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For Driver Mary Madland, Home Is Where Her Wheels Stop

August 30, 1985|STEVE LOWERY

Harness driver Mary Madland travels heavy.

Cutting across the country in search of rides, most of her worldly possessions in tow, she is a modern-day pioneer. However, her covered wagon is a 30-foot, steel-reinforced motor home with power steering, power brakes and indoor plumbing.

"Wagon Train" was never like this.

For Madland, home is where the wheels stop. St. Louis last week, Chicago before that. She has earned more than $153,000 during her four-year career. This year, she has placed in the money in 24 of 60 starts.

The wheels have come to rest in a recreational vehicle park in Anaheim until the nine-week meet at Los Alamitos Race Course ends Oct. 19.

Madland likes Los Alamitos. She has been the most successful woman driver at the course the past two years.

Of course, that's like saying Pete Gray, who played for the St. Louis Browns during World War II, was the best one-armed outfielder in the history of major league baseball.

Mary Madland is the only woman driver at Los Alamitos.

Her male counterparts say every race track has its own woman driver. Most of the successful harness drivers, like the men, are in their 40s. Madland is 25.

And they will tell you, for the umpteenth time, that as far as they are concerned, Madland is "just one of the boys."

"We don't even notice her," driver Larry Gregor said. "She blends right in."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whatever success or failure has come Madland's way has been a result of her not being another face in the crowd. Fiercely independent, she could never be just one of the gang.

That's very evident in the drivers' lounge where the "boys" get together between races.

They relax with such madcap activities as playing pool, watching "Dynasty" reruns and staring at the wall.

Those who have finished for the night dress and prepare to leave. Most look like they take their fashion advice from Merle Haggard. Madland must dress in a separate room a few feet away.

It might as well be a few thousand miles. Instead of western boots, she wears European sandals. No jeans, but baggy khaki pants. Topping it off is a bright pastel sweater.

Let's see one of the boys show up with that on.

"I guess I have my own way of doing things," she said. "I'm not trying to separate myself from anybody. That's just the way I go about things."

Her independence isn't confined to the race track.

It was a little more than a year ago that she opened a gourmet restaurant in her hometown of Porterville, a farming community of about 30,000 just outside of Bakersfield.

Most people told her a gourmet restaurant would be as popular a community addition as crabgrass.

Madland listened and opened it anyway.

Why?

"I just wanted to," she said. "It wasn't their money. So I really didn't care what other people said."

But there are some who say she is too independent. Someone as young as she, looking to interest new clients in leaving their horses in her care, should be a little more diplomatic.

Unlike thoroughbred and quarter horse jockeys who only ride an owner's horse, harness drivers must also train the animal.

It means you must sell yourself to an owner. Gain his or her confidence. Advertise. Convince them you are new and improved while the other guy is merely Brand X.

"You've got to get out there and try to hustle up that business, especially when you're as young and unknown as she is," Gregor said. "She doesn't have any real problems driving that experience won't solve."

People have criticized Madland for often being cold to owners. She admits there are certain types of owners she doesn't want to get involved with. She would prefer to keep her small stable of four horses than increase it with horses of people she does not respect.

"I can't see wasting my time with someone who knows nothing about the sport," she said. "I've tried to do it and it's just a lot of headaches. I'd rather go without."

She has. In a five-day period recently, Madland did not have a drive.

"She has her own way of taking care of business," driver Gene Vallandingham said. "She gets it from her mother, Patsy."

Known for speaking loudly and carrying even a bigger stick, Patsy taught her kids the value of work and has never been accused of keeping her feelings a mystery.

"I wouldn't want to be on her wrong side," Vallandingham said. "Patsy has passed a lot of herself onto Mary."

That becomes obvious when you find out that along with Mary's gourmet restaurant, Porterville is home to a gourmet cooking shop run by Patsy.

"She taught all of us that nothing would be handed to us," Madland said. "If we wanted something, we'd have to go out and work for it."

Madland says she would like to retire from racing by age 35, when most drivers are coming into their prime. Her goals for life are simple--to have everything she wants.

Cars, houses, clothes, she wants it all. But only if she can get it on her own.

"As long as I get it myself, I don't see anything wrong with wanting a lot," she said. "I'm just worried I won't have time enough to do all I want to do."

For now, she needs horses.

During her five-day exile from racing, she loaded up the steel monster and took a trip north to take a look at a couple of horses for a prospective owner . . . Mary Madland.

At least, this is an owner she knows she can respect.

One for who the wheels never stop turning, on her home or in her mind.

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