Exculpatory nearing return to racing

Grace Merryman’s Exculpatory, whose racing journey has seen him transform from hard-luck horse to stakes winner, continues to progress forwardly toward his season debut later this month with a potential start in July’s $150,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park on the horizon.

Bred in Maryland by Merryman and her husband Louis’ Anchor & Hope Farm with Finn’s Nickel LLC, 4-year-old Exculpatory breezed four furlongs from the gate in 47.40 seconds June 4, ranking first of 14 horses over Pimlico Race Course’s main track. It was the sixth work since mid-April for Exculpatory, all at Pimlico and each the fastest of the day.

“Obviously, we’re super excited. He’s been off for a long time. He had to have some surgery and he was home at the farm with us from October to February,” Grace Merryman said. “He is training lights out. They are going at his pace. His breezes have been up to him and he is doing it in those times pretty effortlessly. We’re trying to be realistic about it and not get too excited but, of course, we are excited.”

Exculpatory has not raced since finishing eighth in the one-mile Ack Ack (G3) Oct. 2 at Churchill Downs, his graded debut after becoming a stakes winner in his prior start, the Robert Hilton Memorial at Charles Town. His well-chronicled story saw Exculpatory go unraced at 2 before debuting with a dramatic maiden special weight triumph last March at Laurel.

Overall, Exculpatory has won at 5 ½, six and seven furlongs with four wins from seven starts. Each of his wins have come at different tracks – Laurel, Pimlico, Colonial Downs and Charles Town. The De Francis is contested at six furlongs.

“We’re hoping over the next year or so or however long he wants to do this that we get to see what he is capable of,” Merryman said. “We’re excited to get him going and get his season under way and then point to the De Francis as the first big target of his campaign. We know he does well at the Laurel track, so here’s hoping.”

Exculpatory’s extended winter vacation was his first time home in nearly a year since being sent away to train for his debut, first with Merryman’s father-in-law, Edwin Merryman, at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., and then with Mark Reid at Pimlico.

“It’s a fun part of his story that I don’t think many horses are owned by their breeders and also do their vacations at their hometown. It was definitely fun for us,” she said. “Probably a little bit nerve wracking just with the quality of horse that he is and with him being back home, but he’s such a gentleman. He’s an easy horse to have around and he was great here the whole time.”

In April, just days after Merryman sent Exculpatory to trainer Jackie Savoye to get legged up, Reid called and told her he was retiring. After discussing their options, Merryman and her husband opted to leave the horse with Savoye, who has stalls at Pimlico.

“Louis and I went back and forth about it for months. So many great options, but we never quite settled on who was the right choice,” Merryman said. “Every single day with Jackie he was doing better and better and better and one day Louis and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why are we looking so hard into this? He’s in the right spot.’ So, we asked Jackie if she wanted to be a trainer again for other people and she was really excited. Having a horse like him, it’s hard not to get excited.

“I get the best progress reports. I went down to see him last weekend,” she added. “He could not be doing any better, and the care that he is receiving from Jackie is just second to none. He’s absolutely in the right spot.”

If things remain on schedule, Exculpatory, affectionately called Eli by his connections, will likely work once more before launching his season in mid-June.

“There’s a couple races on the horizon that we’re looking toward the weekend of June 17-20. Hopefully, one of them proves to be the right spot,” Merryman said. “Hopefully, ultimately we’ll jump back into stakes after he gets this kind of ‘shake the cobwebs off’ race. The exciting thing is that Mark is as excited about the horse as we are, so he’s going to be helping serve as campaign manager of sorts and kind of tracking down his races and mapping that all out for us.”

  • Exculpatory cruised in the Robert Hilton Memorial Stakes. Photo Allison Janezic.
  • Band On Tour (inside) held off Exculpatory to win at Pimlico. Photo by The Racing Biz.
  • Exculpatory won at first asking at Laurel Park. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.