Sometimes, the best thing about jump racing isn't really the jumps, or even the racing. It's where the horses come from, their pasts, their stories.
You can say you don't like jump racing, you can think it's too dangerous or too slow or too boring or too risky or too small or too anything else really. But you can't argue with the stories behind the Thoroughbreds who find their way to steeplechasing in the United States - ever.
Thus far in 2013, the steeplechase winners' list has overflowed with stories. Like college basketball teams in the Sweet 16 this year, steeplechase winners have come from everywhere. Well, not Wichita or downtown Philadelphia but pretty much everywhere else.
- Half-brothers Powerofone and Sporty each sold at Keeneland for big money and - though it's a long way from the original mission - are now delivering over hurdles.
The former is a 4-year-old by A.P. Indy. He lost all three starts on the flat for WinStar Farm (and trainers Bill Mott and Mark Casse) and now races for owner Bill Pape and trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who saddled the bay gelding to a maiden hurdle score at Camden, S.C. in late March and an optional-claiming victory Saturday at Atlanta. He's the first horse with two jump wins in 2013.
As a weanling, Powerofone sold for $270,000 to CRD Ranch. The following year, he brought $300,000 from Maverick Racing. Bred by Elkhorn Creek Farm, Powerofone never finished better than sixth on the flat - losing by at least a dozen lengths in two starts at 2 and another last year at 3.
"I only had him a very short time," said Casse. "They sent him up to me after he'd run a few times and I don't know a whole lot about him, other than we ran him once, he didn't show any speed and kind of just went around the track. All I remember is he was kind of a plodder."
Not anymore. He won a decent maiden race at the Carolina Cup, then defeated more experienced rivals at Atlanta. Sheppard can try a novice stakes this spring, or wait for Saratoga.
Powerofone's half-brother Sporty, a 6-year-old by Smarty Jones, won his 2013 jump debut for trainer Julie Gomena at the Dogwood Classic meet (held at Colonial Downs) April 6 and is now 2-for-4 over jumps. Jim Tafel paid $350,000 at Keeneland in 2009, and Sporty produced four wins for the owner and longtime trainer Carl Nafzger. Bred by Nursery Place, Sporty was claimed ($40,000) by trainer Speedy Smithwick at Ellis Park in November 2011. Now racing with the Virginia-based Gomena and owner Rock Ford Stable, Sporty has won two in a row and could be headed toward a novice stakes try this spring.
Though he lost him to a claim, Nafzger loves the thought of his hold horse finding something new.
"He always wanted to go a route of ground," the trainer said. "He was a nice racehorse. He never did quite go on. They claimed him, but he did OK for us. That's where he was running comfortable and that's where he needed to run. He'd have stayed there. That kind of company is pretty tough, it's like a little stake at another track somewhere. He was a nice little horse."
With Nafzger, Sporty ran at Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Arlington Park and Ellis. He never jumped anything more than a stick on the ground, but maybe the foundation to learn came from his early days with the Hall of Famer.
"He was a fun horse to be around, a little quirky," Nafzger said. "It helps a horse if they can find a way to be comfortable at something. We always gave him a good picture of what he was doing. Whatever we wanted him to do he was ready to do it, too. He did just about whatever you wanted him to."
Sporty and Powerofone are out of the Quiet American mare Byzantine, who placed in graded stakes and earned more than $565,000 while racing mainly in Canada. Her sons couldn't match her on the flat, but have a new chance as steeplechasers.
- Fantastic Song, a Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf starter in 2011, won his jump debut Saturday at Dogwood for owner Gill Johnston and trainer Fenneka Bentley. Now 4, the son of Lemon Drop Kid won his career debut at Saratoga in 2011 and placed in the Grade 3 Pilgrim for trainer Chad Brown.
Moved to Michael Matz by owner Green Hills Farm early last year, Fantastic Song was sold to dual-purpose owner Johnston as a steeplechase prospect after finishing third for a $40,000 tag at Keeneland last fall. Matz thinks it was a good move.
"I'm happy for all the parties involved - the owners, the trainer and the horse," he said. "The people that owned him wanted the horse to have a good career at something and he just wasn't suiting them (on the flat)."
