Pull out the condition book, check the stakes schedule, go to the races.
Training a good horse is that easy. Or so say the trainers.
Jonathan Sheppard: “You can be Horse of the Year by running four or five times, you don’t have to run every three weeks. It’s easier to train a very good horse. You can plan your year out – you know what day the Colonial Cup is going to be.”
Bruce Miller: “The horses are the ones responsible, not us. Great horses are good enough and sound enough to keep it up.”
Jack Fisher: “Training a horse like that is easy, the easiest thing in the world. The only real challenge is where to run and a 2-year-old could make that decision.”
Between them, Sheppard, Miller and Fisher have trained the winners of 17 steeplechase Eclipse Awards. Fisher’s Good Night Shirt will make it 18 next month after a 2008 campaign that included five Grade I wins, a record $485,520 in earnings and legions of convinced witnesses.
He began life like so many other Thoroughbreds, on the farm. Specifically, the Maryland farm of Tom and Chris Bowman. A veterinarian who specializes in broodmares, Tom Bowman bred his Two Punch mare Hot Story to Concern back in 2000 and got a future champion – though no one knew it at the time. Good Night Shirt, named after an expression used by Bowman’s mother, grew past sales yearling and 2-year-old runner until he was an unraced 3-year-old owned in partnership by the Bowmans and the Moscarelli family. Galloping at Fair Hill Training Center in 2004, the chestnut caught the eye of former jump jockey Sean Clancy and raced on the flat for Clancy and trainer Lizzie Merryman. After two wins in eight starts, Good Night Shirt was sold to owner Sonny Via and joined Fisher’s steeplechase string in 2005.
The rest of the story simply climbed to a higher plane with each season – two wins in 2005, a stakes in 2006, championships in 2007 and 2008. Now, he boasts nearly $1 million in career earnings and victories over McDynamo, Sur La Tete, Mixed Up, Preemptive Strike, Sovereign Duty, Gliding and others.
Call 2008 a year for the ages. He started in April at Atlanta, and ran down Hip Hop in the final yards going 2 miles. The Maryland-bred went another mile in May, easily winning the Iroquois for the second consecutive year. Rested for the summer, “The Shirt” ran the table in the fall – winning the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park in September, the Grand National at Far Hills in October and the Colonial Cup at Camden in November.
Fisher called the perfect season a thing of beauty. Nothing went wrong on the race course, at the barn, on the road, on the gallops (turf or Polytrack).
“Not one problem,” he said. “We just put him on the van and went to the races – no temperature, no pulled shoes, no drama.”
No losses. Good Night Shirt won almost 10 percent of the NSA’s 2008 purse structure, took five of the year’s seven unrestricted Grade I races, ran his overall winning streak to six and leaped to third on the career earnings list. He actually earned more in 2008 than in three prior seasons combined.
Fisher credited his horse’s constitution.
“He’s a very sound horse, but it’s mental as much as physical,” said the trainer. “He’s laid back. Whatever you want to do, he’ll do it. That’s really important. Other horses had the talent – Shamrock Isle was one – but they were hard on themselves. He’s not that hard on himself.”
And maybe that’s the key to overall greatness. Truly superb horses blend talent and durability with an ease of living.
They don’t get cast in the stall. They don’t stop eating. They don’t get too fat in the off-season. And they’re good enough on the race course to not over-do it. They don’t leave a race so drained that the next one will prove difficult.
Until the steel-cage match with Preemptive Strike in the Colonial Cup, Good Night Shirt won without expending maximum effort – much like Miller’s Lonesome Glory and Sheppard’s Flatterer.
In 1995, Lonesome Glory won five of six. He started with a 1-length loss in the Temple Gwathmey (giving 18 pounds to winner Master McGrath), then reeled off victories in the Iroquois, A.P. Smithwick Memorial, New York Turf Writers Cup and Colonial Cup. For good measure, he closed the year with an English handicap chase score at Sandown.
In 1984, Flatterer won four of five. He began at Atlanta with a win, finished second to Census at Hard Scuffle, and then won three in a row – the Turf Writers at Saratoga, the Brook at Belmont and the Colonial Cup.
With nine Eclipse Awards and international success (Flatterer placed in the English and French Champion Hurdles) between them, those two Hall of Famers did things Good Night Shirt has yet to achieve. But they never went 5-for-5.
“Lonesome never won every single race in one year; that’s really rare,” said Miller. “It’s a great feat to keep a horse at that level, but horses like that can do it. They are good enough to win within themselves compared to other horses, and that helps them get to the next race.”
Trainers talk about making a horse peak for a race, but these horses peaked over and over again during their best seasons.
“You can put a horse on simmer and bring him back up to the boiling point, but you have to have enough time to let your horse down and build him back up too,” said Sheppard. “Jack deserves a lot of credit, because it’s pretty bold to give up Saratoga and then have him come back at his peak against horses that haven’t had a break (at Belmont). It’s a very smart thing to do, but it takes quite a bit of courage in your convictions and your training.”
And a really good horse.