It’s 9:38 Wednesday morning at Saratoga. The tractors finish their final sweeps of the Oklahoma Training Track, some grooms put the finishing touches on horses on wash pads while others get the last sets ready. Owners kibitz on the rail. Agents (jockey and bloodstock) roll past in golf carts. Trainers hunker down to desks.

And owner/trainer/exercise rider/stall mucker David Dunne takes Colla Pier out to train.

“I like to wait until it quiets down a bit for her,” the Irishman said while the 8-year-old walked in a circle on the horsepath between the Oklahoma gaps. “Plus you get a better surface.”

Once the tractors were gone, Colla Pier circled some more – with big, confident steps – as other horses bustled to the track. Then she and Dunne went for a gallop, fitting in with the Saratoga stars for a moment, in a final piece of work for today’s Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup steeplechase. The 11-horse field (with the expected scratch of last year’s winner Portrade) includes former Kentucky Derby starter Mr. Hot Stuff, All The Way Jose from Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, stakes-placed Modem, meet winners Swansea Mile, Show Court and Choral Society, stakes winner Diplomat, English raider Casino Markets, recent Irish import Three Kingdoms and the son of a Breeders’ Cup winner, Alcazar de Maram.

None can match Colla Pier in Dunne’s eyes. For good reason.

Dunne and his brother Robbie, who rides the mare today, rode ponies as kids at the local equestrian center in Ireland, went racing at their local track Bellewstown and ultimately made careers in the game. David worked for trainers Stephen Mahon, Charlie Swan, Jim Dreaper and James Barrett, ultimately even riding a few point-to-point winners. In 2011, David came to the U.S. and took a job with trainer Janet Elliot in Camden, S.C. He finished third in his only jump ride and won a training flat race before heading back to Ireland with the plan of getting a visa to return for a longer stretch.

Injured while schooling a horse, he abandoned a jockey career and the American idea and took a job with trainer Damien English. There he met Colla Pier, who lost her first 16 starts for English and two other trainers. Dunne bought her (cheap) in 2013, rode her himself, sent her to trainer Patrick Mooney and it’s been a rising tide ever since with a win on the flat, three scores over hurdles and a chase win. She even helped Dunne and some friends cash €60,000 in bets when she won at Fairyhouse in 2014 according to an article in The Irish Field. 

To read the rest of the New York Turf Writers preview, download Thursday's digital edition of The Saratoga Special.