THEY HAD A memorial service for Frank H. Merrill Jr. at Gulfsteam Park in Hallandale, Fla., Thursday morning. Of course, it was in the winner's circle.
The winner's circle was a second home to Merrill, who died of cancer Saturday at age 71. Merrill's impish grin had showed up in 3,968 celebratory photographs -- mostly in Florida and Ontario -- since he entered the horse-training profession in 1943.
Many of those winners -- an unofficial count puts it at 540 -- came at the Fort Erie, where Merrill won more races than any trainer in the track's 94-year history. A lot of horses went through Merrill's barns. Few are remembered as Giants of the Turf. None won the Queen's Plate, although not for the lack of trying. None made the Hall of Fame.
A lot of stories swirled through Merrill's barn too. Many of them were recalled fondly last week as news of his passing filtered north. My two bucks once went on his 1975 Plate entrant, a speedy grandson of Northern Dancer named Greek Answer.
Greek Answer ran like the wind. But he had the stamina of your average sportswriter.
To build up his endurance, Merrill trained Greek Answer with a nose bag full of cotton soaked in oil of eucalyptus. Kind of like training for a marathon by running with a gob of Vicks up your nostrils.
This idea -- the strategy was to force the colt to take deeper breaths and expand his lungs -- caught the public's fancy so much, they made Greek Answer the second-choice at just over 2-1. He led the Plate for a whole three quarters of a mile before fading to ninth.
Had Merrill retired 29 years ago -- on Sept. 2, 1961, to be exact -- he still would be a legend wherever horseplayers tell tales.
The official count showed 14,106 horseplayers in the Fort Erie stands that muggy 80-degree afternoon. But you can find thousands of others who swear they were present and suffered along with Merrill. It happened in an "about 7 furlongs" affair for 2-year-olds on the turf. Merrill's horse, owned by Buffalonians Walter and Roxie Gian, was the 23-10 second choice named Puss 'n' Boots.
Ridden by Ronnie Behrens, Puss 'n' Boots -- making just the fourth start of his life and his first on the grass -- worked his way through the pack to the front. The colt was leading by a length and a half with about 220 yards to go when he decided to go for a swim. He jumped over the hedge to his left, dumped his rider, and, in the words of this newspaper's witness to history, "plowed through a flower bed, turned a somersault, and slid into the deepest of the track's three lakes."
The next six minutes were almost entertaining enough to make the players forget about all the money Puss 'n' Boots had dunked as Merrill, clad in an expensive suit, and stable foreman Reggie Anderson led a six-man, one-rowboat, rescue party into the lake after the colt, which had cost $28,000 the previous fall.
At one point, the Daily Racing Form reporter said Merrill yelled "Reggie, get out of here before you drown!" To which Anderson replied "Boss, Roxie is upstairs. If we don't save this colt, there's no use getting out!"
Puss 'n' Boots eventually was rescued and went on to win a Fort Erie stakes race and set a track record.
Legend has it that Merrill, who would call Puss 'n' Boots his Wonder Horse -- "I wonder what he's going to do next" -- said he was glad the owner was there to see it all.
As he put it, "I would have hated to explain what happened over the phone."