stopped payment on her October rent check just a few weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, Harrison had had enough. Once again armed with a cell phone camera and with free access this time, she recorded the condition of the farm and the horses on the farm. Hours after Runhappy won the Breeders’ Cup, Harrison filmed unkempt paddocks with buckets strewn about, broken fences, horses inside dark barns standing in filthy, uncleaned stalls full of muck with untrimmed feet and no water or feed — even a pony with sadly long feet begging for attention.
“She kept that poor pony locked in the barn 24/7. It was sad,” Harrison said.
Harrison also documented the condition of Borell’s residence on the farm on cell phone video, including pools of dog urine, stained carpets and destroyed hardwood floors installed just a few years before. According to Harrison, Borell’s dogs had chewed the door frames, baseboards, around doors and windows and blinds all throughout the house.
An old, used and torn couch sat outside the deck and several two-foot piles of dog feces collected behind the back deck. In addition to the damage done on the farm to the paddocks, structures and residence, Harrison found rotting horse carcasses in various locations on the property after Borell left.
“When she moved in the condition of it was pristine,” Harrison said. “When she left, it was filthy and dirty and her dogs had destroyed it.”
But despite the $65,000 in damages done, $40,000 of which was to the residence alone, the hardest part for Harrison to swallow is the neglect and abuse of the animals. She filed a lien on the horses and worked to care for them right after the Breeders’ Cup, but Borell countered that the horses weren’t actually owned by her and the liens were dismissed. In early December, Borell removed the horses and vacated the residence — to where, Harrison didn’t know. She was just happy to have her farm back, even with the damage.
“I have a really responsible new tenant who has struggled through with a lot of hard work and elbow grease,” Harrison said. “I had to have my third major surgery in 3 ½ years in March so I have been unable to do much on the farm myself. It is wearing us thin, but we persevere.”
In the weeks following the Breeders’ Cup, Borell was largely labeled a victim in the public eye, so a large ownership group on the East Coast, Drawing Away Stable, decided to take a chance on her and claim some horses for her to run in Florida.
In December, they gave Borell a $5,000 bonus and she was soon claiming horses for the group. She wasn’t given stalls at Gulfstream Park, Florida’s major horse racing venue, but she set up shop at the Calder Training Center next door to the now defunct Calder Race Course and eventually haltered six horses for the normally New York-based partnership.
The Drawing Away Stable business model is somewhat controversial in that they don’t pay expenses or a day rate to their trainers, but their trainers keep a larger share of the purse money the horses earn. And many have been successful with it over the years in several states. From 2000 until present, DAS has maintained a 20.1 percent winning average in North America.
From six horses claimed, Borell failed to win a race, but did pick up three seconds and three thirds for earnings of nearly $34,000 in 2016. Her most successful claim, Doctor J Dub, raced seven times in less than four months after being haltered for $16,000 and recorded two seconds and two thirds in allowance/optional claiming company for Borell. Additionally, Borell claimed two other horses for a partnership known as Pegisus, but they were removed from her care shortly thereafter.
A few weeks ago, the managing partners of Drawing Away Stable reportedly received alarming complaints from outsiders about the care of their horses. They were also told by multiple sources that Borell hadn’t paid her groom for several weeks and otherwise had trouble keeping help due to non-payment. Additionally, the manager of the Calder Training Center early the week of May 9 had given Borell 24 hours to vacate the premises because he didn’t want any “problems,” according to published reports.
“We wanted her out,” Joe Iadisernia, son of the training center’s owner, Giuseppe Iadisernia, told one publication. “We don’t like problems.”
After her final runner for Drawing Away Stable, Shock, finished fifth out of seven in an allowance/optional claiming race on May 11, Drawing Away Stable subsequently removed their horses from Maria Borell’s care and transferred them to their other trainers. The ownership group released a statement that read in part:
“Drawing Away has taken all the horses we have with Maria Borell away from her and they are now stabled at Gulfstream Park. Jena Antonucci and Saffie Joseph are taking care of them. The reason for this is that [DAS managing partners] received a call from the owner of the training center at Calder where the horses were staying. He informed [managing partners] that he wanted the horses taken out of there as soon as possible. [Managing partner] flew down to Florida to get a hands-on look at the situation.
