by Charlene Sharpe, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
Laurel, DE — A last-minute purchase — at what was his first horse sale — is still paying dividends for trainer Brandon Murray six years later.
Murray, who purchased the mare Southern Viking at a sale in 2012, will send her first foal onto the track in this Wednesday’s (Oct. 3) $67,000 Maryland Sire Stakes final for 2-year-old pacing colts. The colt, Berzerker, is already a source of pride for Murray and co-owners Clifton and Wanda Murray.
“He’s got a huge heart,” Murray said. “We’ll see how it works out.”
Murray, whose interest in harness racing was encouraged by his uncle, said he went to a Harrington horse sale in 2012 intent on buying a horse. As the end of the sale approached, however, he had yet to find one.
“There were just two left in the sale and I said ‘we’re getting that one.’”
It wasn’t until after he’d purchased Southern Viking for $1,200 that he heard she had a bad reputation.
“I didn’t know much,” he said. “It was my first year in the business. I just got her so I could learn.”
She was quick to teach him how to manage a hard-to-handle mare.
“She’s just a little nutty,” he said. “She’s tough walking, she kicks walls. She couldn’t go out with other horses because she’d beat them up.”
He wasn’t deterred however, and enjoyed several years of successfully campaigning the mare. After she lost her foal the first year Murray bred her, she even returned to the races. In 2015, however, she was successfully bred to Rusty’s For Real.
Murray and his family were thrilled to see the mare produce a healthy colt in April of 2016.
“She was a good mom and that was a relief,” Murray said. “We always questioned how she’d treat her foal since she didn’t like other horses.”
Berzerker, whose name — a reference to the famed Viking warriors — had been picked out years before he was born, looks much like his dam, who Murray believes favors her own sire, Matt’s Scooter.
He said the colt showed promise as soon as he started training, though he was initially lazy.
“He showed speed but you had to talk to him the whole mile,” Murray recalled.
Berzerker qualified well in July, pacing his first official mile in 1:59 at Harrah’s Philadelphia, and two weeks later won a Maryland Sire Stakes event at Ocean Downs with Tony Morgan in the bike.
“Tony loves him,” Murray said. “It’s nice to have the driver believe in the horse.”
In the next two starts, however, Berzerker failed to stay on stride. Murray was optimistic, however, after Morgan led the colt through two successful qualifying races at Harrah’s Philadelphia in early September.
When Berzerker went behind the gate for his next Maryland Sire Stakes event at Rosecroft Raceway on Sept. 19, he didn’t disappoint. He went straight to the lead and stayed there, crossing the wire first in 1:55.4.
In last week’s elimination, however, the colt again went offstride, albeit briefly. Murray says the colt jumped over a shadow but got back pacing, finishing second by a head before being placed third. Though frustrated by the break, Murray said he was happy to see the colt fight back afterward.
“I was surprised he was that tough,” he said.
Murray is hoping for the best this week as the colt starts from post eight in the $67,000 MSS final for 2-year-old pacing colts. He says Berzerker will put in a game effort regardless of the outcome.
“He’s always got his head in it,” Murray said.