Riding out with Roadhog

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Wednesday morning, I went to Lizzie Merryman’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center to check on Maryland Million runner Roadhog. I know the drill. Say hello, give him a pat on the nose, rub his ear, ask Merryman how he’s doing, get a feel for the situation and watch him train.

I did everything except the last part, as Merryman called an audible and suggested I ride the pony with the two-time Maryland Million Turf winner. The pony is “Chucky,” an 11-year-old former racehorse whose real name is So Risky. He won two races, earned $118,000 and serves Merryman well as a stable pony.

He’s not exactly a reporter’s ride, however.

I’ve got no notes, no photos and only a vague recollection of Roadhog’s 1 1/2 laps of the Tapeta track. I was too busy riding Chucky. They told me he’d get a little antsy. They told me he’d flip his head if I didn’t keep him in a frame or something like that.

So we walked in the chute.

Trainer Niall Saville looked at me and said, “Oh I know that pony…”

I kept thinking about frames and talked Chucky into being calm. He got a little nervous about being alone, but took great care of me. We walked, stood in, watched the tractors seal the dirt track, walked some more, made a big circle, trotted down the stretch and met Roadhog back at the gap on the turn before walking home. Easy. I would do it again, though I’m not sure how he’d handle actually going around the track – with me aboard anyway.

Oh yeah, back to Roadhog.

His morning was pretty much like any other. He waited in his stall, where an unplugged fan sat on the floor in front of the door (as a barrier for other horses, not a source of ventilation). The long, tall chestnut nibbled on a carrot offered by Merryman, slurped up a mint or seven and licked the wall for extra flavor. The son of Bowman’s Band has won 10 races and earned more than $609,000. He’s earned the status of barn star, though his neighbor is Arabian super horse Valiant Boy.

Once decked out in white polos and tack, and with his trainer aboard, Roadhog strolled to the track through the grass, walked through the tunnel under the dirt track, up the long rise to the Tapeta. He might kick at another horse, but is otherwise a gentleman. Merryman uses the dirt and Tapeta for training sessions, and sometimes hacks around the grassy areas between the barns. Roadhog doesn’t go cross country, mostly because Merryman doesn’t want to risk her horse’s tender feet crossing the dirt road (which is also why he walks through the grass to the track).

Once at the track, the 7-year-old gelding stood in for a bit to let some traffic clear, then loped around at an easy gallop/canter. He got sweaty, he always gets sweaty, but he looked great. Happy. Ready. Smooth. He was actually more keyed up walking home than he was walking toward the track, but settled to an easy walk after several deep breaths.

Owned and bred by Dale and Ellen Schilling, Roadhog looks for his third consecutive Maryland Million Turf win – a feat not lost on his trainer.

“Don’t tell me who they are,” she blurted when told three-time Maryland Million winners are pretty rare. The triplers include Hall of Famer Safely Kept, Turf Sprint demon Ben’s Cat, Countus In, Mz. Zill Bear and Docent.

With three wins (all stakes) and more than $199,000 earned, Roadhog’s 2013 was the best season of his career. This year has been a little tougher with a single win, an allowance at Presque Isle Downs in June, and three seconds. The runner-up efforts have been tough to take – he lost by a head to Hamp in the Henry Clark Stakes in April, by another head to Edge Of Reality in the Leematt at Presque Isle Downs and by less than a length to that rival in the Alphabet Soup at Parx Sept. 20.

Merryman rides Roadhog herself in the mornings, and likes the way he feels. She also knows he’s put forth four winning efforts this year.

“Hamp is tough, we got boxed in at Presque Isle and he ran great at Parx, but got beat by a better horse on the day,” said Merryman. “He’s 7, but he seems like the same horse. He had a good work here Monday (a half-mile in :49.40 on the dirt).”

The Pennsylvania-bred faces 11 others the $125,000 Turf at a mile. Ben’s Cat, second last year, takes another crack at his rival and the 1-mile trip. The others are Uncle Hugo, Tru Greek, Capital Fellow, Kiwi Notion, Change Of Command, Loves Last Chance, Excessive Drama, Willy d’Rocket, Talk Show Man and Titan Alexander. Ben’s Cat breaks from post two with Julien Pimentel while Roadhog goes from post nine with Kendrick Carmouche.

Merryman (and a few other trainers) would prefer firm turf and will be watching the weather. The Turf is the ninth of 11 races at Laurel Saturday.

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As for Chucky, here we are, headed to the track – the helmet used to belong to trainer Dickie Small, or so I’m told. Photo by Edwin Merryman.

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And this is the view from his back once we were safely back in the stall. Thanks for the ride, pal.

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