“Maria is unable to get stalls at Gulfstream. We offered to let her take a horse to Kentucky but were told that she currently does not have a valid trainer’s license in Kentucky. [Managing partner] spent all day Wednesday having two vets x-ray and examine all our horses. Other than some minor colds, the horses were in good shape. [Managing partner] met with Maria and told her we would claim horses with her in Kentucky when she validated her trainer’s license. All our horses should be ready to run within a few weeks at Gulfstream. DAS wants to keep all our partners up to date with what is going on with our horses.”
Though it’s been rumored that Borell was denied access to the Gulfstream Park grounds, the track’s Vice President of Racing, P.J. Campo, said that was not the case.
“She’s not denied, I heard that but I don’t know where that came from,” Campo said. “I denied her stalls. And she’s not allowed in other peoples’ barns, but I only denied her stalls. I’ve never even spoken to her.”
Though Borell’s pari-mutuel license to operate as a trainer in Florida is currently listed as valid, her license has been suspended in New York since November 3, 2015 for non-payment of fines in that state, which should have triggered a license reciprocity issue between New York and Florida, since both are members of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) and, therefore, participate in license reciprocity. Both states are also participants in ARCI’s multi-jurisdiction licensing program.
Additionally, Borell currently is not licensed in Kentucky, though, for privacy purposes, the reason behind her license inactivity in the Bluegrass State wasn’t revealed by the Kentucky Racing Commission when contacted. However, Borell previously admitted in published reports that the conditions of her maintaining a trainer’s license in Kentucky were dependent on her making payments to Walnut Springs Farm related to the judgment against her, though it’s not currently known if she’s done that.
Borell has also been sued by Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital for non-payment. That case has been continued and will again be before a judge on June 10.
But perhaps the worst recent accusations against Borell come from a farm in Woodford County, a portion of which was leased for her by her father after she vacated Harrison’s Colby Fields Farm late last year. Stephen Haas had been working for Borell at Colby Fields beginning shortly after the Breeders’ Cup and assisted her and her father in the move to a property they rented known as Stonegate Farm near Versailles in early December. He only lasted with the Borells until a couple weeks after the move and says he’s currently owed more than $2,000, of which nearly $1,000 was used for feed the Borells requested he provide, which they said they’d pay him back for.
“I was at Kara’s farm first,” Haas said. “When I started there I had heard Maria was a vet tech or something, so I was surprised at some of the things you’d think were basic care. Most of the horses were pretty skinny and they were out in the fields all the time in what was a really cold winter. They never checked to make sure the waterers worked. It just wasn’t run how you’d expect any decent farm to be run. I even brought one horse in from the field because I was worried. They made basic mistakes like halters rubbing noses raw and not getting feet cared for so long they’d be curling up. I was hoping it would get better at the new place, but it didn’t.
“Chuck [Maria’s dad] ended up writing me a check for $800 on December 18, but a day later I found out he stopped payment on it. Then, he told me in a text message in late January or early February — I still have it — that he’d finally gotten a job in New York and he’d send me what he owed me. But in all the time since, he’s never even asked me for my address. I don’t even think he knows my last name. He just used my first name on the check he gave me and I filled in my last name.”
Summerville, however, hasn’t gotten over the loss of his horses. Since he lost ownership he hasn’t given up on finding them and getting them back, so nobody was more surprised than he was in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby when a chance meeting and a brief conversation he’d have with a stranger would lead him back to Borell.
“I met this lady while visiting a friend on a farm,” Summerville said. “She found out I was a trainer and asked if I had ever heard of Maria Borell. Then, she proceeds to tell me about how she worked for her and her father for about a month earlier this year, but because things were so bad she left and found a new job. I wondered if Maria still had any of my mares there and the lady said she’d take me to the farm. I shouldn’t have been shocked at what we found when we got there, but we were. It was the same situation — starving, sick horses.”
