Maker of the Crown is the kind of horse who gets your attention. He’s huge, gray, elegant, masculine. His pedigree is aristocratic. His sire, Empire Maker, won the Wood Memorial, the Belmont Stakes and was second in the 2003 Kentucky Derby behind Funny Cide.
His dam, Last Crown, is descended from two Hall of Fame champions. Her grandsire, the legendary Secretariat, won the 1973 Triple Crown. Her granddam was Chris Evert, who in 1974 won what then comprised the filly Triple Crown: the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose Stakes and the Coaching Club American Oaks. His half-brother War Crown won five races and earned more than $1 million in Japan.
But to owner Melissa Rispoli, the 6-year-old gelding is a quirky, lovable goofball called “Muffin.” Rispoli grew up in West Milford, N.J. riding and showing hunters and jumpers. Her grandparents, Bill and Carol Dodds, owned and operated Once A Dream Farm in Jackson, N.J.
“I was there every weekend of my life,” she said. “Every holiday, every summer vacation, mucking stalls and playing with horses. I was always at the farm. I showed one of my OTTBs in the jumper division. We were at shows pretty much every weekend.”
Her introduction to racing came through husband John Rispoli, a farrier, and jockey Matt Rispoli, her stepson. One morning in 2011, John was shoeing horses at a farm that broke 2-year-olds when a big gray colt caught his eye.
“He walked by him and decided he really had to have him,” Melissa said. “He figured he’d take a shot at running him, but he promised me that if he didn’t make it as a racehorse I could have him.”
Bred in Kentucky by Winstar Farm, the then unraced Maker of the Crown certainly had the credentials to make it on the track. He tried the maiden ranks at Penn National and Parx Racing, usually finishing mid-packish. After one particularly dismal effort, the Rispolis discovered that he was having chronic breathing issues.
The Rispolis spared no expense trying to rectify the problem. Surgery offered little improvement, and when put on a treadmill with a dynamic scope, “his oxygen levels dropped drastically,” according to John.
Another surgery was then suggested, but the couple never considered that an acceptable option due to the troublesome long-range effects it could have on the horse. After 10 winless starts, $5,630 earned, Maker of the Crown went home to the Rispolis’ small farm in Howell, N.J., just a few days before Christmas 2012.
“He had about three, four days off and then I hopped right on him,” Melissa said. “He was actually really good; there were no issues. And I didn’t have an indoor so I rode him outside. He didn’t act up at all – he saved that for now. Now he likes to act like a dork.”
Recognizing that the youngster needed to mature mentally and physically, Melissa has taken her time with him. Working with trainer Brenda Doudican, the heavy emphasis has been on dressage training and flat work.
“I started teaching when I was 18. I have my ARIA (American Riding Instructors Association) certification and am certified up to Level 2 in hunter/jumpers. I want to start dabbling in training again now. Muffin has progressed very nicely and I would like to get him over fences at some point. I don’t do much with him yet; he’s just 6 this month. Mentally, he had to grow up a bit. He was still a little bit of a baby. And I think he’s gotten bigger – he’s close to 17.2 now.”
Although she wouldn’t tag him as “naughty,” Melissa admitted that Maker of the Crown occasionally has his moments. He’ll rear, buck, play . . . all those things green horses will do.
“Sometimes,” she said, “he just thinks ‘We’re not gonna do this.’ “
Regardless of the hijinks, Melissa’s methodical patience has continued to pay off.
“This year I’m planning on taking him out to a couple local dressage shows, and then I’d like to get him back into the hunter ring even if it is for a flat class, just to get him out. I think it’s time. Hopefully we’re all set . . . so I guess we’ll see.”