Elizabeth Voss hosed off her horse's chest, shoulders and face while standing on the Saratoga Race Course dirt track early Thursday afternoon. She finished, shook the water from her hands with a flick, took three steps and let out a long breath.
"Fshwooh." You could almost hear it over the commotion in the winner's circle and the tone of track announcer Tom Durkin reciting the facts after the A.P. Smithwick Memorial steeplechase stakes. Then the trainer did it again. Somewhere, the skies rumbled with thunder - far away but close enough to know it was there.
Six months after her father, veteran trainer Tom Voss, died at 63, six months after she decided to manage the stable, six months after she said she was going to Saratoga's Oklahoma Annex with a stable of horses the way her father did, she won a Grade 1 steeplechase at Saratoga. Merriebelle Stable's Makari, an English import who met the Voss string at Saratoga two weeks ago, out-bobbed Demonstrative on the line to win the $100,000 Smithwick by a nose at 9-2.
"It's not sinking in, it won't sink in for a while," Voss said after the photos, the hugs, a few tears, the champagne toast in the trustees room. "What's it been 11 years since we won this race? We just missed the Kiser last week; obviously that's an important race to us but the A.P. Smithwick was always one my dad would talk about. It's been elusive for years. To have my first graded stakes win at Saratoga, with this race, it is amazing."
Tom Voss called Paddy Smithwick, a Hall of Fame jump jockey who died in 1973, a second father. Smithwick's son Patrick and Tom Voss were lifelong friends. Tom Voss would aim for a sharp Smithwick runner every year at Saratoga and won the race four times - with Cookie (1980), Mickey Free (1987), Brigade Of Guards (1997) and Anofferucantrefuse (2003). As Elizabeth said, it had been 11 years since a Voss accepted the Smithwick trophy.
Makari made sure there would not be a 12th.
The 7-year-old broke in the middle and found a spot inside, relaxed, turned off as Pleasant Woodman stole to an early lead and the field of 10 unfolded. Heavily favored Eclipse Award winner Divine Fortune set up in second. Normally settled early, Demonstrative tugged into third, followed by Wanganui, Spy In The Sky and All Together. Makari barely made the third fence, skimming the wing after being pushed way inside by All Together. From there, the trip played out like a script.
With 7 furlongs to run, Makari was sixth, to All Together's outside with three horses across the track in front of him. As usual, the tempo ratcheted on the final run up the backside. Pleasant Woodman still led coming to the second-last, but the sorting had just begun. Never looking comfortable, Divine Fortune backed up. Spy In The Sky and Wanganui began to tire.
Like a dark cloud coming over those new condos downtown, Demonstrative advanced to second. Makari entered the final turn third, just outside Demonstrative, but eased to the inside behind Pleasant Woodman and waited. Demonstrative responded to Robbie Walsh and uncoiled long strides off the bend to go after Pleasant Woodman with purpose. Jack Doyle stayed quiet on the winner, let the inside path open and produced his horse. Demonstrative soared the last. Makari just jumped it, but lost no time and went up by a neck in the final sixteenth. Demonstrative, running his A race for the first time in 14 months, responded and battled back. They hit the wire together, one head going up and one going down in the give-and-take of Thoroughbred strides. While getting 12 pounds from the runner-up, Makari got the nod after 16 1/2 furlongs and nine jumps. Pleasant Woodman stayed on for third, beaten 7 1/4 lengths after 2 1/16 miles in 3:48.33. In his fifth try at the Smithwick, Divine Fortune was pulled up.
English-based jump jockey Doyle, in his second American ride, won a Grade 1.
"It was very quiet in the summer in England, I thought if I don't do it now, I'm 25, I'd probably never do it," he said. "I said I'd give it a go and see how it goes. It couldn't have gone better than that."
A winner of 15 races last season in England, Doyle has been riding out for Voss at Saratoga, and - like everybody else in the barn - liked what he saw from Makari.
"I knew of him (in England)," he said. "I had never sat on him. From the first day he came here, he felt like a proper machine and he proved that today, hopefully he'll improve off that."
Makari won four times over English hurdles and twice more over the bigger chase fences. Those last two wins came in May at Uttoxeter (by 11 lengths) and in June at Newton Abbott (by 9 lengths) for top English trainer Nicky Henderson. Voss' husband Gary Murray, the racing manager for Merriefield, saw the horse run at Cheltenham in March, remembered him and made the buy. He arrived July 18, straight from quarantine.
Voss and Murray took the conservative route early.
"We just kept a close eye on him. If he wasn't eating, if he wasn't anything, we wouldn't have run," she said. "He looked good after a long trip. We just wanted to make sure. Every day looked better and better so we said we'd give it a shot. He's a beautiful mover. Watching him gallop on the turf, he's gorgeous."
He was even prettier Thursday, delivering the trainer's first graded stakes score in a race her father held dear at a track he prowled - in the mornings aboard classy ex-racehorses and in the afternoons with stars both flat and jump.
Thursday, Tom Voss' daughter posed for a win photo with her mother, young daughter, husband, the Smithwick family. It felt right, even if a little bit different. The moment was lost on no one.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of her," said Elizabeth's mother and Tom's widow Mimi. "She is a great horsewoman and her father's death is so hard on all of us. I'm so glad that she won this race because this race was so important to her father. It meant a lot to him, so it means a lot to the rest of us."