Mel Giddings Enjoys First Saratoga Summer With Her Own Stable

Maple Leaf Mel receives her pick of grass every morning from her trainer Mel Giddings Sarah Andrew 

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Melanie Giddings had originally planned on a no-stress summer when she decided to move her fledgling stable from its home base at Palm Meadows up to New York for the Saratoga meet.

“I had said, 'Why don't we just go up to Saratoga and enjoy ourselves?'” Giddings recalled with her signature easy smile. “No pressure, no nothing. Just take the horses there and see what we can do.”

Those expectations went out the window pretty quickly when a filly named Maple Leaf Mel (Cross Traffic) landed in her barn. The undefeated sophomore won her first race with Giddings listed as trainer when she put in a dominant gate-to-wire performance in the GIII Victory Ride S. on July 8 and now, Giddings and her stable star are preparing for what will be the biggest race of both their careers in the Aug. 5 GI Test S.

Last spring, former Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Parcells purchased Maple Leaf Mel for his August Dawn Farm at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Sale. He decided to name the daughter of Cross Traffic after Canadian-born Giddings, who was then the assistant to his regular trainer Jeremiah Englehart.

Giddings has been with Maple Leaf Mel since the grey filly first came to the racetrack, so when Giddings went out on her own at the beginning of this year, her namesake soon followed. It was a decision by Parcells and Englehart that Giddings does not take lightly.

“It would have been weird for me to not have her in my barn, but to have her in my name is pretty incredible,” she explained. “It's  a big responsibility to try to live up to a filly who is undefeated and keep it that way. I'm so grateful for Coach to give me the chance and for Jeremiah to be so supportive of my training career and let me have this filly in my name.”

Mel Giddings and Jeremiah Englehart celebrate Maple Leaf Mel's first graded stakes win in the GIII Miss Preakness S. | Horsephotos

The pressure was on in the Victory Ride when Giddings was first listed as Maple Leaf Mel's trainer, especially when the entries included the likes of MGSW Red Carpet Ready (Oscar Performance) and Grade II-placed Interpolate (Into Mischief). Giddings called an old friend and mentor for a confidence boost before the race.

“I spoke with Jeremiah when the past performances came out and I said, 'Well I drew the toughest field to have her in my name for the first time.' He told me not to worry and he was right. She doesn't care who it is and horses don't read the form. She went out there like every other time and put on a show.”

Now five-for-five with four stakes wins to her credit, Maple Leaf Mel is emerging as one of the top fillies of her division, but her trainer said that the speedy grey is like a kid on the playground when she steps into the starting gate.

“I think for her, being a good racehorse is just the fact that she loves her job,” said Giddings. “She knows what day it is when it's time to run and she's a different horse. She can't wait to run. I don't even know if she really knows what she's doing. She just goes out there and she thinks it's a good time.”

Maple Leaf Mel put in her most recent work in preparation for the Test on July 21, going four furlongs in :49.22.

“She's feeling frisky,” reported Giddings. “I'll try to keep her that way and keep her as fresh as I can going in. This will obviously be the biggest race of her life.”

Giddings has been around her fair share of talented racehorses in her 26 years in the industry. Over the years she has worked for the likes of Al Stall Jr., Mark Casse, Kevin Attard, Steve Asmussen and Roger Attfield. The thought of hanging out her own shingle never really crossed her mind until a life-threatening illness put things in a new perspective.

In 2020, Giddings was diagnosed with Stage 4B endocervical and ovarian cancer. After surgery to remove two grapefruit-sized tumors, several rounds of chemotherapy, and a long recovery, Giddings returned to the racetrack.

Maple Leaf Mel goes five-for-five in the GIII Victory Ride S. | Sarah Andrew

“I thought I would see how I could make it through the first year, whether I could even make it still doing what I love doing,” recalled Giddings. “The first year was really tough. I mean, that first year if you had said that I was going to train, I'd have told you that you're nuts because I was struggling a lot.”

But by last year, Giddings was back to overseeing around 40 horses in the Englehart barn and soon after, she discovered the dream she never really knew she had.

“I had never thought of training,” said Giddings. “I just always loved the racetrack. I've been here for 26 years and I just love getting horses ready and I take pride in them doing well and succeeding. When I got sick, I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to have another job in my life, let alone make it. So when I did I thought, 'Why not do it for myself?' No stress, no goals. Just do it and see what happens.”

Giddings said she sometimes can't believe how much time has passed since those long, excruciating months when she was so far removed from life on her beloved racetrack.

“Sometimes I look at my hair and I go, 'Oh, it's been that long,'” she said, grabbing her ponytail of now shoulder-length hair.

So just over three years after she first received the cancer diagnosis, Giddings is soaking in every moment with a filly named in her honor and a stable of promising 2-year-olds that she hopes will further her stable's early success.

Giddings has eight horses in her barn on the Oklahoma this summer, which she runs with the help of her 15-year-old pup Reese. Maple Leaf Mel is her only older horse, but Giddings has always enjoyed working with the babies and she is excited about the progress of each of her pupils.

On Wednesday, another auspicious grey namesake called Mel's Angel (Leofric) will make her debut at Saratoga. Picked out by Giddings for $32,000 at the OBS March Sale for owner James Kelly, the filly will face fellow New York-breds sprinting on the turf.

“Mel's Angel is really straightforward,” said Giddings. “She's a total sweetheart in the barn, but she's got a lot of feistiness on the track.”

With several new clients, Giddings hopes to be busy claiming and taking on the sales in the coming months. She understands the struggles that come with starting out on your own and she is grateful to the owners who have shown their support from the start.

“It's tough to break out on your own if you don't have people to back you,” she said. “If you're not winning, you're not making money so [support] is huge. We're super grateful to owners like Bill Parcells, who gave Maple Leaf Mel some time off when we asked him to and now she's rewarding him. I'm just glad it worked out because we all told him that it would and now here she is. I hope she can have a big year for him.”

Of course, not every horse in her stable will be another Maple Leaf Mel, but Giddings loves all her horses just the same.

“You get attached to the horses,” she said. “They all have their own personality. I mean, even if they're a five claimer of if they're a stakes winner, I love them all.”

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