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Giddings, Parcells Look to Next Test With ‘Mel’

While the undefeated Maple Leaf Mel  is devouring her post-training feed on a steamy July morning on the Saratoga backstretch, her owner, Bill Parcells, peppers his trainer, Melanie Giddings, with questions about his multiple stakes-winning filly. As part of the conversation, the 81-year-old Parcells advises Giddings, “Don’t eat the cheese!” 

It’s an expression the Pro Football Hall of Famer used with players during his 19 seasons as the head coach of four NFL franchises, including the New York Giants, whom he led to two Super Bowl titles in 1987 and 1991. It was delivered then to his players as a reminder to avoid getting caught up in reading about the team’s successes for fear it would interfere with their focus on the field.

Whether Parcells is merely ribbing Giddings or genuinely means for her not to become distracted by the attention Maple Leaf Mel is bringing her is debatable. But Giddings accepts the comment with good humor and cheekily replies she will get some wine to accompany the cheese, and Parcells cracks a grin. This easygoing banter between the two speaks to their comfortable relationship, built on a foundation of mutual admiration. 

“He always tells me that I’m like his daughter now,” Giddings said. “He will ask, ‘Are you happy? I want to make sure you’re happy.’ He’s a good man and always wants the best for a lot of people.”

Happiness is at the center of this story for many reasons. Although just nine months into her training career, Giddings, 39, and her filly already have provided a feel-good story with a Hollywood movie’s trappings. The lead actress is the 5-for-5 Maple Leaf Mel, a four-time stakes winner now facing her sternest challenge yet in the Aug. 5 Test Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course. The New York-bred 3-year-old filly is already 2-for-2 at the upstate New York track after breaking her maiden on debut and winning the Seeking the Ante Stakes in 2022.

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Maple Leaf Mel wins the 2023 Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park
Photo: Coglianese Photos

Giddings with jockey Joel Rosario after the Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park

Parcells named the sturdy-looking gray after Giddings, who faced a grim diagnosis just a few years ago with advanced-stage cancer of her ovaries and uterus. Multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation followed surgery. During and in the wake of the treatments, Giddings had a rough go as her body reeled from the toll of it all.

The now healthy Giddings has only been the official trainer of record for Maple Leaf Mel for one of the filly’s five wins, the July 8 Victory Ride Stakes (G3), where the filly ran a monstrous race and powered to a 2 1/2-length frontrunning score at Belmont Park. But Giddings worked every day with the fleet-footed daughter of Cross Traffic   from the time she entered trainer Jeremiah Englehart’s barn in the spring of 2022.

Giddings, who previously worked for Hall of Fame trainers Steve Asmussen and Mark Casse, among others, and was a jockey for three years in her native Canada from 2007-09, was an assistant for Englehart. It was Englehart who helped pick out the filly for Parcells at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale, where she was purchased for $150,000 from the consignment of Robert Brewer, and then guided Maple Leaf Mel to her first four victories. When Giddings went out on her own last fall, she maintained a connection with the filly and looked after her for Englehart this winter in Florida.

Maple Leaf Mel wins the 2023 Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park
Photo: Coglianese Photos/Joe Labozzetta

Maple Leaf Mel en route to an easy score in the Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park

With Giddings beginning to grow her own small stable, which currently numbers eight, Parcells, who was impressed by the hard-working and capable horsewoman’s relationship with the high-spirited filly while in Englehart’s shedrow, wanted to give her a leg up in her new career. Maple Leaf Mel officially moved into Giddings’ care after the filly won the May 19 Miss Preakness Stakes (G3) at Pimlico Race Course.

“She obviously has ability, but, really and truly, her heart is just so big,” said Giddings, who notched her third career win in the Victory Ride after gaining her first two victories as a trainer June 21 at Presque Isle Downs. “She thrives on running. She just can’t get enough. After she runs, she’s just full of herself. I guess she’s proud of herself. I don’t think we give horses enough credit for knowing whether they win or don’t win. I like to think she knows what’s going on.”

