Good Night Shirt, Part 2. Last week’s Throwback Thursday reviewed the new Hall of Famer’s early steeplechase days – from 2005 maiden win to 2007 championship. As good as that climb was, Good Night Shirt’s 2008 campaign rivaled that of any steeplechase champion in history.
He won all five starts, each a Grade 1 stakes, and set a record with $485,520 in single-season earnings. Owners Sonny and Ann Via, trainer Jack Fisher, jockey Willie Dowling and everyone else in American jump racing went along for the ride.
Steeplechase Times was there as Good Night Shirt sent an unofficial record by making six of the newspaper's 12 covers. He was featured prominently all year, inside and out as Fisher engineered a perfect season. The Maryland-bred is the 19th steeplechaser to join the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame. He will be honored, along with trainer Tom Voss and the other inductees (to be announced) at Saratoga Aug. 4.
March 19, 2008 Steeplechase Times. Good Night Shirt made the cover of the season preview edition, loose while turned out in a dirty green Horseware Ireland rug, no halter and an express of “So?” Inside, Williams captured The Shirt streaking across the field. His tail is long and straggly, his mane is standing straight up and he looks about as happy as a horse can look. In an article by Brian Nadeau, Fisher discussed the Maryland-bred’s development. “The horse just kept surprising me,” Fisher said of 2007. “I thought he was a little short at Keeneland and he ran great (second to Mixed Up). At the start of the year, I thought he might be a timber horse by the end of the year.” The Iroquois was the main goal of the spring, with Keeneland’s Royal Chase (a handicap) on the radar but making Fisher nervous because of an expected high weight assignment. Without the retired McDynamo, the stakes division included Sur La Tete, Mixed Up, Best Attack, Mon Villez, Preemptive Strike and Sweet Shani among others.
April 25, 2008 Steeplechase Times. The Shirt made the cover again, after a win at Atlanta. He shared top billing with Royal Chase (at Keeneland) winner Sovereign Duty. The allowance conditions of the Grade 1 Georgia Cup sent Good Night Shirt to Atlanta for a 2-mile win over Hip Hop, Mixed Up, Sound Blaster, Mon Villez and Duke Of Earl. The champion had to work, and didn’t get past game lightweight Hip Hop until deep stretch but won by 1 1/2 lengths despite making a mess of the last fence. Dowling said he looked “like a bag of ----” over the final fence. We used (potatoes), but readers got the message. Worth $50,000 more at historic Keeneland, the Royal Chase would have been Fisher’s preferred target but Good Night Shirt was assigned 162 pounds – up to 20 more than some rivals. Sovereign Duty won at 142. “I would much rather go to Keeneland,” Fisher said. “He does deserve that weight, but I can’t give 20 pounds away and feel confident – not to a hrose that was third to him at equal weights at Camden. With the Atlanta race here, at allowance, I have to run here. If it’s not here, we go to Keeneland anyway. We have to have a run before Nashville.” Fisher also issued a warning about the coming Iroquois at Nashville: “If I was anybody else, I’d be scared of him.” The April edition also announced the retirement of Sur La Tete, after a point-to-point win – giving Good Night Shirt one less major foe at the Iroquois.
May 23, 2008 Steeplechase Times. Good Night Shirt’s wins were getting so commonplace, he didn’t make the cover after a repeat win in the Iroquois. The headline on the article said Man’s Shirt, however, and meant it. Good Night Shirt knocked out six rivals in the $150,000 stakes. The chestnut led at every call, made no jumping mistakes and proved a worthy heir to McDynamo, Sur La Tete and the others to come before him. “He just be Big Dumb Waldo, now he’s figured it out,” Fisher said with a laugh. “He was a big, dumb kid and now he’s got it. I hope he just keeps getting better.” Dowling said it was easy. “To be honest, there were no anxious moments,” the jockey said. “Sweet Shani came to me before the third-last and from riding here I know you have to nail the third-last coming to the turn. If you nail that, you’re almost home. He nailed it and he free-wheeled from there.”
September 19, 2008 Steeplechase Times. The Shirt took a hiatus for the summer, bypassing Saratoga (handicaps again) in favor of a fall return. ST went to Saratoga, fought off the creation of a newspaper called the Steeplechase Free Press with an angry July 18 editorial and generally did what we do. The Shirt got dirty while turned out and awaiting the installation of a new Polytrack gallop on Fisher’s farm. He was back by September and made the cover with the headline, Big, Bad Shirt and a photo galloping to the start of the Iroquois. The champion looks angry – foaming at the mouth a little and staring right at the photographer. It was a sign. “He was turned out for 60 days, doing nothing,” said Fisher. “All my horses like it, or I leave them out there until they like it anyway. He was fine, as usual, He came back the first part of July and started jogging, then galloping and then working when I realized the race was getting here.” The race was the $150,000 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park later in the month.
