Originally published by the Maryland Jockey Club - Oct. 20, 2021
There was a time, not long ago, when Michael Merryman considered making his living at something other than the family business. At first, he followed his dream to become a major league pitcher before that gave way to more practical pursuits like architecture or engineering.
Eventually, the lure of a life he had always known won out.
“There’s a saying, ‘You can only outrun your breeding for so long,’” Merryman said, “and I find that to be very true.”
Merryman, 29, is among the latest generation of successful Merryman horsemen carrying on a family tradition in Thoroughbred racing that is one of the best known and diverse in the industry with a depth and breadth – as owners, breeders, trainers and even auctioneers and equine dentistry – that is unsurpassed.
“It’s great. I think it’s a tribute to our parents, who were excellent horse people,” trainer, owner, breeder and Michael Merryman’s aunt Katy Voss said. “They would be very pleased.”
Nowhere has that success been more evident than in the Maryland Million, which will celebrate its 36th year Saturday at Laurel Park. The Merrymans own 25 wins as breeders, owners and trainers going back to the very first year in 1986 when 3-year-old filly Smart ‘n Quick – a homebred of her father’s trained by Voss – captured the Maryland Million Oaks.
“We look all year for a Maryland Million horse and we train for it. It is the biggest day of the year for us. Preakness is great and everything, but this is our day to show off Maryland-breds,” Michael Merryman said. “It’s just a great thing to be able to find a horse, point for that race and get to make some good money with a nice horse that you may [otherwise] never get that shot if not for Maryland Million Day.”
John B. Merryman was born and raised in Cockeysville, Md., married Katharine ‘Kitty’ Warfield and purchased a 500-acre farm called The Orebanks in 1947, which today is operated by their daughter, Ann, and grandson, Michael. As a teenager, John Merryman foxhunted, participated in horse shows and point-to-point races and was the second generation of his family to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup.
A Marine who served as a fighter pilot stationed in Okinawa, Japan during World War II, John Merryman took over the family livestock auctioneering business upon his return to Maryland and managed nearly every major Guernsey sale in North America, selling dairy cattle in 40 states in Canada.
John and Kitty Merryman – herself from a prominent Maryland family – had six children, all of whom were instilled with a love of horses and cattle and a tireless work ethic gleaned from their parents – daughters Katy, Frances, Ann and Elizabeth and sons Edwin and John Jr. Of them, all but Frances became trainers.
“We grew up in it. We grew up with horses and cows. We drew straws and I won what I believe are fifth or sixth generation silks,” Edwin Merryman said. “I have a picture of a horse of my great-grandfather’s [wearing them]. I don’t know about his father, but it goes back four generations anyway.”
John and Kitty Merryman raised and raced numerous stakes winners such as Pistol White, Smart ‘n Quick, Due North, Push N Six, Run Spot, Lady Lyndy, Rebuff and Wood Fox, and John was named Maryland’s Breeder of the Year in 1988. Their biggest success was the homebred Twixt, who at the time of her retirement was Maryland’s all-time money-winning mare and ranked sixth in the country.
Twixt, trained by Voss, was a Maryland-bred champion every year she raced (1972-75), won 26 races, 18 in stakes including the 1974 and 1975 Barbara Fritchie (G3), $619,143 in purses and was a member of the inaugural Maryland-bred Thoroughbred Hall of Fame Class of 2013.
Based at Laurel, Voss began training in 1972 and has won 858 races and more than $16.3 million in purses. She has trained four Maryland Million winners, the most recent being Saratoga Bob in the 2018 Classic, a horse named for her longtime life partner, Bob Manfuso, who passed away in 2020. Saratoga Bob is also one of four Maryland Million winners bred by the pair.
“One summer my sister and I took a bunch of horses to Marlboro. Maryland was closed in the summer basically and the only track open was Marlboro,” Voss said. “My parents’ trainer took the runners to Monmouth, so we spent the summer at Marlboro. I was going to college and my sister was back in school and our trainer quit, so there I was training all these horses. It kind of went on from there.”
Edwin was the next to begin training, in 1976, and has won 176 races and more than $3.6 million in purses. He shares a barn at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. with his sister, Elizabeth. His best horse was Jazzy Idea, who he bred, owned and trained to five career stakes wins include the 2012 Maryland Million Oaks.
Edwin’s son, Louis, and daughter-in-law, Grace, operate Anchor & Hope Farm in Port Deposit, Md. which stands stallions Bourbon Courage, Editorial, Holy Boss, Imagining and Long River. Louis Merryman also serves the Maryland Million as president of its executive committee, with Voss serving as secretary/treasurer.
“We’ve all done OK,” Edwin Merryman said. “Maryland Million is a fantastic program. Hopefully we can get the Maryland-sired, Maryland Million eligible numbers back up as far as the in-state breeding. The initial foal report came out and the Maryland foals were up a tick, anyway. There’s some decent young horses standing in Maryland now.”