It’s not lost on Giddings that the stakes are high as she prepares Maple Leaf Mel for the Test, the country’s only grade 1 on the dirt at seven furlongs for sophomore fillies and a race that dates back to 1922. Two of its winners in the past four years, Covfefe  and Gamine , went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) and were recognized with Eclipse Awards at season’s end. Gamine, like Maple Leaf Mel, was undefeated going into the 2020 Test.

While Giddings certainly would love to get this first grade 1 taken care of early in her career, she also knows it would be incredibly meaningful for Parcells, whose nom de course is August Dawn Farm. He has been an owner for decades, with his program centering prominently on buying New York-breds at auction, but he has never won a grade 1. He has, however, campaigned numerous stakes winners, including Saratoga Snacks , Play Action Pass Hit It Once More , and Forty Under , his only other graded winner until Maple Leaf Mel came along.

Two time Super Bowl winning Coach Bill Parcells, left speaks with trainer Melanie Giddings at Oklahoma Training Center adjacent to the Saratoga Race Course Thursday July 27, 2023 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Photo  by Skip Dickstein

Giddings and Bill Parcells on a recent morning at the barn in Saratoga

His interest in racing was first piqued when his father brought him to Monmouth Park as a teenager. Later, in the early 1990s, Parcells began to dabble in horse ownership. Currently, he owns 10 horses, some in training at the track and younger ones still on the farm. For most of the year, Parcells lives in Saratoga, his preferred location, and during the racing season he attends the races nearly every day. He rarely misses a morning of training.

“I like being in the horse business. I’m going to be 82 (Aug. 22) and when I get up in the morning, I have something that interests me and that I enjoy,” Parcells said. “I think that’s important for a person my age. 

“You also experience some of the heartache that goes with (being an owner) and the expense that goes with it. But to me it’s worth it because I’ve met a lot of people, new friends that I would have never had. 

“It’s just like football in some respects. You’ve got these athletes here. They are challenged on a high level and you’re just anxious to see them compete, particularly if you have one you think might do something and that’s the case with Maple Leaf Mel. You know, she’s undefeated, and you don’t see that too often. So far she’s passed every test, but there’s always another test; literally we have one coming up.” 

Parcells’ same intensity for the gridiron is part of his mindset as an owner. While racing provides an outlet for his enjoyment, it’s not just a lark.

“(Winning) is the same feeling as football and (losing), the same disappointment,” said Parcells, who won his first race of the current Saratoga meet July 23 with the George Weaver-trained Three Girls  who was claimed out of the maiden race. “I had two babies that ran in the last two or three weeks, and both ran (poorly). It makes you feel like a failure. What did I see in these horses? If we don’t see some improvement, what did I do wrong? We’ll see what happens; you have to be patient with young horses and you have to give them ample opportunity, but that doesn’t last forever, either.”

Also part of the Maple Leaf Mel team is jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. Although Joel Rosario has ridden the filly in all her races, Bridgmohan, the 1998 Eclipse Award-winning apprentice who has more than 3,300 career victories in his pocket, partners with her in the mornings.

“You have to be tied on,” Bridgmohan explained. “There is no relaxing on her or she will just jump off the ground if something upsets her. She doesn’t like horses coming behind her and she just fires at them. But she’s a routine kind of horse because when the pony drops her off, you’ll gallop her around, and she’s having her fun, bucking and playing. Then she (focuses) when she sees the pony because she knows that right there is her comfort zone.”

As the morning winds down, and after licking her feed tub dry, Maple Leaf Mel finds comfort in her stall and luxuriously stretches out for a snooze while her attentive groom, Alejandro Alarçon, looks on.

Giddings beams in the direction of her filly and says, “Being around her is super normal for me, but now that she’s in my name, it’s been a little crazy because I don’t think I ever really prepared myself for (all the attention). When I worked for other people, I always gave 110% and treated the horses like they were mine. But there is just that different feeling…I wake up in the morning now and it’s like, they’re all mine.”

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