Was Saint Leon’s roundabout journey into the hands of the owner-trainer team of Margaret Burlingham and Michele Boyce heaven sent, or was it the other way around?
Perhaps a little of both for the Arlington Sprint winner and his human two-women team, with noble assists credited to two more women – nationally prominent Thoroughbred owner Maggi Moss and Gail Vacca, president of the Illinois Equine Humane Center located in Elgin.
That kind of dedicated bond between horses and people goes back to the beginning of humanity and continues to this day with the vast majority of people who own, train or care for Thoroughbreds. Fortunately for Saint Leon, Burlingham and Boyce are perfect examples of it.
It was only four years ago that Burlingham first got her feet wet as an owner, owning two percent of three Thoroughbreds in a partnership group. One of them was Saint Leon.
“Saint Leon started his career right here at Arlington in 2008 and finished fifth a couple of times,” said Burlingham. “After the Arlington season ended he went to Kentucky and ran fifth and fourth in two starts at Keeneland and sixth at Churchill one time after that.
“The decision was made to send him to Mountaineer to give him the chance to learn how to win, and he won two races in a row,” Burlingham said, “but after a few more he developed a stress fracture and had to be laid up for about six months to give him time to recover. But then the decision was made to put him in a $5,000 claiming race. I was against that but I was assured no one would claim him, but of course that’s just what happened.
“I was heartbroken,” said Burlingham. “He needed to be in caring hands because of his injury, and I wasn’t sure he was. Then I met Michele Boyce through Gail Vacca. Gail had given me Maggi Moss’s phone number, who had some horses with a trainer at Mountaineer. I told Michele, ‘I’ve got to get that horse back, even if he can never run again.’
“Sure enough, the trainer who had him ran him back too quick and put him in another $5,000 claimer three weeks later,” Burlingham said. “It was the worst three weeks of my life, but right after the race, I got a phone call from Maggi. She said, ‘You got him. We had to win a shake for him, but you got him back.’
“Saint Leon had reinjured his leg in that race, much worse than the first time,” Burlingham said. “It took us about a week to get him back to Illinois and when we did the poor horse didn’t know which way was up. The veterinarian knew the horse’s medical history, and he wasn’t too optimistic about his recovery, but Michele sends her layups to Gail, and after about a month the horse looked like he was in seventh heaven. It was amazing.
“Saint Leon was off for about a year,” Burlingham said. “When we first got him back, we did so with the expectation that he might never run again, but then Michele put him back in training. He took to training very nicely – he really enjoyed it – so Michele got him ready for a comeback. I had told her, ‘I don’t care if he never runs again, but if he does, I don’t ever want him to run in a claiming race again.
“As it happened, Michele found a starter race for him here at Arlington,” said Burlingham. “He won that race and then he won four more right in a row. One of those wins was in Arlington’s jockey challenge race two years ago. Inez Karlsson rode him to victory in that race, and Earlie Fires finished second. That race was a lot of fun for us.
“We give him the winters off now,” said Burlingham, “and he doesn’t seem to care for Hawthorne at all, but when we got him back to Arlington this year he ran two very good races for us, so Michele decided to give him a chance in the Arlington Sprint.”
Asked about that decision, Boyce accentuated the positive.
“In every one of his races he comes to win every time,” said Boyce. “He’s just a hard- trying little horse – very professional. Very classy little guy. When he goes into a race, he gets a certain look in his eye. He has eyes like Seattle Slew.”
Immediately following Saint Leon’s Arlington Sprint win, in which he defeated two former winners of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, owner Burlingham was ecstatic.
“He just wants to win and he knows how to do it,” Burlingham said. “Right now, I am just over the moon.”
How did Burlingham celebrate Saint Leon’s win Saturday night? Was dinner at a fancy restaurant?
“Actually, as it turned out, I ended up having dinner in the track kitchen,” Burlingham said Sunday morning. “That was fine with me. I’m always happiest when I’m on the backstretch, anyway.”