Throwback Thursday: Good Night Shirt’s climb to the top

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Time flies. Or something like that anyway. Wednesday, two-time champion Good Night Shirt and trainer Tom Voss were announced as steeplechase inductees into Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame. We covered both extensively in Steeplechase Times, The Saratoga Special and

Good Night Shirt was a comet, blazing though the steeplechase world for parts of five seasons. The Maryland-bred, briefly owned by our own Sean Clancy as a flat horse/jump prospect before being flipped to Jack Fisher and Sonny Via, won a dozen races over hurdles. All but three came within a two-year span – May 2007 to March 2009. Good Night shirt lost eight of his first 10 hurdle starts, but won 10 of his final 14.

Then he was gone, retired to trainer Jack Fisher’s field in Maryland with an ankle injury. The 16-year-old enjoys a retired life of leisure – still big, still chestnut with flashes of white, still bumming mints or whatever else, still hopefully dreaming of big wins against the likes of McDynamo, Sur La Tete and Preemptive Strike.

Some highlights from his career through our pages:

May 2005 Steeplechase Times after maiden win at Nashville: Good Night Shirt ousted seven others, including stablemate Quen Se Atreve. The raw 4-year-old wasn’t pretty, and made a mess of the last fence, but got the job done. “He’ll be a proper horse when he learns to jump a bit better,” said winning jockey Willie Dowling.

September 2005 Steeplechase Times after an allowance win at Saratoga (in which two horses finished): Xavier Aizpuru, now an assistant with flat trainer Tom Proctor, rode the big chestnut who tripped over a fallen rival and lost Dowling three weeks earlier. Good Night Shirt had no traffic problems this time and flew the last with a lead. Behind him, Jazzitupgeorge and Seattle Band fell at the last fence while trying to keep pace – leaving just one other finisher, Thermostat, from nine starters. “I  landed over the last, went two or three strides and I heard the crowd go ‘ooouu,’” said Aizpuru. “I had no idea it was chaos behind me but I knew something must have happened. I thought maybe one had fallen. I was just concentrating on getting my horse home.”

July 2006 Steeplechase Times after winning the Zeke Ferguson Memorial at Colonial Downs: Off three poor runs in the spring, the 5-year-old became a stakes winner – ousting Class Vantage, Mark The Shark, Orchid Princess and others. Fisher and Aizpuru credited the move to a racetrack from trappier courses at Radnor and Middleburg. Whatever, it worked. Good Night Shirt had one sticky fence, a momentum-slowing chip-in at the second-last. He rallied between two horses late and led over the last fence. “He’s not going to go from second gear to fourth gear in one stride, you know?” Aizpuru said. “Other horses can pick up and go, where it takes him three or four strides to get going. Once he gets rolling though, there’s no stopping him.”

Good Night Shirt backed up the stakes win with a second to 2004 champion Hirapour in the A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga, but didn’t run again until 2007. And boy did he run. The future Hall of Famer, ridden by Dowling, finished second to Mixed Up (beaten a neck) in Keeneland’s Royal Chase in April. Aizpuru, who never rode Good Night Shirt again, finished another neck back in third with the Fisher-trained Paradise’s Boss.

051807STMay 2007 Steeplechase Times after winning the Grade 1 Iroquois over heavy hitters Sur La Tete and McDynamo: Dowling put the big chestnut on the lead, two races after getting barked at by Fisher for moving too early with a maiden (where have you gone Fantorini?). “The plan wasn’t to be in front like that, but he jumped the first fence so well he ended up in front,” Dowling said. Good Night shirt repelled challenges from his more-famous rivals and won his first Grade 1. Fisher paid credit to the Keeneland sharpener (Sur La Tete and McDynamo were making their seasonal debuts). “We had a race, and obviously it was a huge advantage,” the trainer said. “Everybody says this is a huge upset. I agree it was. Those two are monsters of the sport. To beat both of them is doing something. I hate to call a $150,000 Grade 1 at Keeneland a prep race but to have a race under his belt made a huge difference. You can’t do what you can do in a race at home.” The win was Dowling’s first of the year after a frustrating spring and came on the same course as the maiden win two years earlier. “Two years ago he kept banging into his fences because he was so big and green and still won. I said then that he must have an engine and he showed it this time.”


101207STOctober 2007 Steeplechase Times after winning the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory in September: He nearly fell at the last fence, but made a big save and galloped off to the win after skipping stakes starts at Saratoga in favor of a vacation. The break was spent in Fisher’s back field with retirees Saluter and Charlie’s Dewan and some others. “They might get a little fly spray on them, if we can catch them,” said Fisher’s wife Sheila. “He was pretty hard to catch.” Jack Fisher called the break a necessary part of the racehorse equation. “They’re horses, it’s what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “There’s a big group of them, which actually helps. If you have too few there’s a real pecking order and one horse can get picked on. He’s pretty low on the pecking order. The big ones usually are, and he’s pretty big. The little, faster, smart horses kind of run the show.”

Dowling brushed aside the mistake at the last (where Good Night Shirt stood far back rather than chip in) and was thrilled with the performance.  “I don’t want to hype him up, but I haven’t ridden a better horse than this one,” he said. “He’s got speed early on, but then he just keeps it going. He must have some set of lungs on him.”

A showdown with McDynamo at Far Hills loomed.

The three-time champion, and future Hall of Famer himself, put the newcomer in his place with a proper trouncing in the $300,000 Breeders’ Cup Grand National at Far Hills. Good Night Shirt finished fourth, undone by the soft ground and a legend who never lost in seven starts at Far Hills.

121907STDecember 2007 Steeplechase Times: After playing a bit part in McDynamo’s magnificence in New Jersey, Good Night Shirt headed to South Carolina for the season-ending Colonial Cup. A win would mean a championship. A loss, if it came to McDynamo, would swing the vote that direction. The Shirt left no doubt, fighting Dowling a bit early and then settling on the lead before kicking away from Three Carat and Sovereign Duty at the last fence. McDynamo, in his final start, was right there at the last but had no answer in the final furlong. He finished sixth.

Fisher helped Dowling deal with the pressure going in. Trainer and jockey watched video and talked about having nothing to lose against the three-time champion.

“McDynamo’s beaten you and they’re all expecting him to do it again,” Fisher told his jockey.

“That helped a lot, and I was more relaxed,” Dowling said. “Going to Far Hills I felt the pressure because we had won back-to-back Grade 1 races.”

Jockey and horse handled it all with aplomb in the Colonial Cup, a race founded in 1970 and now won by six Hall of Famers and finished the year with three Grade 1 scores and $314,163 in earnings.

Dowling could barely speak after the signature win.

“What a great horse,” he said in a whisper. “I thought the Iroquois was the best day of my life, and now this. He went to the front and he looked at that fence and said ‘Oh, I can slow down a bit now.’ He was much better in front than he was behind.”

The Eclipse Awards as champion steeplechaser would follow as Good Night Shirt collected 222 first-place votes to 13 for McDynamo.

As good as 2007 was, there was more to come in 2008 but that will have to wait for another day.