Sharp Conditioner Scherer to Oversee Ward’s Churchill Downs String

June 9, 2020

Merrill Scherer is only a few weeks away from his 81st birthday but the lifelong horseman continues to show a sharp eye for conditioning horses. 

Last spring, Scherer had about eight horses in his care at Churchill Downs. He returned to the Fair Grounds in November. When Scherer planned his return to Kentucky this spring from New Orleans, he was going to help his son, Eric, and daughter-in-law, Marianne, with their small string of horses at Churchill Downs’ Trackside Louisville. 

That plan changed when Scherer received a call from longtime friend Wesley Ward asking for help with his Churchill Downs division of horses.

“I was sitting down in New Orleans this winter and Wesley called me and asked what I was going to do this spring,” said Scherer. “I was down on horses and had planned to come back to Louisville to hang out with my son. When Wesley asked me to come help out at the barn, of course I told him I would.”

With more than six decades of experience in the sport, Scherer spent the majority of his training career based in Louisiana and was introduced to Ward’s father, Dennis, in the 1960s.

“Since I took that phone call from Wesley, I’ve dropped eight pounds and ate more food than ever before,” Scherer joked. “I’ve got a good pep in my step working with these horses.”

Ward’s horses are stabled in Barn 35 at Churchill Downs. The world-traveling Ward has horses based throughout the U.S. and targets many of the international race meets including Royal Ascot. While Ward has become a regular trainer on the international scene, Scherer plans to remain stateside.

“I don’t have a passport and a top hat would look goofy on my head. I’m staying right here,” Scherer said.

“I’ve done a lot and seen a lot in this game but you always see something new every day,” Scherer said in 2019 as he thumbed through a pile of old photos on his desk inside Barn 46 at Churchill Downs. “These photos were on the wall at Fair Grounds. I need to figure out where to put them in here. Here’s one of me from back in 1956. I was 17 years old at the time, grooming three horses a day. It may not seem like a lot now but back then it would take you all day to groom three of them. Age is only a number in the sand – at least that’s what I keep telling myself.”

Scherer grew up in Louisiana and began going to Fair Grounds with his father, George. His first memory of the racetrack came when he was introduced to trainer Ralph Hughes.

“Somehow my dad knew this trainer named Ralph Hughes,” Scherer said. “He took us back to the barn and he let me walk one of his horses. I was 9 years old at the time. We walked one corner and the next thing you know the horse drug me down the street and we never made it to the other side of the barn.”

Scherer would visit the racetrack on weekends with his father and after he finished his junior year of high school he decided to go to Cleveland, Ohio to work as a groom.

“One summer after I finished high school I jumped on a Greyhound bus and went to Ohio to follow one of my friends who was a jockey,” Scherer said. “It took 36 hours back then to get there because there weren’t any interstates. We passed through Kentucky which was pretty neat to see. We went right by Calumet Farm and I almost jumped off the bus seeing all of the beautiful, white fences. I made it up to Cleveland and started working as a hot walker.”

After a couple years in Ohio, Scherer moved to New England and began working for trainer Buck Harper. That job lasted until 1962 when Scherer took out his trainer’s license and bought his first horse, Wooded Acres.

Scherer has spent the majority of his career based in the Midwest with stints in Illinois, Kentucky and Louisiana. It wasn’t until 1993 when he won his first graded stakes race with Little Bro Lantis in the Stars and Stripes Handicap (GIII) at Arlington. Since statistics started being regularly kept for horse racing in 1976, Scherer has won 1,410 races with earnings of more than $24.6 million.

In 2017 tragedy struck Scherer as his son, Richie, passed away from kidney cancer. He was 53. Richie helped his father during the summers as a teenager and was a trainer from 1985 until he passed away.

“(Richie) is up in heaven right now probably having a hell of a conversation with my father and Spec Alexander (Keeneland’s longtime starter who passed away June 2019),” Scherer said.

The Scherer family has deep roots in the horse racing industry. Aside from Richie, Scherer has five other sons: Clay, Eric, Gary, Merrill and Ryan. Gary began training in 2001 and is stabled at Canterbury Park and Fair Grounds. Clay currently works as a bloodstock agent and Eric is a member of the starting gate crew.

“Life is always interesting when we get everyone together,” Scherer said. “One thing is for sure, it’s not quiet.”

Edited Churchill Downs Press Release 

Photo: Merrill Scherer (seated) with three of his six sons: Left to right: Merrill Jr., Richie and Gary. Credit: Steve Byk/Twitter 

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