Three weeks ago, Summerville documented what he discovered at Stonegate on cell phone video. He captured horses with overgrown feet left for months without blacksmith care, horses in stalls not cleaned in days and several either sick or injured. All were abnormally thin, according to Summerville. He also found out that, in late March, a worker named Selso Alfonso was hired by Borell’s father to take care of the horses.
When contacted, Alfonso said that in one of his only meetings with Chuck Borell he was instructed to feed and water the horses daily. Though he found out after starting his new duties that two previous workers had left due to non-payment, Alfonso remained hopeful his situation would be different. He had a family to care for and needed the money. The horses were in pretty poor shape when he started, but Alfonso hoped he’d be able to get them fed enough to bring them back to proper weight.
Soon, however, there was no feed or shavings left and all supply deliveries had stopped. Alfonso did his best to ration what he had and borrow from whomever he could, but was out of options for proper care when Summerville arrived three days before the Derby.
“I was owed $1,000,” Alfonso said. “And Chuck [Borell] had written me two checks that were non-sufficient funds. My bank threatened to close my account. Then, when I asked him to be paid, he told me that I didn’t work for him, that we both worked for Maria and that she’d needed to pay me. I never even met Maria, and Chuck was gone to New York and she was in Florida the whole time I worked there. There was no feed for a really long time and there was at least 30 horses. No shavings, stalls were nasty. It was bad.
“One mare had a cut on her back leg. I kept saying she needed a vet. He kept telling me to call the vet, call the vet, call the vet… they wouldn’t do it. So I called the vet at Equine Park and told them the horse was Borell’s horse and they wouldn’t come out unless they got a deposit. This wasn’t very long ago. I think that the infection got to that mare and she was put down.
“I would have tried to feed them all myself and even got hay myself, but I didn’t have the money since they didn’t pay me. They did leave their dog and I fed it for a month and when they wanted to take it I told them they had to pay me first but they called the sheriff and took the dog,” Alfonso said.
At the same time, the farm’s owner, who is a physician in Cincinnati, had been alerted to the condition of the horses and immediately ordered feed and bedding, and also requested Alfonso return to help to care and feed for them. The owner could not be reached for comment on this story.
“I had 30 horses and there was never enough food or shavings, so I was very happy that they could be fed finally,” Alfonso said. “They were in really bad shape and starving up to then.”
On Derby weekend and just a handful of days after they finally received proper care, Borell and her father arranged to sneak her horses off the Stonegate property at night, leaving more destruction and filth in the barns they rented behind. Alfonso isn’t sure where they went, but hopes that wherever it is the new landlords are aware of what happened at Stonegate and the horses finally get proper care. He was also unaware of Borell’s previous history at Walnut Springs and Colby Fields and wished he’d only known.
“I didn’t know there were farms before,” Alfonso said. “I just want to do my job and take care of my family but she has to be stopped. She can’t continue to take advantage of people and hurting the horses. These are not good people.”
Like the videos from Harrison’s Colby Fields Farm, the photos and videos of the horses at Stonegate have made their rounds on social media over the past several days, causing many of Borell’s previous supporters to jump ship and now doubt her while many supporters still remain faithful and maintain her innocence. Though Borell hasn’t commented publicly or otherwise aside from a couple of Facebook posts insinuating she was a victim, some of her most loyal supporters have attacked those who’ve publicly questioned her, her history or her intentions, refusing to acknowledge the habitual bad behavior.
In the end, what Harrison hopes is that no horse again has to suffer at the hands of Borell or her father and that people finally know the truth and that innocent people with good intentions aren’t taken advantage of anymore.
“It saddens me for the horses and for the owners involved, because it should not have happened after I went public with her behavior on my farm,” Harrison said. “Thanks to her supporters, she is able to continue with this criminal level of activity. The worst thing to me is that she exploits people and their kindness. Or she exploits people and their weaknesses. And she has to be stopped.”
(Maria Borell could not be reached for comment on this story.)
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.
After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.
In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law known as the “Borell Law.”
Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, two Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.