Articles

Frank Merrill’s winning way with horses

When they can’t run a lick for his rivals he patches up their pains and turns them into winners. Here’s how a strange blend of soft heart and hard head made this Canadian the continent’s top trainer

Trent Frayne September 15 1956
Articles

Frank Merrill’s winning way with horses

When they can’t run a lick for his rivals he patches up their pains and turns them into winners. Here’s how a strange blend of soft heart and hard head made this Canadian the continent’s top trainer

Trent Frayne September 15 1956

Frank Merrill’s winning way with horses

When they can’t run a lick for his rivals he patches up their pains and turns them into winners. Here’s how a strange blend of soft heart and hard head made this Canadian the continent’s top trainer

Trent Frayne

The horses and people who populate Canadian racing have made few contributions of international significance to the ancient sport of kings (a handful) and paupers (a legion). There have been no four-legged candidates to match, say, Man o' War or Citation or Nashua, and the onlytwo-legged Canadians to raise a riffle beyond the borders have been the late J. K. L. Ross, an owner whose horse Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby in 1919, and jockeys like Johnny Longden and Ted Atkinson who fled to the United States almost the instant they could steer a horse around a course without falling off — if not sooner.

But suddenly, last year, a gaunt and sallow Toronto trainer named Frank H. Merrill Jr. turned up as the leading conditioner of thoroughbred horses on the continent. Racing around the calendar on five tracks in Ontario, three in Florida, and at Narragansett near Boston, Merrill saddled one hundred and fifty-four winning mounts, twenty-six more than any other horseman in the United States or Canada. Some of the horses he raced were his own. and some belonged to other owners who hired him as their trainer for eight dollars a day per horse, plus ten percent of their winning purses. Merrill-trained horses took down purses of $298,794, although what proportion found its way back to Merrill is obscure. “A lot of the better money winners belonged to other guys,” Merrill says. “Besides, 1 don’t see that it's anybody's business how much I wound up with.” What is widely known is that in many cases the horses Merrill won with had been seemingly irredeemable cripples that other trainers had given up on.

In fact, in the thirteen years since Merrill came out of a tuberculosis sanitarium vowing he'd never work indoors again, he has become so successful in resuscitating apparently hopeless cases that around the race tracks they say that “Frankie could even make the glue-pot win.” He owes a good deal of his success to a notion that horses are a lot like humans; some are intelligent and well adjusted—and some are just plain nuts.

For instance, last year Merrill bought a horse called Earmarked, seven years old, with a right front knee the size of a grapefruit. The record showed Earmarked had not been in the money for nearly two years.

“He was a mental case, too.” Merrill recalls. “Why, you'd go in his stall and just point a finger at that knee and he'd back in the corner and throw his head and stare at you wild-eyed. He was scared of everybody because he’d had so much trouble.”

When Merrill got Earmarked to his stable in Old Woodbine's stabling area at Toronto, he spent a month winning the horse’s confidence. He'd pat his nose as he walked past his stall, talk softly to him. and run his fingers gently through the horse's forelock. Then he’d go in his stall with wary confidence, talking constantly to the horse, patting his rump and calming him.

Merrill had diagnosed Earmarked’s knee ailmen as a heavy calcium deposit and when the

time came to treat it Merrill used a special hot treatment that he devised himself. It consists of hot oil, Vaseline, hot wax and other oils. He bandaged this mixture around the horse's knee, reasoning that the heat would reduce the swelling and disseminate the calcium. When the wax cooled it hardened, forming a cast that Merrill left on the knee for four days.

"It had the effect of a slow firing job,” Merrill says. “Firing" is a commonplace practice around race tracks. Ordinarily, it's done by veterinarians

who block off the affected area much as a dentist blocks off a tooth, and then inject a hot needle into the bone in a sort of tattoo process. This forms scar tissue which strengthens the bone.

After a month of Merrill’s psychology and four days of treatment. Earmarked was a different horse.

