Bill Meister, Grand Manan's owner, prepares his horse for Saturday's steeplechase race. (Kim Hairston / Ulysses Muñoz)
When he first met the horse, here's what trainer Billy Meister saw: a bay gelding with good breeding, a nervous nature and large, Spock-like ears — with little in between. The horse, Grand Manan, would kick his handler. On one road trip, he broke out of his trailer stall. And always, during races, he fought his jockeys to the finish.
In 2013, Grand Manan was a head case in need of a horse shrink.
"He had screws missing," Meister said, tapping his temple. "There was nothing there."
At 4, Grand Manan had flopped on flat tracks. In five starts at Laurel Park, his average finish was seventh. Meister's job was to groom him for steeplechasing. Now, four years later, the horse will run in Saturday's 107th My Lady's Manor in Monkton, having won three straight sanctioned timber races. His last victory was the biggest: the $90,000 International Gold Cup in Virginia last October, a 31/2- miler that he won by 7 lengths, sailing over some fences by as much as 2 feet.
Clearly, the horse they call "G Man" would rather romp over hill and dale than run around in ovals.
"He's a natural athlete, a machine who'll run all day," said Meister, 53, of Parkton. For Grand Manan, it seemed, doing 6 furlongs on a dirt track was tougher than racing 3 miles over daunting jumps. Five victories in seven starts has won him praise.
"There aren't too many out there as good as him," Meister said. But he knows the horse is lucky his owner stuck with him after those dog days at Laurel.
"Had G Man gone anywhere else, he'd have been Alpo," the trainer said.
Grand Manan was 2 in 2011 when Don Reuwer bought him for $30,000 at a sale in Timonium. What caught his eye? The horse's daddy, Giant's Causeway, won more than $3 million and has been a three-time North American Sire of the Year. But Grand Manan had also been gelded, often a last resort to calm difficult horses. That he'd already been snipped at age 2 suggested a scamp-in-the-making.
"I knew I was getting a handful," said Reuwer, 68, of Brookville in Montgomery County. "There was a lot of emptiness between those ears. But now he looks happy and healthy, and he's a monster at what he does. It was never about speed, but endurance — and Billy is the genius who made him what he is."
Reuwer called the horse's transformation an equine version of My Fair Lady, "with Billy as Professor Henry Higgins."
It wasn't easy, Meister said.
"G Man was a project; the mental stability wasn't there," he said. "At Laurel, he'd run his race before the race. All his energy went into trying to mess with his rider and, when the gate opened, there was nothing left."
The trainer has seen his like before.
"People send me nutty horses all the time," said Meister. His secret?
But Grand Manan tested Meister's mettle. At first, he walked the horse around rustic Tanyard Ridge Farm in Sparks, his training site, "to make him pay attention to something beside himself." G Man jumped his first fence, then another, with ease. However, his introduction to fox-hunting went badly. He dislikes playing follow-the-leader.
"Going through a tight space, between an iron post and barbed wire, he tried to get past other horses and flipped over backwards," the trainer said.
Soon after, Grand Manan was stricken with liver disease.
"He got lethargic and began melting away, just skin and bones," said Meister, who spent six months nursing the horse back to health.
Finally, in 2015, Grand Manan entered and won his first timber race, the Valentine Memorial, at Fair Hill in Cecil County. He has blossomed under Irish jockey Darren Nagle, whose orders are simple: The horse is boss.
"I tell Darren, 'Let him do his thing,'" Meister said. "Try to restrain him and he throws his head everywhere and fights you, which takes all the race out of him. Give him his groove and he does the job and will run all day long."
The horse's demeanor has softened in the past year, exercise rider Olivia Giachini said. He'll now take peppermints, a favorite treat, without nipping a hand. He doesn't fuss when being shoed, or flinch when given acupuncture. Turned out to pasture, he's a sight to behold.
"He lays on the ground and rolls to one side, with all four feet up," Giachini said. "Then he gets up, shakes off, lays down again and rolls to the other side. Then he bucks and leaps and squeals and kicks before wandering off to eat grass and hang out."
"He has the best gallop, a huge stride and, if he goes out with other horses, he'll flick an ear and peek back to make sure he's ahead," Giachini said. "He reminds me of a high school jock who knows he's big man."
Next up: The prestigious Virginia Gold Cup on May 6. Next year, perhaps, he'll enter the Maryland Hunt Cup, which Meister has won three times as a jockey and four as trainer.
"G Man is right where he needs to be right now," Meister said. "He has figured out that he's not King Kong — or, at least, he's a relaxed King Kong."