“Life-changing” Witty looks live in McKay Turf Sprint

During a phone interview on May 8, trainer Lizzie Merryman paused to check a text that had just come in. 

“It’s a jockey agent,” she said. “He’s texting to see if I made my decision.”

More than a week out from Preakness day, Merryman hadn’t fully made up her mind whether she would enter her five-year-old homebred Witty in the Maryland Sprint on the dirt or the JIm McKay Turf Sprint. 

“I’m looking at the nominations,” she said. “The Turf Sprint came up tougher, but you never know who will run.”

When entries came out on Monday, May 13, she had opted for the Turf Sprint, drawing post position 11 and a morning line of 9-2, the second favorite. 

Witty is a half-brother to Caravel, a two-time Grade 1 winner that earned $1.98 million before being retired in 2023. 

Caravel is by Mizzen Mast and is one of seven siblings bred by Merryman out of the Congrats mare Zeezee Zoomzoom. 

Comparing Witty to his famous half-sister may be inevitable, if perhaps unfair. Witty’s career may be the more modest one, but it is no less satisfying for the woman who bred, owns, and trains him. 

“He’s just cool,” said Merryman. “He’s got a lot of personality, and he’s a great, big, beautiful horse. He’s fun to train and fun to watch. He always tries as hard as he can, and he runs his race on any surface.” 

Witty, by Maryland sire Great Notion, has won five of his 13 dirt starts and three of eight on the lawn. Overall, he has won eight of 21 career starts, earning over $565,000.

Though the weather was on Merryman’s mind as she mulled her options, it wasn’t a deciding factor. 

“The forecast doesn’t look great, but I don’t think he minds either soft or muddy ground,” she said. “I’m just not sure about five-eighths on an off-track. He generally needs a little more ground for his running style to get up, and it’s important that there’s speed in the race that stops.”

Witty narrowly won the Ben’s Cat Stakes. Photo by Jim McCue.

Witty will leave from the 11-hole with Tyler Gaffalione in the irons. Just to his outside is the morning line favorite, Beer Can Man (5-2).

In 2021, Merryman sold a majority share of Caravel, retaining part ownership until November of that year, when her partner offered the mare at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky mixed sale. After selling for $500,000, Caravel went on to win eight more races, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

“I sold Caravel at a time when I needed to sell her,” she said. “I’ve never been in that position with Witty. Early on, I did have offers to purchase a piece of him, but I didn’t enjoy the partnership experience with Caravel, so I just didn’t accept partners; I felt like I’d get pushed around a little bit.”

“Training and managing horses is such an inexact science,” she continued. “Sometimes you have to go with your gut, and I do better when I don’t have to answer to anyone disagreeing with my gut feeling. When people start questioning me, I’ll waver and let myself get talked into a different decision, and I’ve always done better going with my gut. So I opted to keep him and have fun with him.”

Most of that fun has come on on Merryman’s home tracks: of Witty’s eight wins, four have come at Laurel Park, one at Pimlico, two at Parx, and one at Delaware Park. His seven second-place finishes have all also come at Midlantic tracks. He’s earned $565,000 in a 21-race career. 

Fun, too, is following the careers of Witty’s siblings. Zeezee Zoomzoom’s her first foal was Caravel. Then came Tipsy Chatter, an unremarkable runner now in foal to Grade 1 winner Yaupon.

Witty came next, followed by Mission Man (Holy Boss), whom Merryman characterizes as a “nice allowance horse” and unusual among the siblings because he prefers routes to sprints.

Foaled in 2021, Enzo (Great Notion) is a full to Witty, and while still a maiden, he’s hit the board three times in five races. 

“He’s trickier to figure out,” said Merrman. “I think he wants to run long. He’s a great, big, cool, good-moving horse, but he’s got a little bit of an immature way about him. He has a lot of talent and I think he’s got a nice future, but he hasn’t quite figured it out yet. We’re working with him to try to get him to put it all together.” 

An unnamed two-year-old by Street Boss is at the track breezing. “Everyone who sits on her, she’s their favorite. She’s a very lovely, cooperative, good-moving, nice filly.” 

After skipping a year, Zeezee Zoomzoom foaled a Justify colt this year, who, if all goes well, Merrman hopes to sell at next year’s Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, and the mare is currently in foal to Nyquist. 

Nearly a year ago, it looked like the Justify colt would be the last for Merryman out of the mare, whom she entered in Keeneland’s November breeding stock sale.

She and her family had had a rough few months in the game. Her son McLane, who for a time trained Witty, had had a horse test positive for cocaine and was provisionally suspended in September. This came on the heels of witnessing two high-profile catastrophic breakdowns in Grade 1 races at Saratoga. 

“We were there when Maple Leaf Mel broke down, and we were watching on Travers Day when New York Thunder went down,” she said. “A few minutes later, I called Keeneland and put her in the sale. It was a spur of the moment reaction, kind of knee-jerk to everything that was going on.”

Merryman was not alone in that reaction to the events at Saratoga or to HISA’s new procedures (though she is clear in saying that she supports HISA and thinks the organization will be good for racing); anxiety, discouragement, and despair pervaded segments of the racing industry last fall.

Then she had a change of heart. 

“I kept thinking about it,” she said. “Zeezee Zoomzoom is a high-strung, tense mare. She loves her life here,and she’s given me so much, and I promised that I would give her a good home. Shipping her to Keeneland and putting her through a sale in foal was the wrong decision for her.

“So I decided that I would maybe just switch to selling babies out of her. I didn’t want to drive into the driveway and not see her out in the field.” 

As Merryman knows all too well, there’s no shortage of hard decisions in horse racing, decisions that one chooses to make, and decisions that one feels forced to make. Deciding to keep full ownership of Witty is only one of the many hard decisions that she’s made in her career.

And this one, certainly, feels like the right one.

“It’s hard to turn down money on the table,” she said, “but I was never offered money that would change my life, and Witty does. I’ve made the money that I’ve been offered for him, so it just feels like trading dollars, and I have more fun with him. It’s fun to look at him every day.”