"He wanted to play,” the trainer recalls. “All of a sudden he liked everybody. He'd whinny and paw and practically ask you to take him out of that stall.” continued on page 44

continued on page 44

Here’s the life Frank Merrill chose to recover from TB—and the bonanza it brought him

Frank Merrill’s winning way with horses

Continued from page 27

Earmarked turned out to be quite a horse. Merrill sent him to the post fourteen times. He won nine races, was second twice and third once, and earned purses worth $14,045. At the close of the Ontario season last fall, Merrill sold Earmarked to a Toronto owner and trainer named Art Halliwell for five thousand dollars, clearly illustrating that his patience had paid off. He'd got a return of $19,045 on a horse for which he'd paid fifteen hundred.

Gains of this magnitude are rare but Merrill seldom trains a horse that doesn't eventually turn a profit, and he’s long on patience. Each time he buys a horse he gives it a complete examination. Sometimes he'll find that a horse with a size five foot has been wearing a size four shoe, or he’ll find that the teeth have grown sharp and need to be filed. He files them himself with an eighteen-inch instrument called a float which has a twoinch file at one end and a handle at the other. For this operation Merrill takes off his coat, steps into the stall and while a groom holds the horse by a leather shank Merrill goes to work on the teeth. He puts a harness affair over the horse’s head which forces its mouth open and keeps it that way, and then squirts a warm-water syringe into its mouth to cleanse it. Then he places one hand on the horse’s nose to provide leverage and with the other hand he begins to file the teeth. If the horse's long tongue interferes. why Frankie just wraps a hand around it, hauls it out of the way and goes right on filing. Once in a while he'll put his hand into the horse's mouth up to the elbow to see how he's progressing, and often he cuts his hand on the razorsharp teeth.

“No wonder he can’t run,” Merrill will say, filing away, "he’s been cutting his mouth to pieces.”

A horse grinds its food, doesn't chew it, and the grinding process makes the outer edges of its teeth sharp. Then it can’t properly grip the bit. which slips off the sharp edges, and the jockey can't pace his mount. The bit in the horse’s mouth is like the gearshift and even the engine of an automobile in a driver’s hands.

“Buyin’ a horse is like buyin’ a used

car,” Merrill says. "If it’s got a cracked crankcase they ain’t gonna tell you. You buy 'em and then when you’re trainin’ ’em you find out if there’s something wrong.”

Merrill gives the same careful scrutiny to horses he claims. The process of claiming, at which he has proved a master, is a system designed to keep horses in their proper classification. For example, if a mam has a horse worth, say, five thousand dollars he could obviously win far more than his share of purses if he entered him in races against horses worth only two thousand dollars. To prevent this, all horses entered in a claiming race can be bought, or claimed, for a stipulated price, depending on the class of horse, by any other owner in the same race meeting. The risk of losing a valued horse keeps owners from emtering it in races against horses of lower value.

But if an owner has gambling instincts, he might “drop the horse down,” meaning he’ll risk the claim in the hope of winning a race. It is here that Merrill’s reputation as a doctor of cripples has helped him win innumerable purses; fearful that a once-expensive horse might not be sound, other owners shy away from a Merrill entry even in a cheap claiming race. Then, after the horse has won a race or two and is still running cheap, chagrined owners sometimes step in and claim it from Merrill, often to their sorrow.

East year Merrill bought a horse named Press at Belmont in New York for two thousand dollars. Press had a bad foot, which responded to treatment, and won just under three thousand dollars for Merrill before the season closed last fall. This spring at Toronto's Old Woodbine he won three more races in twenty-fivehundred-dollar claiming events. In this third winning effort, Press was claimed by trainer Art Monoghan for the twenty-five hundred, and in his first start in his new silks he was charging down the back stretch when suddenly he went lame and was pulled up by his jockey. Examination proved the horse had broken down, meaning that he'd developed serious leg trouble. Two months later he still had not run again. Thus Merrill, who'd won about five thousand dollars in purses with Press, got a return of seventy-five hun-

dred on a horse he’d bought for less than a third of that amount.