Fantastic Song had been an expensive purchase after his debut win, then placed in the Pilgrim and went to the Breeders' Cup (he was 10th). With Matz as a 3-year-old colt, Fantastic Song wasn't trying all that hard though he trained fine and even skipped over some rails on the ground while jogging the shedrow.
"He's not very big, but he's a very sound horse, he's got a good gallop and could go all day," said Matz. "I've had horses for Gill and I kind of like to tell her about some that might suit for steeplechasing."
Bentley, who works as a veterinary assistant at Fair Hill Training Center, mentioned Fantastic Song to Johnston as well. Gelded, freshened, taught to jump, the Kentucky-bred won his jump debut over seven others while rallying from last in the final half-mile. Bentley, a former assistant to trainer Ricky Hendriks, runs a small training operation with her husband Dave (a former champion steeplechase jockey).
Her new steeplechaser carries plenty of pedigree as his stakes-winning dam Fantastic Shirl (by Fantastic Light) earned $250,000 on the flat and is a half-sister to millionaires Shakespeare and Perfect Shirl.
- Also at Dogwood, rookie jumper Certain Swagger graduated for Jeremy Batoff and owner Jack Fisher. Another 4-year-old Keeneland graduate, he won once in 10 flat starts for trainer Rusty Arnold but scored easily Saturday in a $15,000 maiden claimer.
Bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Certain Swagger sold for $45,000 as a weanling in 2009. In his career debut at Keeneland two years later, he finished last of 13. He lost four more, and broke his maiden for a $40,000 tag at Churchill Downs last June. After two more losses, Fisher made the purchase and taught Certain Swagger to jump. Two defeats in 3-year-old company (with Powerofone) last fall set him up for 2013, and a debut win.
- Down in North Carolina at the Stoneybrook meet April 6, Darnlittlecash and Durer hammered out wins in claiming company for small steeplechase outfits.
The former was bred in Florida (a son of Cashel Castle) and went 1-for-8 at Charles Town before converting to jumps for Jubilee Stable and Tennessee-based trainer Ted Thompson. Apprentice Gus Dahl guided the 5-year-old to the late-running victory.
Veteran Durer won his second lifetime jump race for owner/trainer Michael Leaf, drawing off late to win by 9 for Roddy Mackenzie. The winner was bred in Maryland by Robert Meyerhoff's Fitzhugh, and won for his breeder and trainer Dickie Small at Delaware Park in July 2010. Claimed for $5,000 from his next start, Durer won once for trainer Glen Gaddy before becoming a jumper with Leaf.
The 6-year-old has won two races, both at Stoneybrook (a right-handed course with plenty of jumping).
Like the others above, Durer packs a pedigree. He's by Smart Strike out of the Broad Brush mare Broad Expectations. Granddam Fara's Team won the Test and the Prioress back in 1988.
- Last, but certainly not least on the list is Mr. Hot Stuff. When he won the Dogwood Classic's training flat race, Internet traffic increased as the former Kentucky Derby starter apparently still occupies space in plenty of virtual stables. The reminders went off against Saturday as Mr. Hot Stuff saw his first action since June 2011 for owner Gill Johnston and trainer Jack Fisher.
Racing for WinStar Farm and Eoin Harty, Mr. Hot Stuff turned heads back in 2009 with a maiden win, and placings in the Sham Stakes and Santa Anita Derby in California. He didn't fare as well at Chuchill Downs, finishing 15th behind Mine That Bird. Eighth in the Belmont Stakes, the son of Tiznow made nine more starts for WinStar before being purchased as a jump prospect by Fisher for Nick Arundel. When Arundel passed away, Fisher's client Johnston bought the gelding who flashed real promise with back-to-back wins in 2011. Training for a start at Saratoga that summer, he came up with a tendon and was shelved.
The full-brother to Travers winner Colonel John got an extended break and is working his way back to competition. Saturday's easy win at 1 ½ miles will help and despite the 2011 maiden win he is still eligible for novice company with two lifetime jump wins.
For access to steeplechase videos, see National Steeplechase Association.