The Outside Rail

The following is from the December 2007 edition of Steeplechase Times, and covered the retirement of McDynamo after a loss in the Colonial Cup on the season's final day. With the news of his death Dec. 1, it seemed fitting to dive back in. There won't be another like him.

Trainer Jonathan Sheppard ticked them off like a teacher taking the roll in homeroom.

“Flatterer broke down, Highland Bud broke down . . . I’m afraid I kept on going until they fell apart. They all go eventually, it’s just a question of when.”

And that’s why owner Michael Moran and trainer Sanna Hendriks retired three-time steeplechase champion McDynamo after he finished sixth in the Colonial Cup Nov. 18. The 10-year-old gelding leaves with a gaudy resume, $1,310,104 in total earnings and legions of impressed human beings. He lost the final race of his career, his fifth consecutive start in the Grade I Colonial Cup, but leaves no negative vibes on a sport he at once ruled and advertised.

“I wish he had run a more respectable race – for him – but I don’t really care as long as he came back OK and we can take him home,” said Moran. “I would feel greedy to try to do anything more with him. Better, younger, stronger horses are going to get their turns. He’s been so good to us. That’s enough.”

More, really.

Moran spent $82,000 to buy McDynamo as a yearling in 1998. The bay son of Dynafomer looked the part of a racehorse, albeit not a precocious one. He was big, long-legged, uncoordinated and – once Moran got him home – a stallwalking claustrophobe. Still, potential percolated through and covered up the quirks. McDynamo won twice on the flat for his owner/trainer, but embarked on the path of true greatness when he moved to Hendriks’ barn and steeplechasing.

He won his first hurdle start at Far Hills – now there’s an omen – in 2001. Ever-patient, Moran and Hendriks raced their horse 24 more times in the six subsequent years (never more than six in a year) and built a career like no other.

“Why did it happen? Darned if I know,” said Moran. “I’ve had plenty of horses that looked good but didn’t do anything. You look for horses like that your whole life and you might not ever find one.”

McDynamo dominated novices in 2002, winning an allowance at Strawberry Hill and stakes at Churchill Downs, Far Hills and Callaway Gardens. The next year, he truly blossomed – capturing the Royal Chase in April, the Breeders’ Cup in October and the Colonial Cup in November. Eclipse Award No. 1 followed. Hock surgery delayed McDynamo’s 2004 debut until the Breeders’ Cup in October, but he thumped worthy rivals Hirapour and Sur La Tete anyway. Hirapour closed that season by winning the Colonial Cup and the Eclipse Award.

Proving mortal, McDynamo lost his first four starts of 2005 (though he hit the board in each) then rebounded with triumphs in the Breeders’ Cup and Colonial Cup to take yet another Eclipse.

The big-finish trend continued in 2006: McDynamo flopped in the rain at Keeneland, only to reel off three consecutive stakes wins at season’s end, claiming his third seasonal championship and reaching the top of the career earnings list with more than $1 million in purse earnings. The 2007 schedule started slowly with a defeat in the Iroquois, but reached a crescendo with a fifth consecutive victory in the Breeders’ Cup.

At Far Hills, McDynamo left witnesses speechless. They searched for ways to put their feelings into words, tried to compare the horse to legends, babbled through conversations, grasped at superlatives, wished for ways to feel part of it all.

When McDynamo raced, he moved people.

“When people I’ve never seen or heard of come up and say ‘oh, good luck today’ it lets you know where he stands,” said Hendriks before the Colonial Cup. “He’s that good and people think about him. I know they’re not rooting (maiden) Five Pines on when they say that. A horse like McDynamo brings it to a new level.”

Like the observation deck of the Empire State Building, the heights he reached were staggering. He won five consecutive Breeders’ Cups, went 7-for-7 over the Far Hills course, captured three Colonial Cups, scored 11 Grade I victories, took six stakes in a row during the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

What’s more, he crossed boundaries by winning at Churchill Downs, Keeneland and The Meadowlands. This year alone The Blood-Horse, Daily Racing Form and England’s Racing Post featured articles on McDynamo. Racing Form publisher Steve Crist, whose infrequent steeplechase references usually focus on gambling frustrations, gave the big horse big props for his Breeders’ Cup score. Eclipse Award winner Jay Hovdey chronicled McDynamo’s grand feats in a Racing Form column the week of the Colonial Cup.

“This last win at Far Hills really did it for some reason,” said Hendriks. “Winning three was a lot, winning four was a lot, I guess five was really something special. He’s 10 now, it’s double digits and people are impressed. I think about him being 10 so I guess everyone else does too. I try not to think about it, but it’s there. It takes a lot to make people pay attention (to steeplechasing).”

But McDynamo won that battle as well. The ride came to an end at Camden. He finished sixth, beaten more than a dozen lengths by Good Night Shirt. Walking back in the fading light of a Carolina afternoon, McDynamo looked beaten. Not broken. His people looked disappointed. Not let down.

“It’s happy and sad,” said Hendriks. “It’s nice to retire him when he’s walking back to the barn, not hurt somewhere. It’s emotional to think that’s it, but it’s also kind of fun to think that I’ll be able to hunt him and hopefully bring him back to Far Hills and parade him around every year for a while. My biggest fear was that something bad would happen and we wouldn’t get to retire him.”

But they did. And that might someday be McDynamo’s legacy, every bit as much as his layered collection of purple Breeders’ Cup blankets. Like Sheppard’s greats, McDynamo didn’t win his final race and didn’t go out with a championship. But four-time champion Flatterer pulled up lame in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup and two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Highland Bud pulled up in the 1993 Colonial Cup. McDynamo finished sixth, but he finished. And walked away with the 23rd paycheck of his 25-start career.

“It would have been nice to go out a winner, but if he won we would have been talking about running him next year and that might not have been the right decision,” said Moran. “There were so many years we went to the races and we felt that degree of confidence. As the years have gone by, that’s changed. It’s not that you’re not confident in the horse it’s that you’re not confident in the decision you’re making. He can’t tell us.”

So they told him.