“Those sore-legged horses,” Merrill commented, “you can’t run 'em the day you work ’em. You gotta take it easy. I guess that's what happened to Press.”

MerrilJ’s been bitten, too, but he often turns apparent adversity into profit. He saw a horse named Hickory Hill at Tropical Park in Florida more than a year ago which was apparently running sound. Merrill put up a pretty lavish twelve thousand dollars on behalf of Toronto owner Sol Rotenberg when Hickory Hill was entered in an expensive claiming race, but the first time out for his new owner the horse pulled up lame. Merrill examined him and found the horse had a broken bone in its foot, and he apparently had a twelve-thousand-dollar lemon on his hands.

A “lemon” turns winner

But here again Merrill’s close attention to details turned a loser into a winner. Ordinarily a horse of Hickory Hill’s class would have been retired to the stud in such circumstances but Merrill is not in the horse-breeding business. He buys horses to make them win so he can collect his ten percent. Thus, with Hickory Hill he had to go to work. He had a veterinarian remove the nerve from the right front leg just above the ankle, and then Merrill himself put a plaster-of-Paris cast on the leg from the knee to the ball of the toot. 7'he cast was left on for seven weeks and when it was removed Merrill put a special bar-plate shoe on Hickory Hill’s foot. This was to prevent 1he horse’s hoof from spreading when he stepped on it, the bar extending from one side of the foot to the other and thereby keeping it taut. He put the horse into light training, gradually worked him into condition. By mid-season last year Hickory Hill had become the top handicap horse on Ontario tracks and a tremendous favorite with fhe customers. He got to the races twenty-six times and was out of the money only eight times. He won eleven races, some of them top stakes events, set track records at Woodbine for a mile and a sixteenth, and then a mile and an eighth, and wound up the season with $48,885 in purses.

This spring in training, Hickory Hill broke a little bone in his left foot and Merrill had to start the whole process over again. By July he still hadn't got the horse back to the races but this didn’t faze Merrill, who remarked recently

when asked about the horse, “Hickory Hill? He’s got broken bones in both front feet. He’ll win.”

The care he lavishes on a cripple is apt to be misleading, for Merrill is no sentimentalist. With him, horse training is a business, and the turnover at his stable might run as high as a hundred horses a year, with seldom more than thirty in his stalls at any given time. If the horses he’s training for other owners aren't producing he suggests pointedly to them that they might do better with another trainer. If his own horses are too unhealthy to be useful and apparently can't be made well, he feels no compunction about sending them to “the pot," the place where old and hopelessly brokendown horses are destroyed.

He is constantly on the lookout for ailing horses he feels he can treat, and makes frequent trips to New York tracks to try to buy cheaply any good horses that have “gone wrong.” His interest in a sick horse is solely in making it a winning horse, and he has discovered that the surest way of accomplishing this objective is to give a sick horse the very best of care.

There is reason to believe that there is an analogy between Merrill’s own illness and the manner in which he handles ailing horses. He once remarked while speaking of the two years he spent in a sanitarium that he’d been struck by the impersonal professionalism of the doctors. "They do the best they can for you,” he remarked, "but they don’t take it home at night.”

And like the doctors he observed, Merrill has little time from dawn till dusk for anything else but his business. He's there every morning, including Sundays, by seven o’clock, keeping a careful watch over his charges. He has seven grooms helping him keep his horses fit, each in charge of four or five horses. Every night they put a mudpack concoction of Merrill’s on the horses’ legs from knee to ankle and then wrap the legs in soft bandages. That cools them, tightens them and keeps them fit, he feels, and each day he checks his grooms on each horse’s condition.

Around his stables the thirty-eight-yearold Merrill is an easy-going, handsome figure, slim, almost gaunt, so that he looks taller than his five-foot-ten. He is an elegant though casual dresser, draping his sparse one hundred and forty-five pounds in Florida-made summer suits and sports shirts with a buttoned collar and rarely a tie. He’s kidded a lot about his

dapper appearance by other horsemen, and he banters with them good-naturedly.