October 10, 2008 Steeplechase Times. Sent off at 2-5, Good Night Shirt carried 158 pounds (up to 20 more than the others) and won by 3 3/4 lengths. He relaxed, a little, behind Red Letter Day early before taking over in the final quarter-mile. Dowling loved getting back to work on the champion. “Going into the race I thought we were vulnerable with the weight and not running for four months – today was the day for people to beat us,” he said. “But he was impressive. He’s so strong. I can’t believe a horse can go that quick from start to finish and not give up.” Next stop Far Hills, and the Grand National (which lost its Breeders’ Cup support a few months earlier but none of its prestige).
October 31, 2008 Steeplechase Times. The cover, again. Good Night Shirt wings the last fence at Far Hills, on the way to his fourth Grade 1 win of the year, with a headline Just Grand. The paper featured McDynamo’s retirement ceremony (and the presentation of a “King of Far Hills” blanket) and a Grand National story with the simple headline, The Best Horse. Good Night Shirt overwhelmed six others – Be Certain, Best Attack, Red Leter day, Dalucci, Orison and Isti Bee – in the $250,000 race. He won by 4, but it probably could have been 14. His breeders, Tom and Chris Bowman, even got to see him win. Tom summed it up, “This is a different world, but when you see a champion performance in any sport, especially in a sport like this, you recognize the difference between some horses. This guy is on a different level than the rest of them. It looked like to me, that he really wasn’t working real horse. It was a thrill.” Good Night Shirt blasted away on the final turn and swept up the hill, turning a 1-length advantage into a 4-length romp by the finish. Good Night Shirt lost two prior starts at Far Hills, so the victory answered one last question. “This is the one race, I knew Jack was pointing him for this race all year and the pressure was on to me” said Dowling. “It’s a good pressure, I love riding the horse, but this is the race he didn’t win last year. This is the one Jack wanted.”
December 19, 2008 Steeplechase Times. Making his sixth cover of the year, Good Night Shirt graces the Championship Edition while touching down over the final fence of the Colonial Cup – his fifth Grade 1 of the year and the conclusion of one of the sport’s great campaigns. The headline inside was Heavy Starch and showed Good Night Shirt running down Preemptive Strike (a 1-2 finish for Maryland-breds) in the Cup. The champion won by a neck, fighting for every inch through the stretch against a game rival. Jody Petty and Preemptive Strike nearly made their lead last, but couldn’t withstand the last rally. Dowling switched his whip twice in the stretch, to his left hand after touching down over the last and back to his right with 100 yards to go. “I thought I was beaten,” the jockey said. “I never thought I’d get up. It wasn't’ until halfway through the run-in that he put his head down and was all out – he quickened just enough.” Good Night Shirt took a big punch from Preemptive Strike, and prevailed anyway. “Today proves that he’s a fighter too, when they throw it to him” Dowling said. “They took it to me and made me work, but the Shirt is a special kind of horse.”
The 2008 campaign, worth $485,520, was one of the best ever by an American steeplechase horse. He won all five starts, all Grade 1, and dominated the division. Comparisons are difficult, but Good Night Shirt in 2008 is in the conversation along with McDynamo’s 2003 campaign, Lonesome Glory’s 1995 run, Morley Street’s international success in 1991, Flatterer’s 1983 and Zaccio’s 1980 among others.
In the championship profile, Fisher said training Good Night Shirt was easy. “Not one problem,” the trainer said. “We just put him on the van and went to the races – no temperature, no pulled shoes, no drama.” The trainer also credited Good Night Shirt’s mental state as much as his physical ability. “He’s laid back. Whatever you want to do, he’ll do it. That’s really important. Other horses had the talent . . . but they were hard on themselves. He’s not that hard on himself.”
The Vias wound up the NSA’s leading owner on the year with a big push from their stable star. Sonny Via summed up what it’s like to own Good Night Shirt: “I feel very close to my horses. It’s not about the money or the championships. I’ve been saying that all along. I like being part of it, but it’s all about the horse.”
Good Night Shirt returned in 2009, and ran his unbeaten streak to seven with a win over Preemptive Strike in the Carolina Cup in late March. The champion finished second, beaten by Pierrot Lunaire, in the Iroquois in May and was prepping for a fall comeback when diagnosed with a fractured ankle. He underwent surgery, but was ultimately retired with 12 wins and $1,006,493 earned over hurdles – the third-highest total by a North American horse behind McDynamo and Lonesome Glory. The two-time champion was part of an era between 1992 and 2008 including five-time champion Lonesome Glory, three-time champion McDynamo and fellow two-time champion Flat Top. The four of them won 12 of the 17 steeplechase Eclipse Awards during that time. No horse has repeated since.