The tale of Royal Champagne and Mary Dubbink begins on a very familiar note. Young, horse-crazy girl is taken to the track by her doting granddad, igniting a love of Thoroughbred racing that deepens and endures with each passing year.
“But I never rode,” Mary explained. “I remember thinking when I was very young, one day I’d love to own a Thoroughbred. I didn’t know what that meant or where I was going with that, but I just fell in love with the breed.”
That love affair persisted well into adulthood. When Mary and husband Rick relocated from South Carolina to Greensburg, Pa., just southeast of Pittsburgh, they endeavored to attend each of the three Triple Crown races every year. Putting their plan in motion in 2005, they ventured to Churchill Downs for Kentucky Derby 131.
“I won a lot of money on Giacomo that day,” she said. “With the exception of the Preakness in 2005, we have been to every Triple Crown race. We thought it would be really fun to do, and of course I wanted to see a Triple Crown. Who would have thought we’d see two?”
Involvement with the huge, fan-based Friends of Barbaro group after his 2006 Kentucky Derby victory prompted Mary and Rick to add the Breeders’ Cup to their annual calendar. Plans were made to attend the 2006 renewal at Churchill Downs; with four tickets in hand for the weekend, they invited friends to join them. When their traveling companions had to bow out, Rick advertised the extra tickets on eBay.
Longtime Thoroughbred trainer/owner and Kentucky native Dana Ollier responded, and a deal was struck. Arrangements were made to meet Ollier on a street corner not too far from Churchill. Mary remembers hoping aloud to her husband that the purchaser “wasn’t weird or an ax murderer.”
“He got in the back of our car and said ‘Hi, I’m Dana. . . and I’m an ax murderer.’ We knew then that we were going to be good friends. So we spent that Breeders’ Cup with him and his family and friends. We got to know them over the weekend, and Dana gave us an amazing experience. He took us on the backside – we met Nick Zito, Shug McGaughey. You can imagine, I died and went to heaven.”
The new friends stayed in touch, and when Mary mentioned an upcoming trip to Florida in February 2007, Ollier suggested that she go to Gulfstream to check out his newest acquisition, a 3-year-old filly named Royal Champagne (Double Honor—Over Ice, by Desert Wine).
“Dana was so excited about her, and I fell in love with her. She was so sweet and so pretty. We started to follow her in our Virtual Stable, and then Dana invited us to the Kentucky Cup. So we went to Turfway and got to visit her. I was scratching her ears and hugging her, and I remember thinking that I really wanted to give her a retirement home. Honest to God, I still didn’t ride, I didn’t know much about owning a horse . . . but I really wanted to give her a home.”
Mary and Rick were frequent guests of Ollier’s when Royal Champagne ran at Mountaineer Park. Ollier recalled what happened after one of those races.
Not fond of an off track, Royal Champagne trailed the leader by close to 20 lengths. And although she was “hopelessly beaten” according to Ollier, her rider employed what the three of them considered excessive use of the whip. Ollier headed to the track to meet the jockey post-race, with mad-as-a-wet-hen Mary close on his heels.
Ollier: “As soon as he dismounted, I said, ‘You’re gonna want to leave before that woman catches up to you.’ ”
When Royal Champagne was claimed for $15,000 out of a race at Mountaineer on Oct. 29, 2007, her connections were disheartened. The silver lining: She had been claimed by prominent owner Maggi Moss, whose strong position on Thoroughbred aftercare was well documented throughout the racing industry.
“At first I was upset, but then I knew Maggi had a reputation for taking great care of her horses,” Mary said. “If she was going to be claimed, it could not have been by a more wonderful owner. Dana was kind of upset because he really loved that horse. His kids loved her, she was so sweet. He had talked about maybe claiming her back at some point, but that never worked out. But I never ever gave up hope that someday I would be able to offer her a home.”
She continued to follow the filly, keeping close tabs on her whereabouts and results. In September 2008, Rick suggested that Mary contact Moss about her desire to provide Royal Champagne a loving home post-career.
“I was trying to figure out how to reach Chris Richard, the trainer at the time. So I contacted the racing secretary at Hawthorne Race Course and explained who I was and what I was trying to do. I said that I had no idea how much Maggi Moss would want, and I was hoping I’d be able to afford Royal Champagne. But I at least wanted the opportunity to discuss it with her when she decided to retire the horse. Five minutes later I got an email from the racing secretary, who told me Chris Richard had been in his office immediately after he read my email, so he was able to deliver my message to him.”
Mission accomplished, Mary went on about her daily life and didn’t give it much more thought. On Oct. 13 – her birthday – she came home from work to find Rick eager to deliver some news.
“He said, ‘You’ll never believe this, but I just got off the phone with Chris Richard. Maggi Moss wants to know when you’re going to come get your horse.’ I didn’t know what she wanted for Royal or if we could even afford her. But he said, ‘You don’t understand – she wants to gift you the horse. You just have to get her.’ ”
After 32 starts with a record of 6-5-9 and $83,918 earned, Royal Champagne was headed to Pennsylvania. When dreams come true, they often do so at warp speed. Mary and Rick didn’t own a trailer at the time. Their 10-acre farm wasn’t properly fenced for horses, and the stalls in the small barn weren’t ready.
“We hadn’t been exactly sure what we were going to do with the land,” she said. “But when Royal Champagne came into our lives, it became pretty clear.”
A friend in Pittsburgh drove his truck and trailer to Hawthorne to pick up the filly, keeping her at his own farm a few days until Mary was set up and fully functional. In November 2008, Royal Champagne arrived at her new home. Now 14, she’s spent her days there with Magnum, a 21-year-old Quarter Horse belonging to Mary and Rick’s next-door neighbor.
So Mary gave ‘Royal’ a retirement home, and in time learned to ride her. “We pleasure ride, hack around and enjoy ourselves,” Mary said. “She and I have had so much fun; she’s just a people pleaser. She is literally the only horse I’ve ever had and very probably will ever have.”
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