“Hey, Frankie!” someone will call to him. “What's that you’re wearin’ today?”

"That’s Italian silk.” he’ll grin, elaborately surveying the material’s shiny finish, “but they don’t sell ’em in Italy. 1 get ’em custom-made outta the catalogue.”

He talks the profane, ungrammatical language of the race tracks, whistles tunelessly, and has a word or two for every horse as he strolls past the stalls.

“They call this one Game Sam,” he’ll

say. rubbing his hand down the horse’s long nose, “but it’s a wrong name. He’s chicken.” He’ll look back at the horse. "Whaddayuh say, Sammy boy. what happened?”

Merrill’s features are ruggedly handsome, with a cleft chin, olive complexion, blue eyes and dark curling hair. His nose has a bump on the bridge where it was broken in a fall from a horse.

“I had it bobbed; you like it better?” he’ll ask. “They used to call me BananaNose, or Arcaro. but when I bust it the guy asked me did I want him to bob it,

so I said sure, go ahead and bob it. Pretty nifty, huh?”

He has an easy word for everyone. "Hi yuh, pardner,” he’ll say with a slow smile to a groom or a swipe or a boy walking hots, “what happened?” For this reason, everyone around a race track seems to like Merrill and, because of his record, they respect his ability.

“One thing about Frankie,” a groom remarked one morning as he rubbed a horse with a cloth, “he never went highhat. Leadin’ trainer on the continent and he still knows everybody.”

Johnny Starr, a fellow trainer whose horse Ace Marine won the Queen’s Plate in 1955, says Merrill has succeeded because “he’s conscientious, never overlooks a detail, is smart, and he’ll do anything touchy that has to be done himself.”

Once, examining a horse, Merrill discovered that two small knee bones were broken. He injected an anaesthetic into the horse's leg and calmly removed the tiny fragments himself. He was asked recently why he hadn’t called the track veterinarian.

“Why call the vet?” he asked in some surprise. “By the time he’d get here I’d have it done.”

Merrill says he has a way with horses. “I don’t know what it is,” he explains, “they seem to like me. I go into a stall where a horse is raisin’ hell with the grooms, kickin’ and actin’ real mean, and they just seem to settle down. It’s like some people with dogs, I guess. Dogs snarl at some people, and nuzzle up to others.”

As long as he can remember he’s liked horses. “When I was seven or eight or so, I used to crop hay for a farmer after school and all day Saturday just so I could ride the horses to the barn at night.” he recalls.

In his youth, in which things were not handed to him on a platter, he was devoutly religious, too. He went to St. Basil’s Church in Brantford seven days a week. “It fascinated me,” he recalls. “I used to think it made me clean and pure.”

He worked with horses as a youngster. His uncle, F. W. (Fred) Merrill, who still owns and trains horses, had a farm near Brantford. Ont., where Frankie worked as a kid. Frank was born Jan. 14, 1918, at Brantford. His father owned three fruit stores there, a business that went to pieces during the Depression. The family is of Italian descent; sixty years ago Frank’s grandfather settled in London, Ont., where he became a baker and changed his name from Marcello to Merrill.

“I wish he'd left it,” Frank says now. “I like the sound of Marcello. It’s got melody.”

Frank has two brothers, Rudolph Val-

“It was quite a beginning,” says Merrill. “I had three horses, no money and my wife was pregnant”

intino Merrill and Richard Bernadino Merrill. Frank has no middle name, rhough his stable is registered under the name of Frank H. Merrill Jr.

‘ I just threw that ‘H’ in.” he grins. “I Thought it looked classy. 1 guess it stands nor Henry.” He pauses, then adds, "Yah. Henry, that's it. Henry is a good-sound:ng name.”