Ann Merryman began training in 1981 and won 653 races and more than $15.3 million in purses, five of her wins coming in the Maryland Million. Among her top horses were Goldminer’s Dream, a four-time stakes winner of $511,261 lifetime that placed in three Grade 3 stakes, and 1999 Laurel Dash (G3) winner Grapeshot.
Her son, Michael, took over the training duties this fall following the conclusion of the Maryland State Fair meet at Timonium. They rotate horses between historic Pimlico Race Course, where Ann – a member of the Maryland Million Board of Directors – was based for years, and The Orebanks, located about 15 minutes north.
“I’m the one at the track every morning and my mom kind of runs the farm. She loves bringing the horses along and being there,” Michael Merryman said. “We do it a little different than most people. We only have about 11 stalls at Pimlico but we have about 27 in training. We have two operations going every morning. We’ve always kind of worked together and built a pretty good partnership. It came to be that it was time for me to step up and take over, and I’m OK taking that role.”
Elizabeth Merryman, the youngest of the siblings, lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Bill Rubin, who also raises buffalo on their farm. Based at Fair Hill, she launched her training career in 2004 and has won 156 races and nearly $6 million in purses.
“My dad didn’t really want me to end up on the racetrack, so I went away to college. I went to Cornell as an animal science major, hopefully to be a vet. But then I circled back and came back into it. It’s a very addicting sport,” she said. “It’s pretty neat that we all kind of carried on the breeding, owning, training and all that, the whole circle. One day, I can’t remember how long ago, I think four of us all had winners on the same day – Edwin, Katy, Ann and I – that we all owned and bred and trained. That was kind of neat.”
Her best horse, Roadhog, ran in the Maryland Million Turf five consecutive years, won it in 2012 and 2013 and finished second in 2015 and third in 2014. Her current star is turf sprinter Caravel, who she bred, owned and trained before selling a majority interest to celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Winner of the July 24 Caress (G3) at Saratoga, she is now trained by Graham Motion.
“It’s so exciting, Maryland Million. When Roadhog won his couple races for me, I was so excited. Yes, they’re restricted stakes and all, but it’s such a Maryland feeling and there’s so much enthusiasm and so much excitement around that day, and it’s so fun,” she said. “It really is special, especially since my dad was so instrumental in all the horse breeders’ organizations and Maryland Million and all. He was very passionate about it. It’s kind of a cool tribute to him that he did very well in it before he passed away, but also all of his offspring have continued on.”
Like Ann Merryman’s son, Michael, Elizabeth Merryman’s children are carrying on the tradition. Her son, McLane Hendriks, works as her assistant trainer and is preparing to start his own stable. Her daughter, Liza Hendriks, is co-founder of Wannamaker’s, which hosts monthly on-line Thoroughbred auctions.
“My sister, Ann, and I, we talk about it all the time about our kids being hooked into it, too,” she said. “It’s really neat.”
Michael Merryman continues to operate an equine dental practice, treating horses at Pimlico as well as various farms throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania, though he has had to cut back from doing as many as 50 to 60 horses a week to concentrate on training. He also runs 50 head of Devon beef cattle at The Orebanks.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to help horses be more comfortable with the bit as well as grinding and eating properly,” he said. “I also feel it helps me to be more well-rounded as a horseman. You have to be pretty in tune with them to get your whole arm in their mouth. You can see and notice things that others may not.”
Given his varied roles, it’s hard to believe Michael Merryman almost passed on helping carry the family torch.
“Growing up, just the way my mom is, she never really talked about any of it. I grew up in the dirt at Barn A at Pimlico,” he said. “I’ve been at the races since I was born, and I was probably on a horse with her in her belly. It’s pretty ingrained in me. I did kind of get worn out by it, being in it my entire life and everything, and I loved the farm. But I had to, as one does, go out and find [my] way and think about what [I] want to do.
“I went to a liberal arts college that I thought was my shot at going to the majors pitching. That didn’t work out. I ended up out at Montana State, studied [agricultural] business. Engineering, architecture is what I was thinking about. I gradually learned that’s just not for me.”
Michael gave the family reason to celebrate ahead of Maryland Million at his Oct. 2 wedding to wife, Christine. The ceremony, naturally, was held at The Orebanks.
“The original deed when my grandfather bought that land was as far as the eye can see in every direction. The spot we got married in was my grandmother’s spot and it just ended up being the spot my whole life where I went to reflect, good times or bad,” he said.
“My grandparents would say, some years the horses carry you, some years the cows carry you. Diversity helps to keep our farm going. That being said, the horse racing is always our main focus,” Michael Merryman said. “Really, we just all love horses. The fact that we get to do it for a living is a bonus.”
Words: Phil Janack