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Mary Eppler becomes first woman to win training title at Laurel Park

Mary Eppler becomes first woman to win training title at Laurel Park
Mary Eppler, 62, of Baltimore, became the first woman to win the training title at Laurel Park on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016. (Courtesy of Laurel Park)

On a chilly, breezy last day of the year at Laurel Park, trainer Mary Eppler stood on a bench not far from the paddock and watched Double Whammy do what a 1-5 favorite is supposed to do. The beautiful dark bay gelding cruised home and put a nice punctuation mark on a historic meet.

It was the first race of the day and Eppler's final race of a meet in which she became the first woman ever to win a training title at Laurel.

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There was not a lot of fanfare. The early races on New Year's Eve day didn't exactly pack the grandstand and it was apparent last weekend that Eppler was going to finish with more victories than a number of top trainers with more starts and horses.

A few fans stopped by to congratulate her, but she seemed happy to blend in with the paying customers and eager to get to one of the big television screens inside to watch the replay. The training title and the significance of it didn't really dawn on her until people started bringing it up recently and reporters started to call.

"So many people have asked me about that and I've never thought there has been a problem with me in this game because I'm a woman," Eppler said. "I don't think that had anything to do with winning the title."

She might be right. Horse racing is the rare major sport in which women compete directly with men at every level. Eppler is a breeder, trainer and horse owner who has been in the thoroughbred business since she walked away from an actuary analyst job at Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1979 to turn a lifelong love of horses into an impressive racing career.

The last female trainer to win a title in Maryland was Karen Patty, who won the 1992 Pimlico fall meet.

"It is special that I won it here," Eppler said. "I had no idea a woman hadn't won it."

Eppler, 62, attributes her decision to leave the corporate world and take a hot-walking job at Sagamore Farm to an interest in horse racing that dates to the Baltimore native's childhood. Her grandfather was a trainer and horse owner, but she didn't originally intend to do anything associated with horses when she left Loyola College with an accounting degree and put it to work in the insurance industry.

If you're thinking that her skill with numbers and statistics somehow dovetails with training and breeding horses, Eppler said the connection is pretty thin.

"Other than that I can do my own books," she said.

Though Eppler said she has never regretted the risky decision to trade a safe career for a labor of love, the ups and downs of the horse-racing industry have presented some major challenges along the way. The industry in Maryland was in turmoil for years before the state legislature finally came through with a slots revenue plan that increased purses and rewarded Maryland-bred winners.

"Right now it's great," Eppler said. "Stronach (owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico) has done a great job, and the slots revenue has really contributed. … I'm a breeder, so it's really nice to run Maryland-breds and pick up that big bonus. It was really troubled, for people like the breeders, not just the racetracks. But the slots really have rejuvenated us."

The overall economy also played havoc with the industry and squeezed a lot of people and money out of the business.

"What affected me more was in 2007, when the economy just went bust," she said. "A lot of my owners decided just to sell their horses and get out of the game, so I went down to about seven or eight horses. The problem was that I had bought a house in Florida in 2007 before the crash, thinking I would be going to Florida for the winters. So, that was really tough trying to hold two mortgages and I thought maybe I should just get out because I didn't know when it was going to change."

It was a double whammy, for sure, but Eppler rode it out and enjoyed the most successful year of her career in 2016.

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Not that she'll have much time to pause and reflect on all of it. The new Laurel meeting begins Sunday.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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