The Jr. is something of an afterthought, :oo. although his father’s name is Frank. It looks better with a junior,” he says. 'Frank H. Merrill Jr.—that looks pretty mod. Besides, people kept gettin' me mixed up with my uncle Fred. You couldn’t have two F. Merrills around the track.”

Frank left school when he was thirteen to work for a dollar-fifty a day in the tobacco fields around Delhi and Simcoe near Lake Erie. "1 never liked school,” he recalls. "I wanted to get out into the vorld. 1 wais always ambitious.” When the tobacco crop had been harvested his Uncle Fred took him on his farm. He silked horses, rubbed them and galloped them for nine dollars a week. His uncle owned a beauty parlor, too, and Frank vorkcd there in the winter, cleaning up the place and even learning to cut women’s hair.”

"1 still cut my wife’s and my daughter’s.” he says. "1 got real good at cuttin’ hair. One year round the track 1 cut everybody's hair, the swipes and the grooms and anybody who wanted to sit still.”

When he was twenty, after six years with his uncle. Merrill realized he wasn t getting anywhere. He'd hoped to be a jockey, but he'd grown too heavy. He left, went to Toronto and started looking for work. That was 1938. during the Depression, and Merrill recalls that he lived outdoors, sleeping under the Don Bridge. "I ate mithin’ but baloney and bread.” he says. "Baloney was fifteen cents a pound and bread a nickel a loaf. 1 slept under old newspapers and, you know, they ain t bad; they break the wind and they’re pretty warm.”

He couldn't make a go ot it and rejoined his uncle. Fred Merrill had a horse named Be T hankful that was doing him no good, and he had decided to have it destroyed. Frank prevailed upon his uncle to let him have it. “If you give him to me I’ll feed him what the other horses leave,” Frank pleaded, and his uncle finally relented.

"That was the kindest horse I’ve ever known.” he remembers. "He was like a dog. so gentle. 1 used to sleep with that horse.”

He would take him to Lake Ontario when his uncle was running horses in Toronto, and ride him into the water where the horse swam. "I figured it might strengthen his legs,” says Merrill. But Be Thankful never won a race for him. "Best he ever did, he lose a picture.” Frank says, meaning the horse was beaten in a photo finish.

In 1940 Merrill married Grace Dowdy, a girl he’d met in Toronto. He went to work at Holly Products, manufacturing sun helmets for the army. He worked thirteen hours a night, from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m., fitting cloth to the helmets.

"I did thirteen hundred hats a night and that's how I got TB," he says. "One spring morning I threw' a hemorrhage, and that w'as that.”

He w'as in the Brantford Sanitarium for two years, from 1941 to 1943. "They kept sticking needles in me. and then they wanted to take the ribs out, two at a time, for a permanent collapse of the

lung. I said no. One doc said I’d never leave the joint unless they collapsed the lung permanently, and 1 said okay, so I’ll be stayin’ but you're not takin’ my ribs.”

In 1943 when he was released he headed for the track, determined never again to work indoors. He was given three horses on the cuff—meaning that if they w’on any purses he’d pay for them; if

they didn’t he wasn’t required to. This is not an uncommon practice around a race track where owners occasionally give someone who's down in his luck a chance to work with unnotable horses on a sort of pay-me-if-you-get-it basis. John Thorpe, trainer for the Seagram stable, gave him two horses, one named Trevellian. and Arthur Brent, another trainer, gave him Best Dressed. He took the three

to Montreal to race at Blue Bonnets.

"It was quite a beginning.” Merrill says. "I had three horses, no money and my w ife was pregnant. I never used to eat so that she could eat. I never did have breakfast in Montreal.”

But suddenly that began to change when Trevellian won a race. Then he won another. In seven months, the horse w'on nine races. Merrill paid back the trainers

who'd given him the horses on the cuff, picked up a few' more horses from a Montreal horseman named Dave Zakoor, and w'ent with them to Detroit, then Chicago and I ouisville and Miami, always doing well enough to get by and gradually building up his stable as owners began turning over horses to him to train. By 1950 he w'as one of Canada’s three lead ing trainers, culminating his rise in 1954 when he led all Canadian trainers with ninety-two winners, which gave him a tie for sixth place on the continent.

