Trainers on course after rides of lives Geldings: Rebuff and D. Guilford are now retired, but those thoroughbreds dramatically changed the lives of trainers Frances Ann Merryman and J. B. Secor.

December 09, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Frances Ann Merryman quit her job as a teacher so she could train Rebuff. J. B. Secor pledged to stay sober so he could train D. Guilford.

For one glorious decade, the headstrong geldings rewarded their trainers with the rides of their lives. But those rides have ended.

This fall, after careers that ran parallel but never crossed, the old campaigners have been retired -- Rebuff at 13, D. Guilford at 12. They were the oldest thoroughbreds competing in Maryland and among the oldest in the country.

At her farm near Reisterstown, Merryman has begun training Rebuff for a second career as a show horse and jumper. At his mother's farm in Monkton, Secor looks forward to expanding his small stable now that its star, D. Guilford, is settling into retirement -- and now that Secor, a recovering alcoholic, has been sober since the mid-1980s.

"I still say to this day that D. Guilford helped give me the strength to stay straight," Secor said.

D. Guilford and Rebuff made more than the usual impact on their trainers' lives. They caused them to alter course.

Merryman taught third grade at Immaculate Conception for nine years. But when Rebuff, a horse bred by her husband's parents, demolished the competition by 10 lengths in his maiden win 10 years ago at Belmont Park, Merryman quit teaching and devoted her career to Rebuff.

"You can work your whole life and never get a horse like him," Merryman said.

For Secor, D. Guilford merited similar devotion. The gelding appeared shortly after Secor had been released from a rehabilitation center. He knew that if he didn't stay sober, D. Guilford's breeder and owner, Jewelyne Montgomery of Fair Hill, would send him to a more reliable trainer.

Similarities abound. Both horses competed on turf -- D. Guilford in sprints, Rebuff in distance races. They never raced against each other.

Both are overachieving, modestly bred geldings. They're high-strung and couldn't tolerate living at the racetrack.

For their well-being, Secor and Merryman moved their entire stables to farms -- Secor to his mother's Inverness Farm in Monkton, and Merryman to Rolling Ridge Farm. She and her husband, Johnny, lease the farm near Reisterstown.

(The trainers' families even have much in common. Secor's mother Sara, a Bosley, was married to Johnny Merryman's uncle. For three generations, Bosleys and Merrymans have been close, trading horses and attending one another's weddings.)

Merryman and Secor devoted countless hours to managing their horses' careers, selecting races that didn't overtax them or aggravate occasional ailments. That is a major reason Rebuff and D. Guilford lasted so long.

The trainers rested the horses each winter. But that meant bringing the horses back to speed each spring.

For Merryman, a former show rider, and Secor, a former steeplechase rider, that involved risking life and limb galloping their horses back into shape. When the explosive geldings weren't trying to run off, they were ducking or stopping on a dime.

"He's still wacky wild," Merryman said of D. Guilford. "I wish I had a seat belt whenever I go out on him."

But for all the trouble, for the risks and the worry, the horses were worth it.

D. Guilford's 100

D. Guilford earned $527,588. He won more than one-third of his races -- 34 of 100 -- and finished first, second or third 61 times.

From ages 2 to 12, D. Guilford won one to six races each year. He captured six stakes, including the Basil Hall at Pimlico when he was 9 and again when he was 10. His final triumph came in his first of four starts this year -- a $20,000 claiming race May 22 at Garden State Park.

For D. Guilford, the end came Nov. 5 after he ran his 100th race, finishing sixth in a $50,000 claiming race at the Meadowlands. Upon reaching that milestone, he was retired.

On Nov. 19, D. Guilford traveled by van to the Montgomery farm adjacent to the Fair Hill training center in Cecil County.

"We're really blessed," said Montgomery, who with her husband, Harold, races a small stable, never more than six. "To get an allowance-stakes horse out of our bunch is just great.

"He's been really good for J. B., too. J. B.'s a good trainer from a long line of good horsemen. So he had a lot to offer D. Guilford. And maybe we had something to offer J. B. -- a new chance, a new beginning."

"I'm going to miss him," Secor said. "He's part of my life. But it was time to let him go. It was a really neat ride."

Rebuff's new life

In 94 races, Rebuff earned $540,953. His 39 top-three finishes included 17 victories, five of them stakes. His final triumph was a stakes, the Chieftain Handicap at Laurel Park in 1995. He was 10.

But now, at 13, his work hasn't ended, merely changed -- same for his trainer. Merryman has shifted focus from training racehorses to teaching riding.

A year and a half ago, she opened Tack N' Trot for children and young teens. She sits astride Rebuff when she instructs her students, who formed a fan club for Rebuff's final races.

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