Standing in the sun at Pimlico yesterday morning, Mary Eppler was asked how it felt to have Victory Gallop back in her barn.
"He's not my horse," she said with a shrug.
Her simple answer disguised a set of circumstances more suited to the opera than the racetrack, a story of fate, temptation and gratification.
Eppler, a Maryland-based trainer who operates out of a quiet barn across the track from Pimlico's grandstand, was in charge of the bay, Canadian-bred colt named Victory Gallop for seven months in 1997.
But after guiding him to three wins in five starts as a 2-year-old, a promising campaign that included two stakes victories at Colonial Downs and a second-place finish in the Laurel Futurity last November, she had to give up her duties when the colt was sold.
The new owners, three brothers from Texas, had their own trainer, a young Kentuckian named Elliott Walden. Victory Gallop was sent to Walden's barn.
Now, just a few months later, after winning the Arkansas Derby and finishing a hard-closing second in the Kentucky Derby, Victory Gallop has returned to Pimlico as one of the favorites in tomorrow's Preakness.
Not only is he back on the same track he once called home, but he also is back in the very same barn.
The other Preakness horses are stabled in the stakes barn behind the grandstand, a frenzied place before the race.
Victory Gallop is across the track and away from the frenzy, stabled in his former trainer's barn.
"When we made the decision to come, I called Mary and asked if we could do this," Walden said yesterday after watching Victory Gallop's morning jog. "She was very kind to accommodate us."
It put Eppler in a tricky position. Having trained Victory Gallop and instilled in him some of the fundamentals that helped him succeed, she obviously would love nothing more than to be guiding him through the Triple Crown season, racing's grandest stage.
Instead, Walden is doing it -- from her barn now, no less.
"I went up and looked at [Victory Gallop] when he got here, and he looks good," Eppler said. "Otherwise, I don't want to get in the way."
If she was frustrated by the temptation of having Victory Gallop ++ so near and still so far, she wasn't letting on.
"I'm glad he's here," she said. "It would be pretty neat to see him win, knowing that I started him."
Walden said he and Eppler had spoken several times since Victory Gallop was reassigned to his barn.
"That can be a tough situation," Walden said. "[The former trainer] might want the horse to do well, but, you know, not too well. But Mary has been great. She was very helpful with several questions we had. You can tell she really wants the horse to succeed."
The loss of Victory Gallop was Eppler's second Triple Crown frustration within a year.
In 1997, she had a top contender named Traitor who had won Belmont's Futurity Stakes as a 2-year-old and then traveled to Florida for the Kentucky Derby prep season. He suffered a setback when he banged against the rail in a freak training accident, then tore a suspensory ligament in the spring.
Victory Gallop was sent to her shortly after that by Dr. Pug Hart, a veterinarian and farm owner from Ocala, Fla.
The colt immediately stood out as playful. He was fond of knocking out light bulbs at the top of his stall.
"He knocked out so many that we had to stop putting them in," Eppler said. "He would balk and rear and carry on around the barn. He was just a happy horse."
That was off the track. On it, he was all business.
"Very classy," she said. "As soon as we started breezing him [before he began racing], we knew he was quite nice."
She also knew from the start that her time with Victory Gallop probably was limited. Hart is known for selling his horses for a profit if they run well.
But Hart tempted her after a potential sale fell through following one of Victory Gallop's stakes victories last fall.
"[Hart] told me, 'We're just going to run him [instead of selling],' " Eppler said. "That was great. But then the other buyers jumped in, and the sale went through."
LTC Any regrets?
"No," she said. "I trained the horse and won some races, and [Hart] sold him for a nice profit. That's what happens in this business."
It was a strange scene, to say the least, at her barn yesterday, with reporters interviewing two trainers about the same horse.
"He's still playful," said Walden, who ties a rubber ball to the wall to give Victory Gallop something to play with in the stall. "But he's just doing great."
Walden had decided not to run in the Preakness, but Indian Charlie and Halory Hunter dropped out and sprinter/rabbit Baquero was added, ensuring the fast pace Victory Speech needs. Walden also was able to procure jockey Gary Stevens, who had ridden Indian Charlie.
"It all just added up," Walden said.
It added up to a sudden homecoming for Victory Gallop, who flew up from Kentucky on Wednesday.
"I hope he wins," Eppler said.
She wanted to say more, it seemed, but she didn't.
Pub Date: 5/15/98