Throwback Thursday: Winterthur’s big day is here

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In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature – and we know this is a pretty recent throwback but it’s still fun to look back on two Winterthur experts squaring off over the course. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6. For more installments, click on the Throwback Thursday text tag at the end of the article. 

Horses for courses. That’s what the racing people call it anyway. The three words, often said with a “hey, you never know” shrug, imply that certain horses suit certain race courses. And nothing else matters.

Sunday at the 40th annual Winterthur Races, horses fitting the description collide in the $40,000 Winterthur Bowl timber stakes. Top Man Michael seeks his third consecutive win in 3 1/4-mile race, but his opponents include Cornhusker (who won in 2015 and was second last Year) and course winners Mystic Strike and Kings Apollo.

Post time for the four-race card is 2 p.m., with the feature going as the second.

The race’s two major players look to bounce back from sub-par efforts at Middleburg April 21. There, Cornhusker finished fourth and Top Man Michael fifth. They’ll aim for considerably better Sunday thanks in part to an affinity for the Delaware race meet’s course.

“He loves that place,” trainer Cyril Murphy said of Top Man Michael, an Irish import who belongs to Irv Naylor. “He’s a quick, handy horse and the fact that it’s a figure eight, they’re chopping and changing direction all the time so you can get a breather into him. While he’s getting a breather, the others are chasing him. He enjoys himself around there. It’s his kind if place.”

Top Man Michael’s only two timber wins have come at Winterthur. The son of Antonius Pius raced for Noel Meade in Ireland, winning three on the flat and one over hurdles before coming to the United States in 2012. He won his debut here at Far Hills as a 3-year-old, then added another hurdle win in 2014. After nearly two years away from the races, he returned as a timber horse and won at Winterthur the last two years. He’s normally a front-runner, who jumps timber fences like they’re hurdles (which only works at certain places), and can be difficult to catch.

“You can break his relentless gallop and force him to take a breather as opposed to going somewhere like Radnor where it’s constant speed, speed, speed,” Murphy said of the benefits to Winterthur. “He’s in good form. He had a hard race at Middleburg, but we’re hoping he’ll go well at Winterthur.”

Champion jockey of 2017, Darren Nagle rides Top Man Michael for the second time.

Cornhusker likes Winterthur, but is no specialist as he’s won eight times over timber at four courses. Like Top Man Michael, the 11-year-old isn’t going to be anyone’s Maryland Hunt Cup mount but he’s jumped around the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Bred in England by Juddmonte Farm, Cornhusker has seen plenty. He raced on the flat in France with Andre Fabre, went hurdling with Tom Voss (winning twice) and switched to timber in 2013. The son of Dynaformer and the Storm Cat mare Nebraska Tornado has won Nashville’s Mason Houghland timber stakes three times (2014, 2015, 2017) and that race next weekend is the goal again after Winterthur. Three years ago, Cornhusker won both races. Last year, he was second to Top Man Michael, then won in Tennessee for owner Armata Stable.

Trainer Alicia Murphy (no relation to Cyril) says her horse thrives on the action this time of year and should improve off the Middleburg run April 21.

“I think he’s rounding into shape,” Murphy said. “I think he needed that last race, so we’ll see. The goal is Iroquois, but he’s doing nicely on Sunday is part of it too.”

When he’s not racing, Cornhusker is a foxhunter – an activity that may be his favorite thing in all the world.

“He flourished doing as much hunting as we could get into him,” said Murphy, whose boyfriend Billy Santoro takes the reins in the hunt field. “He hates a routine so I think he just really likes all the different things about it – horses, hounds, ponies, people, a different place all the time.”

Of course, early days at the new career involved kicking some of those horses, hounds, ponies and people but that’s all changed and a “kinder, gentler Cornhusker” has emerged.

Most of the time.

“He does like people but to fool with him in his stall I say it’s like swimming with sharks,” Murphy said. “There’s teeth, there are hind feet, there are front feet, it’s not calm and cool. And he’s 11. There’s a lot of gamesmanship with Cornhusker.”

CornhuskerTimber veteran Cornhusker aims for another win at Winterthur. Tod Marks photoKieran Norris, champion jockey of 2016, gets aboard Cornhusker.

The favorites may have a course advantage, but they’ll have to produce solid efforts to compete with a few others in the race. Upland Partners’ Mystic Strike won over the course as a maiden in 2016 and became a stakes winner by disqualification last spring. The 9-year-old Smart Strike gelding tuned up with a third in the My Lady’s Manor last month. Trainer Mark Beecher, Cornhusker’s jockey last year, rides. Stewart Strawbridge’s Kings Apollo scored a maiden win at Winterthur last spring for trainer Sanna Neilson. Gerard Galligan rides the Kings Theatre gelding. Blair Wyatt’s Witor won at the Manor for trainer Todd Wyatt and jockey Eric Poretz. The Winterthur course should suit the German-bred.

The Winterthur card opens with a maiden timber and also includes an amateur/apprentice timber race. The finale, a 2-mile flat race, features the 2018 return of Grade 1 stakes hurdler Modem for owner Bob Kinsley and trainer Elizabeth Voss. Bethany Baumgardner rides the 8-year-old, who finished second in four Grade 1 tries last year. The race will be a tune-up for a start in the Grade 1 Iroquois at Nashville May 12.