In those years as he was growing more

successful Merrill lived high off the hog, and money didn’t have much meaning to him. He wasn’t averse to taking a few drinks, and then a few more, and he tossed money into the pari-mutuel machines as if he knew the mim who made it. Once, at Ihorncliffe Park in Toronto, he lined up in front of the ten-dollar window with a fistful of money and told the man to start punching win tickets on a horse called Beau Dandy until Merrill told him to stop. I he man punched out two hundred anil sixty ten-dollar tickets. One thing about it. Beau Dandy won. He

paid five-sixty for two. and Merrill went away with seventy-two hundred and eighty dollars.

"I lost it almost as fast." he says now. “One morning three years ago I realized I was being a fool, drinkin’, beltin', and so on. I wouldn't let a horse of mine behave the way I was behavin’. I cut it out. I haven’t had three drinks in three years and I never made another bet. It's like they say. you can beat one race hut you can't beat the races."

Nowadays Merrill occasionally picks up money from bets, but he never lays

a wager. People are constantly crowding around him at a race track, asking for information. Will this horse win? Will that horse win? Has this one got a chance? Merrill tells everyone who asks him. from the cop on the paddock gate to the women wearing mink on the clubhouse lawn, what he thinks. Sometimes they buy a ticket for him with their money and if the horse comes down they give Merrill the ticket.

' I don't let people bet for me who can't afford it." he says. "If a guy's a millionaire, well, it's his bankroll "

Privately, he wishes people would stop bothering him. "Half the time I don't know any more than they do." he says. "I know my horse is in good condition and I hope he wins, but that doesn't mean much. Other trainers have their horses in shape, too. We all want to win to gel our ten percent of the purse."

But he can't brush past the bettors. "They’d think I'd gone big-headed, bein' leadin' trainer and all. I tell 'em what I think, but. look, if a trainer wins one race in every three starts, that's a terrific average. And even that means he’s wrong two outta three times."

Thus, when Merrill's watching the races through his binoculars these days he's not watching a bet; actually, he's watching the horses that are trailing the field, trying to discover why they’re losing. trying to decide if he claimed the horse whether he could win with it. The biggest thrill he gets out of racing, he says, is to watch an apparent cripple respond to his treatment and win a race.

He illustrated this just last April when he turned his back on a fifty-thousand dollar-a-year contract as trainer for Mrs. Elizabeth Graham, owner of the Maine Chance f arm in the United States and founder of the Elizabeth Arden cosmetic firm. He actually took over the job as top trainer for her rich stable in Florida in January, but he declined to sign a contract. Mrs. Graham has a reputation in racing for turning over trainers faster than the names of lipsticks change. Merrill kept the job for three months and then resigned.

"She wants to be her own trainer." he explains. "What she really wants is a yes-man. not a trainer. She's a very generous woman, but it's impossible to train for her if you have a mind of your own."

She’d bring a butter-colored cosmetic cream to the stable—“an eight-hour mudpack like women put on their faces. Merrill relates—and insist that it be rubbed on the horses.

"Fifty Gs is a lot of dough. " Merrill says in explaining why he left, "but I m no yes-man."

"Besides." he adds, "all those Maine Chance horses are sound.

Thus the man who started with three horses on the cufl has gone to the very top in his business; to the pefint. indeed, where he now occasionally turns over horses to young trainers down in their luck. "Guys are buggin' me all the time to give them the ones that I figure should be destroyed." he says, "but I won't give that kind away. I figure I'm doin' the horse a favor when I send him to the pot. At least he's dead and not bein' abused. If you had a pet dog and he got sick it's better to destroy him than give him to somebody who'd just hurt him. Besides, race horses aren't happy unless they're doin' what they want to do— run." ★

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